Orwell’s 1984 is one of the greatest books ever written. Dystopian literature at its best. What is also great about this piece of fiction is that it is not just fiction – it also provides theoretical tools that we can use to understand the current times. Any times, actually.
Altough written in 1949, 1984 remains as fresh as ever. In this work, George Orwell describes a terrifying future that can be summed up in three words: (constant) war, (constant) surveillance and (constant) propaganda. The world is divided into three megastates, at perpetual war with each other. At every home there is a mandatory two-way television set – it spies on the viewer – that you can turn down but never off.
But if we take this masterpiece lightly, we risk ruining its legacy and value. Some paralellisms can certainly be drawn between those fictional dystopian times and ours, but we are nowhere near that state of affairs. Conspiracy theories fans tend to think that all of Orwell’s predictions came true, but I will beg to differ. In this fictional future world, an autocracy is in power (“The Party”) and any hint of disidence is punished by death. As imperfect as democracy may be, most of the Western world enjoys it and we should not underestimate it by rushing into such comparisons.
George Orwell was a genius, capable of envisioning current phenomena some sixty plus years ago…yet, his greatest contribution was to the field of critical thinking. 1984 introduces three notions that I find very 2019-relevant, because they all lead to the word of the year: post-truth. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
According to cognitive psychology, when the psyche is presented with a contradiction a cognitive dissonance takes place – a mental discomfort triggered by the clashing of the person’s beliefs with real world’s evidence. The expected behavior is to find a way to resolve the contradiction in order to reduce the discomfort.
However, in Orwell’s world, such contradiction is “bearable” because of doublethink: the ability to hold two opposite beliefs or sentences at the same time and consider them true.
The Party works around the clock to create a new language. Instead of coming up with new words, the Party constantly removes terms to narrow thought and awareness. Simple words produce simple thoughts, which produce simplistic meaning.
How does newspeak work? Take the word good: good is intrinsically the opposite of bad, so what would you need bad for? It is unnecessary. But words create reality, and eliminating words just like that is dangerous business. Without a word for freedom, the concept of freedom cannot exist.
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
(1984, G. Orwell)
Words create reality, and if you want to shape the world to your advantage…word control is the way to go. Newspeak was designed to meet the needs of this totalitarian mega nation.
3. Memory hole.
The heart and soul of this novel, without doubt. The Party stays in power because they exterminate the past. There is a whole department – belonging to the Ministry of Truth, or Minitruth for shorts – in charge of the alteration/elimination of records that contradict or undermine the government’s position. This organism destroys inconvenient documents, to the extent of recreating historical records to match the ever-changing state propaganda…or to delete an event altogether. The population was left without actual means to check the government’s word, and had no choice but to believe it.
Why is this concept so relevant today? For starters, there is an actual loss of online news content. Every year, an event called Dodging the Memory Hole is held. This is a series of conferences dealing with the very pressing issue of content loss, that can occur for many reasons: software crash, hardware failure, link-rot, format obsolence or downright sabotage, just to name a few. Digital news archives are actually fragile – it is true that hackers can bring back every piece of deleted content, but that is just the digital elite. The main concern of this organization is your regular folk, the not-so-tech-savy…in other words, the most vulnerable to misinformation or fake news.
To me, those three items created by Orwell are the basis of what we today call post-truth.
“Post–truth politics (also called post-factual politics and post-reality politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.”
(M. D’ancona, The War On Truth And How To Fight Back)
Donald J. Trump did not win the 2016’s presidentials because of fake news, but because the vote of a forgotten and frustrated part of the American society. Once in power, Trump’s anti-media rethoric (via Twitter particularly) became a constant. In Trump’s mind, media are responsible for everything that is wrong in the country.
The American society, traditionally bipartisan, has never been this polarized. Online debate has never been this agressive – even violent. Far from defusing the situation, Trump’s public statements just feed the fire. This is a president that arouses strong emotional reactions among his followers. And what is the perfect breeding ground for the circulation of fake news? A polarized society with strong ideological stances, who consumes information emotionally rather than rationally.
See, Donald Trump might have not invented the system…but he certainly profits from it.
“It’s a constant refrain. You hear all sorts of autocratic leaders from all over the world who are upset about media coverage framing it as fake news.”
[Joel Simon, Politico, 07/30/2018]
In January 2018, the President claimed that Hillary Clinton did not really win the popular vote because 3 to 5 million indocumented immigrants voted in the ’16 presidentials. At the time there was an investigative comission working on the subject, but Trump dissolved it before they could provide any results. Just an example of how tendentious and unfounded allegations can be used to sustain institutional legitimacy.
1984 is a priceless, timeless read. In case you have not read it, I hope these thoughts piqued your interest.