When George Orwell’s 1984 first appeared in print seventy years ago, no one could have predicted its enormous influence. It gave a nightmare form and a new vocabulary to the “ideal” totalitarian state, versions of which were a hallmark of the 20th century. Everyone in my generation knows terms from the novel, such as “newspeak” and the “Thought Police,” and “Big Brother” remains cultural shorthand for omnipresent state surveillance. Orwell’s insight in this dystopian novel is astonishing—“dystopian,” not because it depicts a dysfunctional world, but because it depicts one that functions all too well, a political utopia with a functional understanding of human nature.
“Big Brother Is Watching You” say the ubiquitous posters in Orwell’s Oceania — and the brilliance of calling this altogether imaginary leader “Big Brother” deserves a little appreciation. Ideally, an older brother should love, protect, and guide his younger siblings since he’s been through difficulties they haven’t yet faced, and he can help them. By calling their supposed leader “Big Brother” the propagandists of Oceania invoke the dynamics of home (one big happy family), and precisely here Orwell’s satirical power becomes most evident. There’s a big difference between saying “Your Father Is Watching You” or “Your Mother Is Watching You” and giving that role to “Big Brother.” Parents tend to love all their children—but big brother? Not so much. Both paternal power and filial piety vanish in the totalitarian state. In Machiavellian terms, the big brother actually has authority over the younger children because he’s not only stronger than they are, but he can also rat them out with self-righteous satisfaction. The Big Brother of Oceania is semi-transcendent, the face hovering over everything, apparently friendly and benevolent but actually an omnipresent power of intimidation.
Orwell imagines a system of surveillance capable of invading every ostensibly private space with its watchful and always political eye. The technology of what Orwell imagined was far beyond anything actually possible in 1949, but seventy years later, the world has caught up. As the Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins wrote a couple of weeks ago, “By now, your every transaction is cataloged by companies looking to sell you stuff. Your emails are impersonally surveyed by algorithms for a predisposition to buy an exercise bike or baby supplies. License-plate readers track us wherever we go in our cars and bill us automatically for tolls and traffic infractions.” And who knows what secret conversations Alexa is whispering into the great ear of Amazon?