4 Predictions From Orwell’s '1984' That Are Coming True Today


It would be an exaggeration to say that our world has turned into the totalitarian state outlined by George Orwell in his landmark novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The planet hasn't devolved into an ongoing clash between super-states, and U.S. society is far from a quasi-communist one-party state in which individual rights are routinely ignored.

We might be slowly, voluntarily embracing some of the same things that 1984 depicts as being forced on a world still reeling after atomic warfare.

1. Big Brother is Watching You

This, of course, is the most obvious parallel. In Orwell's 1984, Big Brother — the purported leader of the Party that rules the nation of Oceania — keeps constant tabs on the population through "telescreens" (basically two-way televisions). With our National Security Agency (NSA) involved in warrantless wiretapping, maintaining a call database (MARINA), and engaged in data-mining (PRISM), we can be forgiven for wondering if Big Brother is no longer a fictional character. The difference, though, is that telescreens weren't owned by most people in Orwell's 1984, because they were too expensive. In the real world, however, each of us has a hand-held "telescreen" we carry with us most everywhere we go, which we've willingly paid for ourselves and which we almost never turn off. To be fair, in The Dark Knight, our smartphones were used to defeat the Joker. But is the NSA more Batman or Big Brother?

2. Perpetual War

In 1984, the Party embraces a policy of continual war so as to eat up any economic surplus and keep people poor and under control. The U.S. government isn't accomplishing anything like that, but we do seem to have a habit of moving seamlessly from one military conflict to another. Despite having left Iraq in just the past year or so and being slated to leave Afghanistan soon, we're getting more deeply involved in places like Libya and Syria. And what's going on in Syria — and spilling into Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq as well — is shaping up to be the latest episode of the Sunni-Shiite schism, a rift that has endured for over a thousand years. Not sure we can settle that one anytime soon. Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea might have atomic weapons. Yay!

3. Bread and Circuses

In 1984, the vast majority of the population — the "Proles" (i.e., proletariat) — were almost not even worthy of surveillance. So long as the Party gave them a regular infusion of food, alcohol, the lottery and pornography, they Proles were considered to be under control. Maybe Orwell was harkening back to another satirist, Juvenal, who complained about the "bread and circuses" that Imperial Rome used to control the plebians and to pry them away from their rights and responsibilities as Roman citizens. (Juvenal also helpfully gave us the phrase, "Who will watch the watchmen?", paving the way for Alan Moore's graphic novel, Watchmen, which also described an alternate, dystopian 1980s.) Currently trending on Google are Kim Kardashian, Man of Steel, Miss USA, and Italy's win over Mexico in the FIFA Confederations Cup. Would you like bread with that?

4. Newspeak

Every society engages in euphemism and linguistic evolution, but is it used for good or ill? Confucius linked the misuse of vocabulary to the warfare and social breakdown of his day, and called for a "rectification of names". In 1984, Orwell lays out in detail how language can be (mis)used to deceive and control the masses. In the real world today, political correctness and euphemism are both pervasive and pervasively derided. George Carlin worked comedic wonders mocking our gutless linguistic evasions. But as funny as they are, they're not fictional: wealthy people are "job-creators"; when the government takes less money from people it's called a "tax expenditure" (if we don't make people perform community service, is that a work furlough?); and the massacre of 13 Army personnel by Maj. Nidal Hasan (while yelling "Allahu Akbar") is a case of "workplace violence." If the fictional Orwellian Newspeak of 1984 makes us wince, how much more should the actual vocabulary of U.S. politics?