Orwellian. Not many people can claim an adjective, and I’m sure if George Orwell were alive today he’d have mixed feelings about it. “Orwellian” has become synonymous with “dystopian” — humorless, drab, authoritarian, all-seeing, all-disrupting, anti-human. We see references to Big Brother — the surrogate God of Nineteen Eighty-Four — all the time in pop culture. We even have a reality show unironically named after it. The whole premise of the show sets the viewer up to spy on a household full of people with conflicting personalities. The more drama that erupts in the household, the higher the ratings. As we watch the equally complicit cast members of Big Brother feud with each other, the more we feed the ad revenue machine of the television networks. More drama, more ratings. The show first aired in 1999, and as a generation grew up on it and other reality shows, the more this kind of scenario got normalized.
Just like the cast members of Big Brother, who allow themselves to be watched 24/7 by ubiquitous cameras in exchange for monetary compensation, we’re doing the same thing by participating in the economy of surveillance capitalism. Addictive social network feeds are free to use, in exchange for our data. Our demographic and psychographic data is hoovered up by databrokers, who sell it off to advertisers, who use it to sell us more stuff. Cross-referenced data from third parties add purchase history, political affiliation and household incomes to the mix. In exchange for our personal data profiles, we get memes, listicles, short comedic video sketches and a deluge of button-pushing political punditry (often disguised as “comedy”).
Then there are those who have learned to game the system. In addition to the free stuff, they’re getting actual cash. Influencers hashtagging brands on their feeds get payouts, VIP service and free stuff IRL in exchange for exposing the brand to their army of loyal followers. Influencers post regular updates to maintain their audience, and there’s hardly a waking moment that goes by when they don’t have a camera trained on themselves. I don’t think this is quite the dystopia Orwell had in mind when he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four –but, you could say while our current-day riff on Orwell’s surveillance state isn’t exactly the same, it certainly rhymes.
If Orwell were alive today, he would have to look no further than the warped, censorious regime of China. We may fictionalize aspects of it in our own modern entertainment, like Black Mirror, but in China, they’re actually living it. A social credit system knocks your score if you speak ill of the central party, make minor infractions like jaywalking, or fail to make a payment on time. Travel is restricted, family members are implicated. Large digital billboards publicly shame law-breakers, troublesome ethnicities are forced into re-education camps. One way to improve your falling social credit score is to make donations to the Communist party. If this doesn’t sound Orwellian enough, imagine classrooms outfitted with sentiment-tracking surveillance technology, always on the lookout for deviants with poor attention spans and skeptical expressions. The Chinese government, of course, has complete control over their own social networks (the designs of which they ripped off from Silicon Valley). These are helping the ruling class build terrifyingly complete citizen profiles. Users of Weibo join for all the cool free entertainment, in exchange for their valuable data — data which is sold to the surveillance state and advertisers for huge sums of money.
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” That future envisioned by Orwell is where China seems to be headed, if it’s not there already. The United States isn’t so much a boot-in-the-face metaphor as a Snapchat-filter-in-the face. Boot-in-the-face types exist, of course. Trump’s post-modern relationship with the nature of truth reminds us of Newspeak. His open adulation of totalitarian strongmen is trivialized and turned into viral memes for byte-sized consumption on social media.
Different times, different problems. Orwell approached his dystopia by portraying a nightmare scenario of the world — one he didn’t want any part of, but one he saw encroaching on his on life. If he were alive today there’s no doubt in my mind his dystopian fiction would reflect a future modelled on the addiction algorithms insidiously manipulating our behavior across social networks. The stark, comically oppressive boot-in-the-face tactics of China have already passed into nonfiction (Orwell would have had plenty of essays to write on that).
At seventy, Nineteen Eighty-Four isn’t anywhere close retirement age. Its catchphrases have been immortalized in our lexicon. Many of its predictions have come true. Hundreds of years from now, who knows, future generations might even mistake it for a work of nonfiction.
Drew Minh is the author of Neon Empire, a near-future dystopian thriller about influencers. Publishers Weekly says, “Fans of SF thrillers will enjoy this colorful high-tech mystery and its echoes of the present-day hunger for likes, favorites, and going viral.” It comes out in September, 2019.