Saturday, 9 January 2016

Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Nineteen Eighty-Four Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Updated on 10th of January, 2016.

Minor spoilers, but nothing that will compromise the enjoyment of reading the novel in the author's words.

This is perhaps the first novel I have read entirely at the Anna Centenary Library. ACL is one of Asia's largest libraries, and famously received a 2,794 page long invoice from Cambridge university press, for books worth 1.3 million GBP. And it's in walking distance from my hostel.

1984 is not a novel about 1984. It is a novel about every year that follows it, and every passing year has one mission: Vindicate George Orwell and his predictions. And you'll be pleased to know humanity is tirelessly doing just that.

Let's come to the book. I have tried to get through this novel at the formative years of my reading. I have always stopped it in the first 30 or so pages. I am actually kind of happy that I did so.
Why? Because, until you achieve a certain maturity, the books you read are like those childhood stories your parents tell you. You have a vague but sure memory of enjoying the time immensely, but you don't always know what it was about. And a novel as this, is too good to be used as expendable in such manner.

Now, I can read with much more patience, can understand much more that when I started out, and more importantly, I know much more about state sponsored mass surveillance, which is the crux of this novel.

I am a computer engineering UG student. And there is no doubt that today, computers aid the most massive surveillance, in all of humanity's really long history. And we seldom know about it, much less care, for the surveillance agencies are very good at being invisible. It is only partly funny that the NSA was expanded to 'No Such Agency' in the initial years.

In my field, we often hear news of such surveillance measures, at a much higher frequency than in the general mainstream media. The technologies involved interest us. And in such news, there is almost always at least one person commenting with the adjective Orwellian. I was familiar with the word, but never bothered enough to force myself through the book. Until I read Sabah's review, that is.

George Orwell writes about a world, where the state is in a perpetual state of war, with the remaining two states in the world. Oh, and the state has superior surveillance, geared towards making sure people believe in and wholesomely contribute to the war. There are other motives, but I don't want to spoil the plot for you, in case you haven't read it yet. This following quote shall suffice, until I reread and comment on the writing of George Orwell, rather than summarizing the story poorly, insulting my own intelligence and the author's.

Let's look at surveillance first. Big brother is watching you, can be, and ought to have been a reassuring phrase. Don't worry baby, your big brother is watching you [over] is enough to calm anybody's nerves about anything worrying at all. Except, in this case, it is not. State surveillance agencies have a habit of using something akin to this familial tie (Brother) to legitimize their peeping at us, constantly. Usually, it is patriotism. Patriotism is such a primal feeling that even beings of logic and extra ordinary reasoning fail to see reason when they imbibe patriotic words. It is something that has the power to bring people together, something that can validate humans killing each other, spying on each other, and much worse things, because, in the beautiful words of Macaulay,

[...]And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.


Orwell succeeds in painting an extraordinarily vivid picture of a society that has been convinced that they need to be at war. The constant flooding of information about victories in battle, the war being closer to the end than it ever was. The daily two minute hate was replicated in the real world by almost every country that was at war with another. People were told about terrible weapons of mass extinction, bio-weapons and what not. Iraq war springs to mind. [Green Zone is a movie you might want to watch, if you enjoyed 1984]

Politicians invoking patriotic feelings to aid war is not actually a terribly new thing. We have been doing that for a very long time. It is always some hidden army that will strike us someday, and can be prevented only if we preemptively strike them. The Americans, have great experience in this, convincing their own citizenry that they are the big brother of the world, somehow tasked with bringing peace in the world, and always make sure they engage in war with people for far flimsier reasons than they have a right to.


Once you convince them you need to be at war with the rest of the world, the next thing to do is warring with your own citizens. Here, almost every single country in the world is at fault. Mass surveillance enables this. The telescreens are modern day CCTV cameras. You are being watched constantly, and your every move given an adversarial meaning.

People often wonder why you need to be worried about being watched if you have nothing to hide. Such people, can watch this Video of the immensely talented John Oliver interviewing Snowden. It will be frightening how Snowden has been painted a traitor, and reminds us of a much more subtler version of the Thought Police.

Winston writing in a diary and fearing he might be executed for that is not entirely devoid of real world counterparts. State or terrorist execution of bloggers is a news we are all too familiar with.

Such things are made possible only because of mass surveillance. And we have a myriad of three letter and four letter agencies doing their job 24x7. Snowden revelations, the PRISM program, Wikileaks, are very small apertures through which we can look into the scary world of Big Brother. We have computers that have become extensions of our bodies and minds. And in essence, knowing your computer is knowing you.

How? A computer records everything it does. Usually it is for our own convenience. Just like to keep some things close to us, than the others. It helps to remember what websites you researched yesterday, without taking up the memory space needed for it. It helps to remember the song you recently heard, since you may decide you like and want to play it again tomorrow. But, it also helps people who want to watch you because, in essence, your computer is like a detailed journal of your thoughts, tastes and leanings. And that is why governments want to put back doors in our computers.

Some succeed without spooking people. Some, like Kazakhstan, just pass a law and make it impossible not to be watched. [Source.] There is a very real possibility that you have not heard about this. Convinced yet? So yes, we have mass surveillance and mass hypnosis happening right amongst us.

So, the question here is not whether George predicted all the minute details for us. It is that he predicted the broad plans, and gave us convincing reasons to believe in that predictions.

How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished?

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.

And when memory failed and written records were falsified – when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.

Orwell manages to tell us all this, and not once do you find it implausible. He isn't too keen on propaganda or advancing his own ideas. The things that happen is his novel, happen here too, albeit for different reasons than stated in the novel. But they do happen and with an alarming similarity to the fiction.

And we have it happening, with an exponentially subtle manner. It is almost to believe in it, even if the truth is staring right in our face.

People often tell you the novel is depressing. It is not. If anything, it is like reading a prophecy that is coming to fulfillment around you. But it need not scare us. You know why? For every Winston that submits to the Big brother, we have a Snowden that breaks the Big brother's nose. All we need to do is not to let ourselves believe that anything at all can be a valid excuse to constantly watching us.


The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.

Orwell has written perhaps the most accessible account on Surveillance. And he has done that with chilling accuracy and inviting simplicity.
Highly recommended.

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