Thursday, October 3, 2013

1984 is coming

I'm going through a George Orwell phase at the moment, rediscovering his books that I first read as a high school student. Perhaps it is the fact that I am re-reading them with an additional 30 years of experience of the world, or perhaps it is that the world has changed considerably since the first reading, but Orwell's books now resonate with a prescience that they did not back then. 1984, in particular, is scary in its parallels to life in the Western world today.

We have all heard of the comparison of Newspeak, the redacted language of the fictitious state of Oceania, with modern politically-correct language and its euphemistic elimination of any words considered to be insensitive or too permissive (e.g. "differently-abled" for disabled, "Afro-American" for Negro, etc.) But this is the least of the similarities.

The constant electronic surveillance by which Big Brother watches his subjects is reality today.  In the book the surveillance is conducted by the somewhat primitive means of two-way television sets, whereas today it is conducted much more surreptitiously by the likes of the US National Security Agency (which surely would be part of the antonymically named Ministry of Love in the book) simply by demanding all the telephone and internet records of every American be handed over for scrutiny. The fact that the NSA does this it in complete disregard of the law (as indeed did New Zealand's own Government Communications Security Bureau did in the Kim Dotcom case) is, again, portended in the book when the protanganist Winston Smith points out, "nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws".

The scariest part of the absolute totalitarianism portrayed in the book is Big Brother's ability to not only rewrite history but to recreate the "truth" by erasing any information that is contrary to its view of the world.  In New Zealand we have an obvious example of this in Treaty of Waitangi settlements for historic Maori grievances that include the government's agreement to issue an official version of the historical facts in issue that suit the claimants' version of events.  Government bureaucrats decide what history should be and then attempt to create an accepted version.  Anyone who tries to maintain a contrary version is branded a racist, just as in 1984 anyone who contradicts the official version of events is guilty of thoughtcrime.

Fortunately, we still live in a world that is at worst a very diluted version of 1984, but the trend in most Western countries is very much towards a more concentrated version of Orwell's distopia.

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