1984 at 70: Still relevant says Orwell’s son

Influence: The haunting story has affected everything from reality TV to David Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs.

Even after a lifetime, can a classic still have a message? Few novels have had such an effect, with ‘Big Brother’, ‘newspeak’ and ‘thoughtcrime’ now firmly embedded in the English language.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, an autocratic leader, “Big Brother” watches people’s behaviour for signs of rebellion. And an official Ministry of Truth manipulates information and language, obscuring reality and consolidating his control.

Dissenters are guilty of “thoughtcrime”. Those in power eliminate them or torture them into changing their minds. Children denounce their free-thinking parents to the authorities.

Orwell’s classic remains as relevant today as when it was published, according to the author’s son.

Orwell’s novel was published on 8 June 1949 and celebrates its 70th anniversary this week.

It comes amid growing public concern about the power of social media corporations and questions how they use people’s data.

“Every great dystopia exists in that unnerving territory between fact and fiction,” says the critic Dorian Lynskey.

Orwell had minimal interest in science fiction and an understanding of technology so limited that he didn’t even explain how his famous invention, the two-way telescreen, actually worked.

He never presented himself as a prophet with special insight into the future. If so many of his observations ring true today, then it is because they were true in 1949.

The technology and personalities may change over time, but the psychology of politics and the operation of power remain fundamentally the same.

Is Big Brother still watching?

Terrifyingly so, warn the concerned. Orwell did not just imagine the takeover by a police state: he warned of a creeping mindset that could become established in democratic societies. Attempts to bully us into thinking a certain way are gaining in strength.

What a lazy analogy, critics respond. Today’s turbulence shows we are freer than ever: free to find out what we want, and form whatever opinions we like.

You Decide

  1. Do you think for yourself?

Activities

  1. List some ways you could try to control people’s thoughts if you were an authoritarian leader. Then, discuss how effective your ideas are with the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“The best books…are those that tell you what you know already.”

George Orwell

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sales of the book went up in 2013 after Edward Snowden’s revelations about government-controlled surveillance, and again following Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President in 2017 after one his advisors used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview.
What do we not know?
Whether Orwell was chiefly writing about his time or ours; what he saw happening in 1949, or what he thought might happen in the future. Far from making his readers despair, he wanted to wake them up because who knew where the next Big Brother could come from?

Word Watch

Autocratic
A leader who has complete power and doesn’t listen to other people’s views.
Big Brother
Yes, the reality TV show took its name from the character in George Orwell’s novel because contestants were constantly under surveillance in the Big Brother house, just as they are in his story.
Dissenters
People who protest or refuse to conform.
Denounce
To publicly say someone or something is wrong or evil.
Telescreen
Devices that operate as TVs, security cameras and microphones. In Orwell’s novel, telescreens are used by the ruling party in the fictional State of Oceania to keep its citizens under constant watch.
Analogy
A comparison between one thing and another.