Who's Afraid of 1984?

Orwell’s nightmare vision of technology wedded to tyranny was fatally flawed.

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.

Technology-especially infomation and communications technology-has been the most liberating force in history. It is the Frankenstein monster, but it kills tyrants; it is ultimately benevolent to the populace because it gives access to knowledge. The Big Lie fails when truth is also heard. Short-wave radios provide news, and the news rings true. It proved to be much more expensive and difficult for the communists to jam radio broadcasts than for the Radio Free Europe to set up new ones at difference frequencies. Meanwhile, short-wave radios shrank in size and cost. Information leaked, and then poured, across the walls built by totalitarianism. People learned that their “worker’s paradise” was far inferior to the capitalist world outside, and that the gap was growing.

The technology of liberation in China was initially the fax machine, used to send foreign newspaper reports; the government just barely, and perhaps only temporarily, won the battle. It cannot resist forever. In fact, realizing that the Internet is necessary just to compete in the world markets, the government has begun to spend large amounts of money on getting the country wired. Cheap cell phones, too, are invading the developing world.

Orwell’s error was remarkably simple: he assumed that only the state would be able to afford high-tech-an assumption shared by virtually every prophet, science-fiction writer, and futurist. But it has proven to be wrong. As late as the 1970s, the driving force for electronic technology in the U.S. was the military; now the Department of Defense has difficulty getting industry to respond to its needs, since they are dwarfed by the consumer market. The military, whenever possible, now orders commercial off-the-shelf technology rather than “mil spec.” Many of the GPS receivers used in Desert Storm were bought at Radio Shack. Radios have become so inexpensive that Intel is now planning to engrave a miniature one on the corner of every silicon microchip, at no extra cost (see “Radio Ready Chips,” TR July/August 2002). Most of us cannot even count the number of computers we own, because we don’t know how many are hidden in our microwave ovens and automobiles.

To be sure, technology has introduced problems. Like anything out of control, it does not always lead us where we want to go. It is particularly difficult to predict its long-term effect on the environment. But in a time when technology is frequently under attack, it is worthwhile to notice its role in spreading truth. It was not Stalinism, but the flow of information that proved to be unstoppable.

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