In the 11th grade I was given an assignment to evaluate the credibility of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as a science-fiction novel.
Winston Was Never Sure What Year It Was
While the early 20th century can certainly be attributed with many of the most high effect innovations of the period, it is in the latter half of the 1900s that we see the most rapid development of technology. Written in 1949 by George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four found itself planted directly in between the pinnacle of new inventions and the beginning of their massive overhaul into a whole new sphere of existence. Acclaimed science-fiction in 1949, George Orwell’s novel, with concepts on the newly discovered frontiers of technological discovery mixed with the farthest fringes of science fantasy, would, within only 20 years, have the plausibility of it’s practical application become the center point of even the lowliest of nerd discussion. In modern times, many pessimist and liberals will look at the ideas of this novel and discuss them, not in terms of how, but in terms of when they may be implemented. Although in Orwell’s time the concepts of Nineteen Eighty-Four were certainly categorized as pure science-fiction, it has nevertheless shifted towards the genre of dystopia in modern times, as opposed to sci-fi, as video capture technology develops, surveillance capacity increases, and social degeneration grows increasingly plausible.
For most of it’s initial history (roughly 20 years), video capturing technology was almost entirely aimed at movie makers, as evidenced by the dominating amateur standard of 16mm film cameras despite the existence of cheaper 8mm cameras (Suggitt 34). It was not until the 1950s that Japanese-made compact motion picture cameras using 8mm film became popular, and even then their market was remarkably thin (Suggitt 34). As mentioned before, these were motion picture cameras, and were made, even on the amateur level, with the intention of being used by professionals and perhaps semi-professionals. These cameras had the “distinct disadvantages” of requiring a projector and screen to have the video shown, and, without professional film recording equipment and the knowledge on incorporating them, were without sound (Suggitt 34). The cost of the camera itself was expensive, with prices geared more in the range of corporations as opposed to amateur consumers, and even the cost to work in sound was hefty to a point beyond most Americans (Suggitt 34). On top of this, the cameras of the late 1950s weighed approximately half a ton (Suggitt 301).
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, members of the inner and outer party have telescreens surrounding them in nearly every aspect of their lives. This is demonstrated to such a point that it becomes clear one of the few reasons the novel focuses on the main character Winston Smith is because his apartment is arranged in just a way to allow a blind spot from the telescreen. The telescreens are described to be large flat panels capable of sending and receiving video and audio. Clearly this is a large stretch from the half ton, no audio-intake, and very expensive cameras of Orwell’s era. If one limits themselves to the technology of Orwell’s time, this would realistically require the a lot of money (worth considering, as the majority of the population, the working class, lived in poverty, possibly implying a government hording of wealth). The walls holding the telescreens would have to be rather thick, and this would likely be unrealistic as they were placed in many places, including work offices. This would also assume that Orwell’s description of them being flat was only meant to apply to the exposed parts of the telescreen, which would work against Occam’s Razor.
In 1967 a video recorder was released and marketed as a home system, mainly because it came with it’s own tv monitor, but it’s 100 pound weight and it’s price tag of $30,000 disagreed (Marples). In 1971 Sony released a camera that utilized cassettes as opposed to previous designs that required the tape to be wound in (Marples). Sony and JVC would go on to make Betamax and VHS, respectively, and by 1976 JVC released color vhs cassettes (Marples). The 1980s would see a rapid evolution of camcorders, and in 1993 Sony would produce a digital camcorder for it’s DigiBeta lines (Suggitt 35-36). Two years later, JVC released what was then the smallest video camera ever, “smaller than any nondigital camcorder” (Suggitt 36). The list of changes from this point to now is simply too great to be recorded, but the basic concepts of simplicity and compacting can best describe it. The capacity of this technology has greatly increased as well, so much to the point that Google has invested in cars run by artificial-intelligence that work off live video feed. In the Fall of 2010, Google sent out 7 Toyata Prius through LA that drove 1,000 miles with no human intervention, and over 140,000 miles with occasional human intervention (Markoff). With the compact nature of modern video capturing technology, and the sophistication we’ve come to expect from it, the actual technical aspects of Orwell’s telescreens become much more reasonable.
The idea of technological surveillance was first pursued by Thomas Edison with his creation of the phonograph, intended to record calls for “legitimate business purposes” (Bullock). The telegraphone was the first magnetic recorder designed specifically to record phone calls, had the suggested use of surveillance in America, but the American distributor would go out of business due to a lack of sales (Bullock). World War I and World War II would bring about some improvement on audio recording, but it wasn’t until the 1945 innovation of audio tape recorders that people took a serious look at technological audio surveillance (Bullock). Vericon, the first commercial closed-circuit TV system, was introduced in 1949. The early 1950s brought the transistor tape recorders, bringing secret audio surveillance to everyone’s interest.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, tabs are kept on all party members by the aforementioned telescreens. The situation is so bad, that many citizens have grown accustomed to finding opportunities to keep their backs to the telescreens, and have even accounted for a good time frame (to keep from seeming suspicious) for doing so. In the novel, these screens are capable of hearing one’s heartbeat and are possibly under constant surveillance by human observers. The telescreens are show and receive video and audio. By no stretch of the imagination was this possible at the time of 1949, although the foundation was there.
