Orwell’s telescreens

Winston Smith is the main character in the famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. In his apartment there is an “oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall.” The description of this flatscreen television goes on to state that the “instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.” This system provided a method for controlling citizens in the totalitarian society that Smith had to endure.

We have now arrived at a technological phase in history where the infrastructure is in place to make Orwell’s dark vision a reality. In millions of living rooms we find personal computers, laptops, and game consoles that are simultaneously connected to a camera and to the internet. Even better than Orwell imagined, billions of people are now walking around with mobile devices that are constantly online, and also have built-in cameras.

Apple recently took the next step with the launch of FaceTime, a video calling system and service. This is ironic since they used the doom and gloom of Nineteen Eighty-Four in their television commercial during the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh computer. It was meant as a stern warning against their competitor IBM behaving like “Big Brother”.

But now that the technology has arrived, it may already be outdated as a method of mind control. The power systems in the Western world have developed much more sophisticated techniques. Noam Chomsky critically analyzed one of its methods as “manufacturing consent”. He convincingly explains the biases of news media from their preference for corporate profit over public interest.

Interestingly, Orwell himself provided a similar analysis in his unpublished foreword to Animal Farm (1945). It is called “The freedom of the press” and he points at the phenomenon of self-censorship: “The sinister fact about (…) censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.”

Will we ever suffer the same fate as Winston Smith? Or will we be conned into believing the oldest trick in the book: “The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” (Proverbs 15:3)

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