30 Years after 1984, Novels Can Teach Tech Utopians Lessons
Posted by Martin Veitch
This year is of course the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and, quite rightly, this has been a catalyst for recollection and debate. But 2014 also marks another anniversary I have been thinking about recently. It is thirty years since a great ‘literary year’ in fiction, 1984, and it would be good if all those who pontificate over the rights and wrongs of data collection, mining and sharing by governments, internet giants and others took a look back to the books set in that year.
The granddaddy of them all is, of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the George Orwell novel that hovers over all such debates and it is a work frequently cited if, perhaps, less often read by commentators. Orwell, educated in England’s elite Eton College yet a lifelong socialist, was a fascinating character. He fought bravely for the Left in Spain yet handed over a list of suspected communists to propagandists in the British government. In a way, this was an early abuse of data privacy before that term had been coined.
Orwell’s novel gave the world many phrases used commonly today, for example Newspeak, the fictional language designed to restrict independent thought or ideas, dubbed thoughtcrimes, running counter to the Establishment view.
Both Newspeak and thoughtcrimes are endemic in technology circles today. Technology marketers often use language to create two-option answers, CEOs ask themselves rhetorical questions and then answer them. Weird neologisms, acronyms and abbreviations arise, despite their being entirely unnecessary. Words are conflated (just as ‘newspeak’ and ‘thoughtcrime’ are compounds), even if they lack the technology lexicon’s insistence on — yet another conflation —the interCap.
In Orwell, thoughtcrimes are detected everywhere by the Thought Police (‘thinkpol’ in Newspeak) and they have their modern analogue in the mob mentality that persecutes people on social media who express an opinion deemed to be beyond the pale. We have seen several cases of those speaking out on social media arrested, while states like Turkey have attempted to ban Twitter and parts of Pakistan and other geographies have restricted access to messaging apps or the Web.
The Ministry of Truth, designed to amend historical documents that run counter to the official view of the state came to mind recently when it was discovered that the Conservative Party had deleted a chunk of its internet archive. And of course, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, citizens are continuously monitored by camera just as I will be this afternoon in London, England because the city is honeycombed with video surveillance. And we can all think of comparisons with Big Brother as search engines, keywords and governments create forensic pictures of who we are, often ‘knowing’ us better than our loved ones or best friends.
Much of this is well known, to the extent that many of these ‘Orwellian’ terms are applied today, even by those who might not know the literary source of them. But 1984 was not only significant for Orwell; it was the year also of the action that takes place in GK Chesterton’s wonderfully bizarre The Napoleon of Notting Hill, where an oddball character becomes the catalyst for fighting across independent states in London, creating a ferment through his use of language and ability to, in modern terms, crowdsource support.
I might add that 100 years earlier, in 1884, Yevgeny Zamyatin was born. Zamyatin wrote We, another terrific dystopia that scarily foresees the controlled automation and enforced uniformity of life in a dictatorial state and acted as the template for many subsequent dystopias. It’s also a satire on the fetishising of technology, mathematics and science. Its main character, D-503, reduced like The Prisoner’s Number Six, to alphanumerical nomenclature, has shades of the tech utopian designers who are the modern princes of our computerised world. (Zamyatin was Russian but he knew England well, having worked in the shipyards of Newcastle and despaired of the drab uniformity of life in the suburb of Jesmond.)
There are other fine utopian/dystopian works if we step outside of 1984. William Morris’s The News from Nowhere effectively reverses time to criticise the idiocies of Victorian London on the verge of automation and cheap manufacturing by contrasting it with an idyllic future. I could go on and mention Patrick Hamilton’s Impromptu in Moribundia where advertising and culture have led to a slothful people spouting jargon learned from marketing campaigns. Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where technology is co-opted to create order through the use of drugs and eugenics, backed up by mottos that might have come from a PR brainstorm for a tech security startup.
All of these books were written by Englishmen with the exception of Zamyatin who spent time here. They constitute a golden thread in literature that has kept the British on guard against despotism for many years, despite many failings and missteps. But their value is global and continues to be applicable, or at least wherever these works aren’t censored. The next time we talk blithely about the dangers of data misuse, what Google is becoming when it buys a home automation maker like Nest, what Facebook can do now it has our WhatsApp data, how the Government might handle our biometrics data or ID cards, or the ethical hazards of biotech, we should have their tales and morals in our minds.
Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect