Parallels: Orwell’s 1984 and 2021
Author: Zahra Onsori
It has now been over a year since the world was thrust into a never-ending Black Mirror episode. While the beginning of lockdown felt like being plunged into the middle of a low-budget dystopian film, things seemed almost, dare I say it, exciting. However, the derelict streets, normalization of masks, and intense solitude have left me contemplating whether this low-budget dystopian film is here to stay. Between the pandemic and my own anxieties, I naturally find myself consuming more dystopian fiction than ever. My Netflix home page is full of movies with titles like Contagion, Lockdown, and Pandemic, which render as trigger words for many today. These titles draw stark similarities to George Orwell’s classic, 1984. Like the wave of new pandemic films, Orwell’s dystopian text is a reflection of our new normal. 1984 depicts a totalitarian world under the omnipresent eyes of Big Brother. Within this world, having autonomy over your thoughts, speech, and actions are punishable by death.
In the novel, the Thought Police monitor and punish all those who engage in free thinking; to think is to have an opinion, and to have an opinion other than the messages of the party is illegal. While we (most likely) won’t get locked up for looking at someone funny, Big Brother’s watchful eye is all around us in the surveillance society we live in. We all leave digital breadcrumb trails of data for data companies, hackers, and social media apps to follow behind. Edward Snowden, a whistleblower for the National Security Agency (NSA), confirmed how our privacy and data were being abused by those who have the power to access our information. One part of his exposé detailed how the British government destroyed The Guardian’s hard drives in an attempt to censor the left-wing newspaper. Government officials are in place to protect people, and to see these groups abuse their power and censor other perspectives is chilling.
Censorship is another underlying parallel that I spotted when comparing our world to that of 1984. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” We live in a world that celebrates freedom of speech, but the digital onslaught of information that we constantly consume shapes our ideas of the world. We believe we see things for the truth; however, the lens we see the world through is not our own and is manufactured for us by the media. We can look at media mogul Rupert Murdoch as an example. Known for his right-wing beliefs, he owns more than half of the major news outlets in the United Kingdom. With an iron grip on the media, his own perspectives shape how the news is reported. One example is The Sun, a British newspaper. Although the tabloid is now known for its gossip and right-wing views, it was previously a left-wing paper before Murdoch’s ownership. This is just one example of how media is manufactured. Bias in reporting is camouflaged as the truth, which feeds into our value systems and our perception of the world.
Within 1984, we see an abuse of power from those considered high ranking members of society. Winston and Julia are tortured and have their worst fears used against them to break their willpower. From the NSA to the police, various elements of government groups have been guilty of abusing their power. One prevalent example is police brutality against Black Americans. We can look at George Floyd’s murder as an example, whose death triggered an escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The officer who killed Floyd was recently found guilty of his murder. But the initial police report detailed Floyd’s death to be a medical accident, strongly implying that the officer may have never even been charged if not for civilian evidence and outrage. Police officers are protected by the state. Officers who have committed murder are still walking free. This is a clear abuse of power and is a hard pill to swallow when you realize that justice can be so difficult to obtain.
Although it is not quite 1984, themes of privacy, censorship, and abuse of power are prevalent within our society, both online and offline. We live in a technological surveillance world which has given rise to incredible things. However, it is now easier than ever to violate our privacy and mold us into citizens that share the same value systems. Social media algorithms cater to what we consume, and we are constantly being sold things that adhere to our digital personalities.
Although technology and the surveillance society we live in can be dark at times, it is important to remember that it is not inherently bad. The more power we give these systems, the bigger the hold they have over us. We have a fundamental right to privacy, and technology can be beneficial in implementing this. In the words of Snowden, “Technology can actually increase privacy but not if we sleepwalk into new applications of it without considering the implications of these new technologies.” More pressure needs to be applied to those who have access to our data and those creating new technologies. For now, I can happily say that our thoughts are very much our own — ain’t no one peeking into my cranium anytime soon.