AH ORWELL

OrwellGeorge Orwell is everywhere. And, as a consequence, he himself has become an Orwellian threat to himself.

Last month, I participated in Harvard University’s Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism. “Ah, Orwell”, the guy next to me whispered to himself, after I had asked Orville Schell, the Dean of UC Berkeley’s Journalism School, a question about the threat of a ubiquitous blogosphere. Then my neighbor nodded sagaciously, as if just his utterance of the word Orwell was a philosophical remark in-itself, an intelligent statement, a particularly valuable pearl of wisdom.

Ah, Orwell.

It’s not George Orwell who I’m against. But, rather, people who use the word Orwell in vain. His 1948 book about Big Brother has become a collective intellectual big brother. Orwell this, Orwell that and Orwell this-that-and-the-other. It’s hard to read anything about the future without stumbling on Orwell and his flat screened dystopia. But the problem is that few people are reading Orwell seriously anymore. He’s been canonized and his Nineteen Eighty-Four has been transformed into Saint 1984.

Amongst the worst culprits are the technology futurists.  I’ve been browsing Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002), a thinly argued book memorable only for its inane title. In his conclusion, Rheingold falls back thoughtlessly on Orwell, imagining the birth of a high-tech surveillance society in which everybody is watching everybody else. 

The problem is that the Howard Rheingolds of Silicon Valley have the future back-to-front. The likely dystopia is not the ubiquitous eye of pervasive computing, but rather the way in which technology is making everyone into authors. The future is not to be feared because of the threat to individual self expression, but rather because of the threat of too much self expression. Digital technology is making all of us into mini Big Brothers with our own blogs, podcast and videocast shows. The concern is not the death of individual rights, but rather the demise of an authoritative broadcast media and the rise of what Christine Rosen calls egocasting.

So let me desanctify Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four in the context of the digital revolution of blogs, podcasts and wikis. Orwell got it wrong. His dystopia is a place where nobody is an author except Big Brother. Thus Winston Smith’s great act of rebellion in Nineteen Eight-Four was his decision to pick up a rusty pen and write down his own thoughts:

"The thing that he was about to do was open a diary. This was not illegal, but if detected it was  reasonably certain that it would be punished by death… Winston fitted a nib into the penholder  and sucked it to get the grease off… He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a     second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act."

But 1984 is not longer 1984. Remember that iconic 1984 Apple commercial – directed by Ridley Scott and broadcast in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XVIII:

ON JANUARY 24th, APPLE COMPUTER WILL INTRODUCE THE MACINTOSH. AND YOU’LL SEE WHY 1984 WON’T BE LIKE 1984

Exactly. 1984 is indeed no longer like 1984. Digital technology is turning us all into Big Brothers. Instead of being an act of rebellion, Winston Smith’s act of self expression is increasingly becoming another sort of cultural dictatorship. My dystopian vision is a society of digital Winston Smiths, collectively marking the paper, pouring out their most profound thoughts into blogs, podcasts and wikis.

To the utopians of Silicon Valley, a “democratic” society of digital Winston Smiths is a dream; for me, it sounds Orwellian.

Ah Orwell.