Skip to main content

We're living '1984' today

By Lewis Beale, Special to CNN
updated 9:22 AM EDT, Sat August 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lewis Beale: We live in age where authorities, companies collect information about us
  • He says after Snowden spying revelations, sales of George Orwell's "1984" spiked
  • He says elements like "doublethink" and "endless war" have parallels today
  • Beale: In a modern surveillance state, we're all suspects

Editor's note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications.

(CNN) -- It appears that the police now have a device that can read license plates and check if a car is unregistered, uninsured or stolen. We already know that the National Security Agency can dip into your Facebook page and Google searches. And it seems that almost every store we go into these days wants your home phone number and ZIP code as part of any transaction.

So when Edward Snowden -- now cooling his heels in Russia -- revealed the extent to which the NSA is spying on Americans, collecting data on phone calls we make, it's not as if we should have been surprised. We live in a world that George Orwell predicted in "1984." And that realization has caused sales of the 1949, dystopian novel to spike dramatically upward recently -- a 9,000% increase at one point on Amazon.com.

Comparisons between Orwell's novel about a tightly controlled totalitarian future ruled by the ubiquitous Big Brother and today are, in fact, quite apt. Here are a few of the most obvious ones.

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale

Telescreens -- in the novel, nearly all public and private places have large TV screens that broadcast government propaganda, news and approved entertainment. But they are also two-way monitors that spy on citizens' private lives. Today websites like Facebook track our likes and dislikes, and governments and private individuals hack into our computers and find out what they want to know. Then there are the ever-present surveillance cameras that spy on the average person as they go about their daily routine.

The endless war -- In Orwell's book, there's a global war that has been going on seemingly forever, and as the book's hero, Winston Smith, realizes, the enemy keeps changing. One week we're at war with Eastasia and buddies with Eurasia. The next week, it's just the opposite. There seems little to distinguish the two adversaries, and they are used primarily to keep the populace of Oceania, where Smith lives, in a constant state of fear, thereby making dissent unthinkable -- or punishable. Today we have the so-called war on terror, with no end in sight, a generalized societal fear, suspension of certain civil liberties, and an ill-defined enemy who could be anywhere, and anything.

Doublethink -- Orwell's novel defines this as the act of accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. It was exemplified by some of the key slogans used by the repressive government in the book: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. It has also been particularly useful to the activists who have been hard at work introducing legislation regulating abortion clinics. The claim is that these laws are only to protect women's health, but by forcing clinics to close because of stringent regulations, they are effectively shutting women off not only from abortion, but other health services.

Snowden documents: U.S. spied on EU
Bush vs. Obama on surveillance
Police are tracking where you drive
Brok: NSA's spying on EU 'out of control'

Newspeak -- the fictional, stripped down English language, used to limit free thought. OMG, RU serious? That's so FUBAR. LMAO.

Memory hole -- this is the machine used in the book to alter or disappear incriminating or embarrassing documents. Paper shredders had been invented, but were hardly used when Orwell wrote his book, and the concept of wiping out a hard drive was years in the future. But the memory hole foretold both technologies.

Anti-Sex League -- this was an organization set up to take the pleasure out of sex, and to make sure that it was a mechanical function used for procreation only. Organizations that promote abstinence-only sex education, or want to ban artificial birth control, are the modern versions of this.

So what's it all mean? In 1984, Winston Smith, after an intense round of "behavior modification" -- read: torture -- learns to love Big Brother, and the harsh world he was born into. Jump forward to today, and it seems we've willingly given up all sorts of freedoms, and much of our right to privacy. Fears of terrorism have a lot to do with this, but dizzying advances in technology, and the ubiquity of social media, play a big part.

There are those who say that if you don't have anything to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of. But the fact is, when a government agency can monitor everyone's phone calls, we have all become suspects. This is one of the most frightening aspects of our modern society. And even more frightening is the fact that we have gone so far down the road, there is probably no turning back. Unless you spend your life in a wilderness cabin, totally off the grid, there is simply no way the government won't have information about you stored away somewhere.

What this means, unfortunately, is that we are all Winston Smith. And Big Brother is the modern surveillance state.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lewis Beale.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT