How is technology portrayed in George Orwell's novel 1984?
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Technology is portrayed as another instrument of repression and surveillance in 1984, primarily through telescreens. Wherever they go, the people of Oceania are watched via these two-way display/cameras that also broadcast state propaganda. Winston has to sit in a cramped alcove in his apartment to stay out of view of his telescreen as he writes in his journal. Additionally, Winston and his fellow workers are indoctrinated by the Two Minutes of Hate, a propaganda film depicting party enemies on a large screen at Minitrue. Only the proles, living as they do in squalor, are not subject to telescreen surveillance.
In George Orwell’s 1984, technology has advanced well beyond Orwell’s time, but only for the purpose of controlling the citizens of Oceania. In the novel, as the post above noted, cameras and telescreens have been developed for the purpose of surveillance. We could argue that, in real life, technology is just now beginning to approach the level of “spying” seen in the story. We are now photographed by cameras in almost every building we enter (or so it seems). Although Orwell worked on the book in the 1940’s, it is only recently that we have seen technology used for surveillance to this extent.
Late in the novel, the most important use of technology is how it is used to torture and re-make the main character, Winston Smith. After Winston and Julia are apprehended by the Thought Police, they are taken to the Ministry of Love to be brainwashed. At first, Winston is tortured the old-fashioned way, with beatings:
He had slumped to his knees, almost paralyzed, clasping the stricken elbow with his other hand. Everything had exploded into yellow light. Inconceivable, inconceivable that one blow could cause such pain.
Later, he is tortured using a more advanced technological process. As O’Brien brainwashes him, he subjects him to great pain using a device that Winston thinks of as the “dial.” Orwell doesn’t tell the reader exactly how the dial inflicts pain, he just refers to a needle on the dial that refers to the level of pain inflicted. The technological device allows the torturer to gradually increase mind-numbing pain during questioning and brainwashing sessions. The first time O’Brien uses the device, Winston feels this:
. . . his body was being wrenched out of shape, the joints were being slowly torn apart.
O’Brien then says:
That was forty. You can see that the numbers on this dial run up to a hundred. Will you please remember, throughout our conversation, that I have it in my power to inflict pain on you at any moment and to whatever degree I choose.
Winston continues to resist O’Brien’s efforts to brainwash him, but once the needle begins to get into the 70-75 range, he finally relents. In the end, Big Brother, the Thought Police, and their technological innovations win.
In 1984, technology is portrayed in a strongly negative fashion. Rather than being seen as a tool to liberate people or to create wealth to alleviate poverty or cure disease, technology is used primarily as a tool of repression. The resources of the government of Oceania are not devoted to helping the populace, but to controlling them.
The most compelling technology portrayed in the novel is information technology. It works in two ways. First, there is constant, ubiquitous surveillance to ensure that citizens are never potentially out of the sight of Big Brother, forcing them to regulate not only how they behave but how they feel and think. Second, technology is used to control the information to which citizens have access, changing the past and even language itself to control what people think:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
Finally, the technology of torture is used to change the minds and beliefs of anyone who might have rebellious thoughts.
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