1984, that dreaded Orwellian year, has finally arrived. The phenomenon George Orwell predicted reached full bloom around 1989, and has been straggling to completion ever since. Few people noticed, however, because of a simple error in Orwell’s prediction. His analysis was right, but he got the sign wrong.His novel 1984, written in 1948, contained the foremost prophecy of the cold war: that technological advancement would render Stalinism unstoppable, with individual liberty the inevitable casualty. However, when the technologies that would enable this totalitarian global village reached fruition, the victim was not democracy, but totalitarianism itself. What went right?
When the eponymous year arrived it spawned numerous essays, most arguing either that the dreaded era had actually come, if only we looked closely, or that it was imminent. But they were wrong. In the initial decades of the cold war, the totalitarianism envisioned by Orwell conquered much of the world, but then, like the Martians in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, began to die as if from a mysterious disease. Indeed, in the period from 1989 to 1991 we watched democracy and liberty spread (like a plague-to Communists) first through the Soviet satellites and then into the heart of the Soviet Union itself.
Ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, futurists-including Orwell-have worried that technology’s growing avalanche would overwhelm all attempts to control it. On that point, Orwell was right. But he mistakenly prophesied that governments would successfully use technology as a weapon to obliterate liberty. Communications would spread propaganda-the “Big Lie”-and electronics would be used for surveillance and thought control. Radio had spread Hitler’s evil eloquence to millions of Germans, many more than could have been reached by the unamplified human voice. By 1948, Stalin had effectively used technology to achieve god-like status in the Soviet Union. Orwell extrapolated the trend, and that’s where he went wrong.