However, in London this has somewhat become a reality (a point recognized and acknowledged by many locals) as many streets are littered with CCTV cameras with speakers attached so that police forces can handle situations as they arise. Clearly this concept, in today’s standards, is certainly no stretch of imagination. In fact, considering technology developed by IBM, it may be outdated. Announced in 2008, IMB’s S3 surveillance technology combined artificial intelligence with surveillance video cameras. The S3 system has many possible usages, such as:
…homeland security applications (airports, subways, seaports, critical
infrastrucure, etc.), retail loss prevention applications, retail business
intelligence, casino gaming applications, forensic video investigations,
manufacturing inspection and safety applications, finicial sector
applications, etc. (Shu Chiao-fe 322)
The idea of artificial intelligence taking the place of human observers makes the telescreen concept all the more acceptable.
The idea of social degeneration and it’s legitimacy in Orwell’s novel is difficult to historically address, as he was affected by the projection Western society got of the USSR, which is not necessarily the truth, however, may or may not have affected it’s practicality. The image perceived by the public of the USSR was one where “modern methods of thought control and terror had transformed the Russian people into an enslaved mob of subservient, dull, and militaristic robots” (Smith 218). According to the media, the USSR took extreme measures to “establish mind control over their subjects” (Smith 219). It’s known that the USSR had a “Ministry of Propaganda and Agitation” which “ran everything” (Smith 219). The government in the USSR had been said to “have reduced the Russian people to manipulable objects that could be duped without knowing it and were incapable of independent thought or action” (Smith 219). A bit of information often presented was that:
…over one million personnel made up the Soviet political police, the MVD.
This organization, rated as ‘the best housed, fed and clothed forces in the
Union,’ was also portrayed as the most wicked. Feared by even high
Soviet officials, the MVD – with its hidden microphones, torture chambers,
and concentration camps – recognized no inalienable human rights and
answered to no one but the top Kremlin hierarchy (Smith 219-220)
It was often also alleged that “every five families had at least one agent watching them day and night” (Smith 220). There were also stories of people who would go missing never to be seen again after hearing “the knock on the door at night” (Smith 220). Perhaps the most clarifying statement is that “there is no room…for mental independence. The only way to survive is to conform” (Smith 220).
Many ideas found in Nineteen Eighty-Four could have been directly taken from this list with little or no changes. Over and over we witness the people acting as brainwashed drones, we witness the Big Brother idea being used as a form of brainwashing, the Ministry of Truth has essentially the same role as the Ministry of Propaganda and Agitation, the citizens in the novel are easily manipulated (notable in the hate weeks), the Ministry of Love is the spitting image of the MVD, the constant monitoring of families is taken directly from views on the USSR, not only is the idea of disappearing in the night taken from these views, but so is the knock on the door, and, as O’Brien makes clear, the goal of re-education is, not to kill those with independent ideas, but to force them into conformity. With the darkness of the second red scare and the cold war surrounding us, some in modern times may like to consider these ideas implausible. However, unlike all the other ideas presented in the novel, this one finds it’s support in it’s original setting. It was when America had the most serious threat from the USSR (Orwell’s time) that we, as a nation, could best focus on the possibilities and rely on them to be accurate, as it would be pointless to scare ourselves to the point of being cowardly towards them, but ever so beneficial to imagine the extent of their power to that point.
Conclusively, we can now agree that we can capture video of quality inconceivable to the minds of the 1940s, we have sophisticated artificial intelligence that far exceeds anything considered possible in Orwell’s time, and the ideas presented about Soviet Russia in the years following World War II may be the most insightful concepts we will ever receive regarding totalitarianism. With this knowledge it becomes clear that there is no way George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is anything other than a credible piece of science fiction.
Bullock, Michael. “The Evolution Of Surveillance Technology Beyond The Panopticon.” Diss.
The University of California Santa Cruz, 2009.
Markoff, John. “Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic.” New York Times 9 October 2010.
Marples, Gareth. “The History of Camcorders – The Smaller the Better.” TheHistoryOf.net. 10
Sept. 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.
Shu Chiao-fe, et al. “IBM smart surveillance system (S3): event based video surveillance system
with an open and extensible framework.” Machine Vision & Applications 19.5/6 (2008):
315-327. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.
Smith, David A. “American Nightmare: Images of Brainwashing, Thought Control, and
Terror in Soviet Russia.” Journal of American Culture 33.3 (2010): 217-229. Academic
Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.
Vericon. Advertisement. Popular Science. February 1949. Magazine.