1984

I love to read, and usually dislike reading a book again. For me, even favorite books lose their excitement the second time around. That made studying a little difficult in college. My vision of studying included going over the same material again. This boy wouldn’t do that, much to the chagrin of my study partners.

1984-b-and-nDuring my junior year of college we had a particularly difficult test coming up, and my buddy Dean felt that he needed some help. I knew that my recollection of the material was not good enough, too. We decided to spend the evening studying. I couldn’t do it. Going over the material again was too boring. We had lots of other things to talk about, so we did. Dean didn’t do well on that test.

Back to the books. I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve reread. There are only a couple that I’ve been through more than twice. As I think about that short list of books, I’m drawn to reading some them again. Other favorite books (Phi, for example) changed how I view the world, but I don’t need to go back.

Allow me to take another diversion here. I love reading, but I don’t like to reread a book. Movies usually bore me. We go to a movie every couple of years. Not interested. The interesting part? I can watch my favorite movies or television shows a dozen times. I can bring up scenes and dialogue from Casablanca in an instant. My biggest television addiction (addiction being something I must do that has no direct benefit) is M*A*S*H. I’ve seen every episode a half-dozen times over the last forty years. Judy leaves the room when I’m watching M*A*S*H, because I can speak most of the lines with the cast.

How do I reconcile the difference between books and television? Hold that thought while I return to a book I just reread, again.

I first encountered George Orwell’s 1984 while I was in high school. The dismal existence of the main character, Winston Smith, has haunted me ever since. On this reading I saw a different existence. Life in 1984 (the book) was dreary, but most of the characters appeared content. That revelation drew me to look for parallels to the world of 2017.

George Orwell did a wonderful job of seeing where technology would take us, even if he could not foresee what that technology was. The world of 1984 was full of the all-knowing, all-seeing telescreen that spewed the Party line. At any time, or all the time, the screen was watching every move, listening to every word, almost hearing unspoken thoughts.

Orwell’s screens were bolted to the wall. Ours are in pockets and purses. The screens know and report everything about us; where we go, who our friends are, what we talk about, what we like, and what we buy. Experts seriously debate the privacy we’ve given up for the privilege of watching cute cat videos on Facebook. Facebook tracks our friends and buys more information about us from companies such as Axciom. Google reads our emails, adding events to our calendars just because someone sent an email. It feels as though they know far more about us than we do. Big Brother is watching, and we invited him in. I suspect the people who brought about the world of 1984 eagerly gave up their rights, too, all the while reciting the slogans of the Party about the horrors of their sworn enemies, the Eurasian hordes. What will we give up next to protect ourselves?

Though Orwell’s mind is mired in a 1940’s pattern, he was clearly prescient about people and personalities of 2017. His main character worked in the “Ministry of Truth,” rewriting history to match the current Party line. What a laughable idea that was! Who would invest time and money to do that?

Then I remember the amount of resource Wikipedia spends combating trolls. These trolls attempt to edit Wikipedia articles to match their own view of history and alternative facts. A few rogue editors change articles to reduce the number of people killed in coal mines. Others spread rumors of scandal where there is none. Still more follow along behind, correcting the misleading and unattributed rumors. These trolls’ actions are not very different from what happened in the Ministry of Truth.

On this reading of 1984, I saw one character for the first time. In the book, most people are proles, members of the proletariat, the common folk. They exist on the fringes of Winston Smith’s world, thronging everywhere, but without the privileges of Party members. The character that jumped out at me on this reading was the old woman singing a popular song while she hung out laundry. Orwell wants us to think that’s all she ever did, and that she loved it. Her life was hard, without the promise of reward, and lacking genuine luxuries. She had only her laundry and popular songs, but that was enough. The world around her was cruel, poverty-ridden, and stuck in a pattern that had no chance of changing. We are left with the idea that she loved her life.

Perhaps we live in a world like that. Maybe we’ve always lived in that world. We sing along with the popular songs that stream from our “telescreens” every day. They lull us into a mindless trance, so far from the mindful place I try to be. The proles in 1984 have a limitless supply of Victory Gin, beer and cigarettes. They have a common enemy in the never-ending wars. They celebrate war victories and the alleged improvements to their living conditions. Even though they’re completely down-trodden, they believe life is good.

I’d read the book before, twice, so it was a surprise when Orwell managed to lull me into a reverie with the mindless popular songs and tedious work of the laundry woman. How easy must it be to influence my own thoughts with the idea of popular songs and the supposed good life? I was as surprised as Winston and his friend Julia when the Thought Police came for them. But, aren’t I far too smart to be caught up in that kind of brain-washing? Certainly I wouldn’t fall for the same sort of thought manipulation that brought about Big Brother. No way could they do that to me, I can see that manipulation a mile away. Or can I?

About a year ago I watched a segment on a Sunday morning news program about a trend in clothing, athleisure wear. The producers found experts in the field, demonstrated how the trend had started, and how the particular kind of clothing had changed as health club aficionados and runners decided to wear their comfortable gear in their regular life. They showed me samples of the clothing, modeled by beautiful young people. At the end of the article, I thought: “Maybe we should run out to the mall and look at some athleisure clothing?”

They had me. A simple news program had almost influenced my buying decisions. What could they have done with a steady diet of slanted news?

Have we become the proles, like the old woman? Have we been lulled into a sense of complacency by our screens? So many of us spend our lives consumed by screens, watching funny cat videos. How much of the “news” we see is doctored just like what Winston heard from the telescreens? Too often I read how the latest technology gives corporations and governments a better way to monitor and influence us.

I’ve been fascinated by technology all my life. The space race rockets of the fifties sparked a life-long interest in science. My love of science, computers, and engineering influences every part of my life. Every day I’m excited by news from science and technology, but the world of 1984 didn’t have advancing technology. The Party had all it needed to keep power over the people, so had no need for science. They could invest all necessary resources in the endless wars. The people had their gin, beer, songs and games and didn’t demand more from life. They heard that life was better every day, every year, even though nothing had improved. The news from the telescreens gave them a slanted view of the world. The Party had complete control of what the media told the people. There was only one channel on the telescreen, Big Brother.

What happened to the scientists, the entrepreneurs, and the professionals in that world? No longer needed, I suppose. Who needs journalists when there’s nothing to report? Who needs teachers when there’s no need to educate the youth? Why would anyone believe the scientists anyway? The Party already has all the answers it needs. The people have their gin and machine written novels.

The book ends with Winston sitting in a café, downing his Victory Gin and propaganda coming from the telescreen. How does that compare to my life, as I sit in a coffee shop reading the news on my laptop? Is the news Winston got from Big Brother that different from what I get from Fox News?

1984 chilled me to the bone when I first read it fifty years ago. It left me cold when I read it in 1984. I’m gripped with dread after reading it again in 2017. Maybe I won’t bother to read it again in another twenty years.

Let’s get together for coffee. Maybe seeing you again will cheer me up, and you can help me reconcile why I love to watch reruns on TV, but don’t like to read a good book twice.

Grandpa Guy Havelick