Who’s watching?

June the 8th this year marked the 70th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  

Japan becomes Eastasia , Russia controls Eurasia  and the Anglo American Alliance  becomes Oceania. That  is the setting in 1984. Imagine living in a totalitarian city where you are surrounded by telescreens.  Oceania , Eurasia and Eastasia  are these fictional states in the dystopian world created by George Orwell in 1984. In Oceania, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania set by its ruling party, English Socialist Party known as Ingsoc and the citizens of Oceania is under constant audio-visual surveillance by “Thought Police” such that the government is able to monitor and  control the speech , the actions and the thoughts of its citizens. There are posters plastered everywhere with the caption BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.

 War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength are the three slogans used by the ruling party that uses language to manipulate and control the population’s thought processes. Ignorance can never be strength nor bliss, it is obvious that in Oceania, the ruling party does not want thinking citizens.

The Oceania government is  divided into four Ministries. The Ministry of Truth is concerned with news, entertainment, education and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace is concerned with war. The Ministry of Love maintain law and order. The Ministry of Plenty is responsible for economic affairs. Their names in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax,Miniluv, Miniplenty. The names given to the respective departments cannot be more paradoxical.

The story is told from the point of view of Winston Smith, a 39 -year-old man working at the Ministry of Truth where truth is a misnomer. Inside his flat, there is a telescreen on the right-hand wall.

    ‘ Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometre away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste – this was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Oceania. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air and the willow herb straggled over the heaps of rubble; and the places where the bombs had cleared a larger patch and there had sprung up sordid colonies of wooden dwelling like chicken-houses? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except for a series of bright-lit tableaux, occurring against no background and mostly intelligible.’

When facing the telescreen, Winston feels that it is advisable to set his  features into the expression of quiet optimism. Winston starts writing his thoughts in a journal, ‘a peculiarly beautiful book with its creamy paper, a little yellow by age ,of a kind that had not been manufactured for forty years.’ Winston realizes that all he needs is courage to transfer to paper all that endless restless monologue that has been running in his head.

When Winston first bought the book, he carried it guiltily home in his briefcase. Even with nothing written in it, it was  a compromising possession.

 ‘ The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal ( nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp. Winston fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite, which was of course impossible for his present purpose. 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. In small clumsy letters he wrote :

  April 4th 1984

He sat back. A sense of complete helplessness had descended upon him, To begin with he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984. It must be round about that date, since he was fairly sure that his age was thirty-nine, and he believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945; but it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two.

For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future ,for the unborn. His mind hovered for a moment round the doubtful date on the page, and then fetched up with a bump against the Newspeak word   doublethink . For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him; or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.’

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.

You play tricks with reality. By the exercise of doublethink you will satisfy yourself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but  it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.

In the novel 1984, the consummate embodiment of   doublethink  is the Inner Party official O’Brien, Winston’s seducer, protector and destroyer. He first seduces Winston by impersonating a devout revolutionary that cause Winston to think there is kinship and hope. O’Brien believes with utter sincerity in the  regime he serves yet he is self-contradictory as he propounds his belief that Humanity is the Party, the Party is Immortal and Men are infinitely malleable.  Winston’s fate is not surprising though it is terrifying even if you are anticipating it.  Julia is the other major character in the novel. She believes that she can somehow beat the regime and she thinks they cannot get inside her and make her believe it even if they can make her say anything. She is completely ignorant about how the powerful  can tear the human minds to pieces and  put them together in new shapes.

Seventy years on, the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four remains relevant. George Orwell is a masterful storyteller.  1984  is a must-read classic. 

In the current  world, even if we do not subscribe Instagram, Facebook , tweeter and tumblr and could resist peer pressure when trying in every way to be individualistic with a view to stay independent-minded, somehow we might be compelled or unwittingly conform to what is regarded as normal social behaviour unless we shut ourselves away from films, telecast and the media altogether.The authorities, banks, institutions and establishments in the name of data protection and going paperless have more information about us  than what we know about ourselves. Omnipresent technology companies certainly make use of the algorithm that they gather respecting how we access the cyberworld, our likes and dislikes. They in turn making a profit from patterns in our behaviour by selling these collective data to the big enterprises so they could create and produce stuff that allures us to spend and forget about what matters. The wide web world makes the world seem small but internet development is definitely an apparent form of social control on such an enormous scale that the  historical tyrants and dictators could only dream about.

In the year of 1984, the integrated circuit chip was less than a decade old and very primitive to what we have now. Technology has speared ahead so much so that many memories are now distant. Memory is relatively easy to deal with as it is always easy to  deny the memories of many for those in control to debase history and rewrite the past. We need to use our intelligence and common sense to decipher whether what we read is true or false.

Last night at  Fête de la musique held at a local shopping mall,  I met an acquaintance who had just returned from a road trip to Thailand and Laos. He was away from his family for six weeks and had  travelled 9000 kilometres on a motorbike. That is a commendable feat. With the benefit of technology, he was able to obtain information about where he could stay whenever he needed a rest.  To go on a road trip, out of one’s comfort zone and without any pre-arranged accommodation takes courage. That would be a real challenge and a luxury at the same time. How did travellers use to move around without the internet connection ? Travelling afar without any internet connection may be impracticable but may be necessary if one is keen to be far from the madding crowd.


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