Perilous Tech

Occasional thoughts on technology and social issues

1984 Book Cover

This may seem like an odd book recommendation for 2023. After all, the book is 74 years old. Maybe you, like myself, read it when you were in school and felt that you’d gained all the insights from reading and classroom discussions. Do you remember any of those? I know I didn’t.

Revisiting a text like 1984 with the benefit of years and new context can lead to surprising insights. For example, did you notice the device called a Versificator? It’s a generative AI (of sorts) and its purpose was to crank out creative content, such as literature and music, without needing to expend creative thought. I’ll leave you to ponder the parallels with our modern boom in creative, generative AI (Dall-E, ChatGPT, etc.)

However, if you ask ChatGPT about its role in the story, it thinks it’s much bigger. Thanks to @CoryKennedy on Twitter for the image and the laughs.

ChatGPT thinks it's Big Brother

What Made Me Revisit 1984 in 2022?

Believe it or not, it wasn’t misinformation, disinformation, or even surveillance discussions. It was something far less intelligent.

A while back, a person I was conversing with made some outlandish claims contrary to proven scientific facts. They insisted people shouldn’t be able to claim otherwise. Instead of directly challenging the person, I stated, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

The person gave me a puzzled look. Very proud of myself for remembering the quote, I smiled and said, “It’s from 1984.”

They responded, “I don’t care what year it’s from. That’s stupid.”

That exchange made me realize a few things. It’s been over 30 years since I’d read the book. I don’t remember the time when I’d read it. I was too young and cared too little. The quote I so proudly produced wasn’t from my reading but from others’ usage. I made a commitment to re-read it again in 2022.

Context

Put the reading in the context of the technological present. There’s a lot of referring to “the party” in the book, but just replace that with any other current group (tribes, in-groups, out-groups, conspiracists, etc.) The suspicion of other in-group members is like attacking your “near enemies.” For example, It’s easier for a group of conspiracy theorists to attack an in-group member who may agree that Bill Gates is microchipping people but not believe the earth is flat versus an out-group member who is rational and doesn’t care what conspiracy theorists think.

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”

George Orwell – 1984

Does that quote remind you of something? Concepts like the Two Minutes Hate and Atrocity Pamphlets make sense in the context of modern algorithmic social networks optimizing for increased engagement.

The big conversation of the book always seems to be the surveillance and disinformation aspects. These concepts are certainly relevant today, but not from any one place. Orwell didn’t envision surveillance capitalism on top of other surveillance activities. Also, everyone is more than happy to share their exact location at will, which would have been terrifying to Orwell, but for all of us, seems to be the norm.

There are many other relevant aspects from the book applicable to current times. Denial of Science and reality, contradictory actions such as Doublethink, controlling language, and even re-writing or reframing history to fit changing narratives.

Orwell was on to the fact that people act differently when they know they are being observed. The same is true on social networks. People are more likely to share misinformation that aligns with their biases when they know others will see it.

I enjoyed my rediscovery. It made me think about its applicability in our algorithmically driven, tribal, and divided times, even though it was written in 1949. It also made me think of other texts I may have overlooked, such as Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century. I normally don’t pre-plan my reading, but I may need to add consider reading this in 2023.

With that, I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from the book.

A Few of my Favorite 1984 Quotes

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”

“In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement.”

“The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

“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. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

“The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police.”

“In Newspeak there is no word for “Science.” The empirical method of thought, on which all the scientific achievements of the past were founded, is opposed to the most fundamental principles of Ingsoc.”

“A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party.”

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

“And if the facts say otherwise, then the facts must be altered. Thus history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the regime as the work of repression and espionage carried out by the Ministry of Love.”

“Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

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