George Orwell's 1984 was written in 1948, after World War II, at the end of the Print Era (novel, newspaper) and beginning of the Analog Audio/Visual Era (TV, film). It was written in the worst time period in human history during which the world suffered global war, the Holocaust, political purges, nuclear strikes, and the threat of a nuclear war. Orwell's novel attacks both sides of these tyrannies, that of the political far right (Hitler and Mussolini's fascism) and political far left (Lenin and Stalin's communism), in a synthesis of both extremes found in Oceania's Inner Party. His immediate audience, of course, was his home country of England, but in a larger sense, his novel served to warn all nations of Western democracy.
The role of mass media in 1984 parallels the role of mass destruction. Each are used in a kind of double movement: the state-controlled media uses open lies (Doublespeak) through a ubiquitous medium (the telescreens) to both unify the masses in ignorance (through misinformation) and isolate and trap individual threats (namely writers). Writing and books are banned. Critics have said that Orwell's greatest fear was the destruction of books and, therefore, the destruction of history. In a broader sense, I think he feared the destruction of the Print Era at the hands of electronic media, of what would become the Analog/AV Era.
The following quotes illustrate Orwell's fears:
- “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
- “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
- “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
- “Big Brother is Watching You.”
- “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Orwell goes on to write:
We are the priests of power. God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: "Freedom is Slavery". Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal.
All of Orwell's fears were later reflected in the work of Marshall McLuhan, who in the 1960s, said that "the medium is the message" or (massage, Mass Age). In other words, both McLuhan and Orwell agree that the message of the medium is not as important as the medium itself. It doesn't matter what the Inner Party or Outer Party says. It doesn't matter what Fox News or MSNBC say. It doesn't matter what the Republicans or Democrats say. It doesn't matter what the far right or the far left say. With the death of the Print Era, the word is no longer important. Collectivism trumps individualism. The medium replaces the single author. What matters, and what obfuscates the notion of truth or reality or objectivism, is that the medium (the TV, newspaper, film, or political pamphlet) wields power. This collective, authorless medium becomes the "Priest of power," "the Party," the "collective" power, and the antithesis and enemy of the individual.
Here are some more ideas connected to this shift from single-author media to mass electronic media:
The Print era (printing press - photography): remediates the previous era of oral/aural communication. Bloom's "Aristocratic Age." Books, newspapers, pamphlets ("Cool Media"), the novel, essay, short poems; exists in the private sphere (reader)-literate; it is one-way communication; static, fixed (no movement); logical, mosaic (if not linear); vertically accumulated (top); focus on past, tradition; hierarchical: church, state; print caused explosion (societies fragmented); the public had separate, fixed points of view
Analog A/V era (photography - computer): subverts the print era; Bloom's "Democratic Age"; Realism, Modernism; Photography ("Hot"), Film ("Hot"), TV ("Cool"); the Sit-com; appeal to Visual Learners; Public (TV, film); One-way communication; Time-based movement (Film); TV/Film (linear); Impression; Laterally Accumulated (time); Focus on Present; Hierarchical: Editors, Studios; Electric Media caused implosion (globe unified)
So, Orwell, writing in the Print Era, presaged the explosion of the Analog A/V Era (particularly the home-based medium of the TV that would always be turned on). He saw this explosion as a danger to the individual and the pinnacle of the individual's crowning artistic achievement, the book. Though Orwell wrote about this destruction through the lens of a state-controlled media and torture police, it is clear that the message of the state or the means of the police were less important than to the power afforded them through the media (hence, "the medium is the message" of McLuhan). As we've found out in the current Digital Social Media Era that both Orwell and McLuhan's fears have manifested, but instead of state-controlled tyranny, we snoop and torture and bully each other. We are Big Brother and victims of Big Brother. And no one really reads books.