“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Those 14 words opened what would become one of the most influential novels in history. As 2009 comes to a close, it ends the 60th year since the publication of George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Described as probably the definitive novel of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as “Big Brother”, “doublethink” and “newspeak” have become part of everyday currency. The book has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.
The story of Winston Smith, an everyman for his times, continues to resonate for readers whose fear for increasing totalitarianism of government and a curtailment of civil liberties find expression in Orwell’s work.
Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognised as a masterpiece. It would be George Orwell’s last piece of literary work. In the small hours of 21 January 1950, he suffered a massive haemorrhage in hospital and died alone. He was aged just 46.
The book’s title remains a mystery among students of Orwell’s work and English literature in general. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984). What is known is that throughout the time Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, he had another working title ÔÇô The Last Man in Europe, though he was always unsure of it. The doubt was settled by his publisher, who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.
The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on the English-speaking world’s cultural and linguistic landscape has been phenomenal. It is likely, however, that many people who have been watching the successive Big Brother series on television have no idea where the title comes from.
Aspects of the novel’s language have spawned other concepts that have found their way into everyday use, mostly to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and officials. We have come to accept “Orwellian” ÔÇô an adjective owed largely to this book more than any of the author’s other works ÔÇô to denote George Orwell’s idea that wellbeing is crushed by restrictive, authoritarian and untruthful government. “Orwellian” is now a universal shorthand for anything repressive or totalitarian. “Big Brother” has been used for a scarily omniscient ruler long before the worldwide smash-hit reality TV show was even a twinkle in its producers’ eyes. Now consider the irony of the viewers’ hounding of Big Brother contestants in the TV series!
An accusation often levelled at various governments is that they are trying to tell us what we can and cannot think is right and wrong. People who believe that there are correct ways to think find themselves named after Orwell’s enforcement brigade ÔÇô the “Thought Police”. And when we transgress enforced wisdom, we are guilty of “thoughtcrime”.
For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. His term, “Newspeak”, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power. The novel also originated the practice of appending the suffixes “-speak” and “-think” (groupthink, mediaspeak) to denote unthinking conformity.
Sixty years after publication of Orwell’s definitive work, does it speak to us ÔÇô and for us? Chillingly, the answer seems to be in the affirmative. Before he swapped his police uniform for a seat in Parliament, Edwin Batshu confirmed that the police had acquired a capability ÔÇô through advanced technology ÔÇô to eavesdrop on our telephonic conversations. Yes, indeed, Big Brother Government is listening.
Increasingly, there is a growing trend among many of us not to engage freely in telephonic banter when there is reason to suspect that what is being discussed might not sit well with Big Brother in Government Enclave. The common refrain these days, especially since the coming into operation of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security, is that, “dikgang tseo ga di buiwe mo founing” ÔÇô a form of self-censorship borne out of gripping fear that the state listens into the citizens’ private chat. Interestingly, this fear knows no social stratification. It is shared by all.
Excessive interest in the private lives of citizens seems to be a growing fascination and pastime of governments ÔÇô and their associates in business. Researchers in Britain have observed that the country is “sleep-walking” into a surveillance society, in the wake of a research showing that people’s actions were increasingly being monitored. Such research highlighted “dataveillance”, the use of credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information, and CCTV. There are said to be up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain ÔÇô about one for every 14 people, and it has been calculated that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.
It is predicted that by 2016 shoppers could be scanned as they enter stores, and schools could bring in cards allowing parents to monitor what their children eat.
“We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection,” said one British researcher. “We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us.”
A human rights group Privacy International has published figures that suggest Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy. The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with “endemic surveillance”.
The country’s Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) has warned that such “Big Brother tactics” could eventually put lives at risk.
The RAE report warns that any security system is “vulnerable to abuse, including bribery of staff and computer hackers gaining access to it”. It has been cautioned that excessive use of CCTV and other information-gathering was “creating a climate of suspicion”.
The arch-typical Big Brother Society, China, has spent huge sums on sophisticated surveillance systems that incorporate face recognition technology, biometrics and massive databases to help control the population. In the build-up to this year’s Olympic Games, China installed about 300,000 cameras in Beijing.
Nobody expects the security infrastructure to be even partially dismantled, a step Greece took after hosting the 2004 Games.
Critics said these systems give China more advanced tools in its bid to control domestic critics, activists and media. China has recruited thousands of Beijing taxi drivers and hundreds of thousands of neighbourhood busybodies to keep an eye on foreigners and its own citizens.
“They’ve got people reporting down to the lowest neighborhood level, which is not new, overlaid by state-of-the-art technology. It’s the best of the old and the new,” said an official from Human Rights Watch.
Another technology that raises concern involves the new identity cards China is phasing in for its 1.3 billion citizens. The cards, developed with help from a US-based company, carry radio signal devices and a chip that records not only a person’s height, weight and identification number, but also health records, work history, education, travel, religion, ethnicity, reproductive history, police record, medical insurance status and even his or her landlord’s phone number.
Perhaps a more striking parallel between Orwell’s book and our world involves the state’s manipulation of the media to create, within the national psyche, an unquestioning and fawning love (or even fear) for the nation’s leader, who is cast as a heroic figure.
In less than two weeks, the clocks will strike the midnight hour ÔÇô and thus this year, like many others before it, will pass into history. As the New Year dawns, one constant will remain. Big Brother will be watching ÔÇô and listening.