The technology of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

Big Brother knew a thing or two about using technology as a tool of oppression – but how have the systems described in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ evolved into the 21st Century? By James Hayes.

When George Orwell was writing ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in the late 1940s, his readers would not have expected detailed exposition of the technology that underpins its main themes and plot points. Orwell himself was not interested in technology in the same way that his sometime hero HG Wells was, and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ contains scant detail about how things actually work.
Telescreens, for instance, are usually assumed to be based on television, but Orwell is not explicit about this, and could have had an entirely different medium in mind. The novel was supposed to be, after all, a dystopia, and not (as is often assumed) an exercise in science fiction.
When Orwell began the second draft of his last book in May 1948 computing and information technology were highly specialised, highly secretive areas of research. Computer engineers were starting to consider the broader applications for the nascent science that had, during the war years, been devoted to code cracking and military logistics. But already in the UK and US, the emerging computer industry was progressing toward the development of the electronic processors that would evolve into commercially available mainframes within a few years.
Besides ‘electronic brains’, the advanced technology the public was most aware of was the atomic bomb. Orwell knew, of course, of its destructive potential, but was also alive to its use as a tool of mass psychological oppression.
He wrote in 1947 that “the fear inspired by the atomic bomb and other weapons yet to come will be so great that everybody will refrain from using them”.
This would mean the division of the world among two or three vast superstates, unable to conquer one another and unable to be overthrown by any internal rebellion: “In all probability their structure would be hierarchical, with a semidivine caste at the top and outright slavery at the bottom, and the crushing of liberty would exceed anything that the world has yet seen,” Orwell suggested. This equates roughly to Oceania’s Inner Party, Outer Party, and Proles.
Orwell knew that the power of the authoritarian society he envisaged in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ would be underpinned by technology. Mass surveillance, thought control, the curtailment of language and the manipulation of mass consumption all depend on technological tools.
The accuracy of Orwell’s predictions have been assessed on a regular basis ever since the book was published in 1949 – most intensively 24 years ago, in 1984 itself (Apple Computer’s 1984 TV commercial promoting the Macintosh PC was set in a Big Brother scenario, with the tagline “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’”). The diamond anniversary of the novel’s completion offers an opportunity to revisit the technological tenets of Orwell’s ideas.
The sinister and intrusive telescreen is the most high-profile example of technology gone bad in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, and provides several key plot points. It is described as
“an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall… The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed but there was no way of shutting it off”.
Telescreens are usually interpreted as an evolution of standard television, the big difference being that there is no opt-out for the citizens of Oceania. Telescreens are aware of them as much as they are aware of their telescreens, although the display functions are only vaguely outlined in the text. Orwell explains nothing about telescreens’ transmission method – we do not, for instance, learn whether its signals are broadcast over airwaves or relayed through some kind of cable connection.
Aside from some bespoke rig-ups for TV game show japes, the nearest we have come to full video duplex sets that can send and receive sound and pictures simultaneously is probably computer-based videoconferencing, but, although this has achieved some success as a one-to-one or one-to-many communications tool, it has not found favour in hierarchical situations (managers monitor–ing homeworkers, say). A closer contemporary comparison is the videophone, dating back to 1955. Current video telephony, based on the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) or H.324 protocols, is being deployed widely.
‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’s telescreens are often confused with CCTV surveillance cameras as symbols of the ‘Big Brother is watching you’ state; but Orwell was writing about the year 1984, at which time CCTV cameras were relatively rare. So far as the book states, telescreens are confined to interiors, and when its hero Winston Smith is wandering the streets of London, he does not express concern about being observed by telescreens or other cameras; however, in another chapter his paramour Julia mentions the threat of audio surveillance.
So-called ‘talking’ CCTV cameras fitted with speakers, were first heard in the UK (in Middlesborough) in September 2006, and are now being installed in 20 areas across England. Control centre staff can use them to rebuke litter louts and passers-by who commit acts of anti-social behaviour. Despite the views of UK information commissioner Richard Thomas – who expressed misgiving about the “creeping encroachment” on UK citizens’ civil liberties posed by such surveillance – the then home secretary John Reid said that those concerned about civil liberties intrusions were “in the minority”.
“Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into Speakwrite”. As described in Orwell’s novel, Speakwrite is a kind of dictation machine that seems to function on speech recognition/speech synthesis technology. Basic speech recognition systems are now commonly used on automated telephone services and automotive speech recognition, while more advanced systems exist for direct voice input in military aviation control systems.
The term ‘voice recognition’ is also sometimes used generically to refer to ‘speech recognition’, but perhaps more precisely refers to ‘speaker recognition’: this attempts to identify the person speaking (rather than what is being said), and has particular application to personal ID and security.
A distinction in speech recognition can be made between ‘artificial syntax systems’ and ‘natural language processing’. Artificial syntax systems are mostly domain-specific – the users stick to a specific vocabulary that a given system has been designed to respond to – whereas natural language processing is usually language-specific and more flexible in respect to a user’s particular style. Speakwrite would appear to be an artificial syntax system: when in conjunction with Newspeak, Winston’s role is evolving toward instructing the nature of historical record.
Speech recognition/synthesis has for years been touted as a data input/retrieval alternative to the QWERTY keyboard (vintage: 1874). The technology has been available for at least a decade, yet it has failed to capture hearts, minds, tongues and ears. At the bottom of this is the fact that most people use different apparatus to express their thoughts in speech to those they use in written language, for example, sub-vocal articulation – speaking to oneself inside one’s own head, as a form of dictation. Dictated texts therefore often prove inadequate, and require much revision and reworking, more easily achieved via a conventional keyboard.
Orwell was one of the few major writers of his generation who maintained an interest in the mechanisms of the language he wrote in. He was famously concerned that written English had a tendency for over-elaboration, and that elements of style, rather than exposing the meaning, often obfuscated it.
Writing in Tribune in March 1947 about a bill to introduce Nu Spelling – a highly phonemic writing system that was proposed for common usage in the UK – Orwell wonders whether English would not benefit from being rationalised “little by little, a few words every year… Already some of the more ridiculous spellings… get killed off unofficially.” In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ he posits a scenario where spellings and words are killed-off officially.
Oceania’s Party’s official language, Newspeak, is determined to limit the expressiveness of English – and therefore human freedoms – by reducing its vocabulary. Indeed, it is “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year”.
In the next issue of Tribune Orwell speaks up for Basic  English – an auxiliary form of standard English with a vocabulary of 850 words that covers everything necessary for day-to-day purposes and is designed especially for non-English speakers  – a subject he returned to several times in his journalism. Basic English core subset was devised in 1930 by Charles Kay Ogden, who corresponded with Orwell on the subject.
The advent of text messaging over SMS on mobile devices has caused a resurgence of interest in simplified English systems. Texting, of course, modifies both spelling and syntax in non-standardised forms that make particular use of acronyms into slang terms such as ‘ttly’ for totally, ‘omg’ for ‘Oh my god’, ‘idk’ for ‘I don’t know’.
Many examples from the text lexicon are finding their way into the lingua franca of business – FYI (for your information), BTW (by the way), JTS (just to say), WFH (working from home).
‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ describes “a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian …entertainment. Sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator”.
Throughout ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ recurs the theme of the ersatz – imitation and artificiality, in politics, art, food and drink, and popular entertainment. These activities aim at revising and falsifying the past, and diffusing a perpetually reinvented picture of the world surrounding the inhabitants of Oceania.
Computers have long been programmed to imitate the music of past composers. Scientist and artificial intelligence expert David Cope writes programs and algorithms that can analyse existing music and create new compositions in the style of the originals. He has used this program with composers like Bach and Mozart.
Meanwhile, the contemporary composer Gottfried Michael Koenig has used computers to generate the sounds of the composition as well as the score. Koenig originally produced algorithmic composition programs that translated the calculation of mathematical equations into musical notation.
An intriguing twist on Orwell’s versificator of recent decades is the rise of sampling – capturing a segment, element, sequence of one sound recording and reusing it in a new recording as an instrumental element, effect, or harmonic enhancement.
Sampling is viewed by many as a corruption of the original, an attempt to re-invent history in a way that lends greater credibility to the sampler than the sampled.
©IET Services 2008-2011.

One Response to The technology of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

  1. Daniel says:

    ‘Sampling is viewed by many as a corruption of the original, an attempt to re-invent history in a way that lends greater credibility to the sampler than the sampled.’ Who exactly are these ‘many’ who hold this view? Writing ‘viewed by many’ without qualification is an attempt to lend credibility to an unsubstantiated comment. And since when is sampling ‘an attempt to re-invent history’? That’s the least likely motivation I can think of.

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