We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984. Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas. And I'm only 12 pages in. So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture
The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.
This is the Shard. It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far. I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.
That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing. It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels. We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy. The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices. Come put your Corporate Offices Here."
The Reactionary Anti-1984
I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true. We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.
What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction. The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane. But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you." Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest. In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it. Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression. (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)
Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen
We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned. More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting. See, for example, this blog.
Some of us are hopefully using this for good. I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence. But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.
As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward. Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded. You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.
And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.
The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party. But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools. Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life. Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak. In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.
I don't have any ultimate point here. Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic. I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)
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