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1984 Redux
by Jan Sand
2006-12-01 10:48:30
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In 1949, George Orwell published a distopic novel predicting the misery that governmental control of technology could possibly inflict upon its citizens. It ranks among other dire predictions of possible horror such as Looking Backwards and Blood Music and Brave New World as a traumatic presentiment of the way the world is moving.

Looking Backwards was written in 1887 by Edward Bellamy who saw his protagonist going into a form of hibernation and waking up in the future of the year 2000 - much in the manner of Rip Van Winkle and Buck Rogers. The society he arrived at had many peculiarities, one of which was to declare sickness a crime deserving severe punishment. The health system in the current USA seems to have somehow been patterned with this in mind.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley focused on the possibilities of the influence of genetic engineering on the social system and how the conceptions of social control might be thus empowered. Science is just now entering the most elemental capabilities in that area and perhaps the warnings Huxley laid out have had some beneficial effects on the advance of this new science.

Greg Bear’s Blood Music looked closely at the possibilities of investing each cell of the body with an awareness and flexibility that now exists in a complete human individual. As fantastic as that seems, the possibility appears to exist within the information storage capacities of the cell nucleus. And the consequences are either horrifying or oddly fascinating, depending upon your point of view.

But what is especially arresting about Orwell’s work is how accurate it was. It was written, of course, to caution the world that things should be done to swerve the future path of civilization into more rational and humane directions. At the time it was written, engineering was much more severely limited in what it could accomplish. The transistor had just been invented at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey a couple of years previously.

Almost all control of electronics was done with radio tubes, each of which required a hot filament in a vacuum and several elements within the tube to control the flow of electrons through the tube. The first computers using these components were huge constructions requiring monstrous cooling systems and one IBM official commented, at the time, that the entire world’s need for such a machine could be satisfied by a few at best.

These monstrous devices were ridiculously feeble compared to the average home computer today. Yet the overwhelming social suppression envisioned by Orwell and now progressing through world civilization demands the computer as one of its basic components. Only with this machine can government instantly lay its finger on any individual in the world and divine his or her minute particulars.

Complementary technology depicted by 1984, such as the ubiquitous surveillance cameras, were also unknown at the time but emerged inevitably as the prediction required them. Equally, electronic scanners and locaters such as the RFID chips and the global positional system bloomed into existence under the evocative impulses of rapidly advancing technology and the coercion of governmental drives for power and the perceived threats of international terrorism, whether imaginary or not.

But what is far more disturbing than the realization of the technical components of the prediction is the coming together of the social architecture of the book. The seemingly inexorable creation of the latest policies of the current US government appears to have been written by Omar Khayyam’s moving finger tracing Orwell’s sentences. Orwell clearly laid out the endless war which Bush has proclaimed against terror. The twisted language in which war means peace, freedom means slavery, truth signifies lies is straight out of Orwell.

Just yesterday the US government denied hunger existed within the USA by merely relabeling it as “food insecurity”, while it is commonplace now that the frightful massacre of innocent bystanders can be waived away with the label “collateral damage”. The discussions of torture in the military inquisitions at Guantanamo have also succumbed to easy dismissal and recategorization. The open barbarity now exhibited by officialdom is, of course, nothing innovated by modern life but merely the latest appearance of practices that have accompanied mankind all throughout its history.

The only difference is the camouflage of terminology which is spread to cover the horror. And, in a perverse way, this is encouraging. It indicates a sense of shame.

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