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1984 is 70 years old yet still feels current

Did Orwell prove a better techno-prophet than Huxley did in Brave New World?

Ever since Aldous Huxley and George Orwell wrote, respectively, Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949), many of us have asked ourselves, are we there yet? And whose techno futurist dystopia are we living in? Is it both? Shall we call our blended prophet “Huxwell”? Then there is the new entry, Forster, from over a century ago?

In honor of 1984’s 70th birthday, here’s a roundup of recent reflections on the theme:

France 24 reminds us that “Orwell’s classic ‘1984’ turns 70 amid enduring interest.” Yes, it even sees a sharp spike in sales every so often when political changes are afoot. No wonder, when you consider that the novel introduced so many terms that we find useful today, including “double-think”, which means “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Now, if you did not hear much about the iconic book’s anniversary, one academic argues that that is not an accident:

Academia has increasingly begun to emulate Orwell’s thought police. Dissenting voices are not engaged, but shouted down. Colleges are pressured to fire professors for conveying views deemed less than liberal. In particular, the humanities have become a collective Big Brother in academia and, by extension, other leftist spaces.

At best, a dissenter from the status quo may get “Sarah Lawrenced.” In “Who Counts as a Person of Color,” Eboo Patel writes of a student of Sarah Lawrence College who self-censored because of the certain backlash from liberals that speaking out would instigate.

According to this student, being “Sarah Lawrenced” occurs “when the activists just ice you out without telling you why. They just stop talking to you — and then everyone else does too.” Synonyms abound for people who have been shunned in this way; “erased” and “canceled” are but a couple.

Erec Smith, “Academics ignore the anniversary of 1984 because they know they’re living it out” at Washington Examiner

The term “Sarah Lawrenced,” may well resonate in the Ivy League. But most people have heard George Orwell’s term unperson, “a person regarded as nonexistent,” usually for offences against political correctness.

But now whose dystopia is the more accurate? Orwell’s or Huxley’s? In January, a British journalist and novelist posed the question directly, offering some background:

One particular area of Huxley’s prescience concerned the importance of data. He saw the information revolution coming — in the form of gigantic card-indexes, true, but he got the gist. It is amusing to see how many features of Facebook, in particular, are anticipated by Brave New World. Facebook’s mission statement “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” sounds a lot like the new world’s motto “Community, Identity, Stability”. The world in which “we haven’t any use for old things” dovetails with Mark Zuckerberg’s view that “young people are just smarter”. The meeting room whose name is Only Good News — can you guess whether that belongs to Huxley’s World Controller, or [Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer] Sheryl Sandberg? …

A globally dominant society ruled by a party and a strong leader, a society which uses every possible method of surveillance and data collection to monitor and control its citizens, a society which is also enjoying a record rise in prosperity and abundance, and using unprecedented new techniques in science and genetics — that society would look a lot like a blend of Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions. It would also look a lot like modern-day China. The developing Chinese “citizen score”, a blend of reputational and financial and socio-political metrics, used to determine access to everything from travel and education and healthcare, is such a perfect blend of dystopias that we can only credit it to a new writer, Huxwell.

John Lanchester, “Orwell v Huxley: Whose Dystopia Are We Living In Today?” at Financial Times

While Lanchester doesn’t make it quite clear, he seems to prefer Orwell by a hair. In 1985, a well-known culture critic, Neil Postman (1931–2003), came down for Huxley:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Neil Postman, quoted by Chris Teare, “Amusing Ourselves To Death With Donald Trump” at Forbes

In 2015, I looked at key differences in the specific shapes of the dismal futures. For example, in 1984, governments can force a man to deny his own mother for the sake of the state. But in Brave New World, “mother” is no longer even a recognized relationship. Everyone’s only important relationship is with the state:

In both dystopias, the futurist regimes demand a monopoly of historical knowledge. Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith, a lower-level bureaucrat of Oceania (formerly the Western world and in constant conflict with Eurasia and Eastasia), works at the Ministry of Truth. He alters historical records to match the Party’s need for a politically correct history. It sounds right. Many recent coinages such as “workplace violence” (domestic terrorism), man-caused disasters (terrorism generally), and “militants” (terrorists) point to a trend to rewrite current events to address propaganda needs. However, more often, history is just not taught anymore.

Both Orwell and Huxley overestimated the desire for accurate information. A government monopoly on knowledge is likely unnecessary where the desire for it barely exists. Neither foresaw the tsunami of just-now news that the Internet offers, killing the desire for in-depth knowledge in throngs of users.

Both dystopian novels destroy their protagonists, John (BNW) and Winston (1984), but for different reasons and by different means. Winston starts keeping a diary recording his true opinions, ultimately his undoing. “Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever . . . Sooner or later they were bound to get you.”

Denyse O’Leary, “Dystopia: The worst of both worlds” at Salvo 35 (Winter 2015)

Both Huxley and Orwell went to the famous British boys’ school Eton and for a time, Huxley had been Orwell’s French teacher there. After the publication of 1984 in 1949, Orwell received a letter from his old teacher, praising 1984 as “profoundly important.” But Huxley went on to say,

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Jonathan Crow, “Aldous Huxley to George Orwell: My Hellish Vision of the Future is Better Than Yours (1949)” at Open Culture

In short, Huxley thought he was closer to the mark than his student was.

And yet, in the meantime, as noted earlier, another British novelist, E. M. Forster (1879–1970), predicted the internet and its ills much more accurately than anyone who lived before its time. Yet his long short story, “The Machine Stops”, was almost forgotten.

In conclusion, whether Orwell or Huxley wins a current round, they should make way for Forster. We should think now in terms of a trio, not a couple, of prophetic novelists.


Note: Here’s Eboo Patel’s Who Counts as a Person of Color?

The full text of Huxley’s letter to Orwell is here.

Further reading: “Brilliant vision” from a century ago foretells today’s internet. In E. M. Forster’s dystopia, people interact only through the Machine. Science and other disciplines have, by preference, ceased to explore anything but their own ideas.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

1984 is 70 years old yet still feels current