Dear George (if I may),
From time to time, I write in this space to people of historical note who have passed on, musing or, perhaps, fantasizing that my words might reach them. And so, George, today, I am reaching out to you.
I recently reread your two most heralded novels, 1984 and Animal Farm. While I found both to be unsettling, as they were intended to be, I found them to be remarkably prophetic. They illustrate the extent to which truth, today, is so often relegated to nothing more than one’s point of view or what this or that political leader says is so.
That stark reality which, today, is demonstrated with mind-numbing frequency represents to me the genius and the real prophesy of your work. Truth, which should always be the most prized quality we seek in our national discourse, is today so often trivialized and cheapened and, thereby, depreciated to the lowest coin of the political realm.
You warned us of the journey on which you were about to take us in 1984 when you opened with, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Clocks striking thirteen, as a metaphor, are an everyday occurrence in this land of ours. Truth, for many, has indeed become the lowest coin in the realm.
There are those on the Left who, painting with a very wide brush, insist that we are a racist nation. They, like the thought police in 1984, cancel anyone who transgresses or who, many years ago, may have transgressed by speaking insensitively or foolishly, even in their youth.
On the Right, a cult of personality has emerged with, at least at the moment, almost unwavering allegiance to a one-term, soundly defeated president who calls the fourth estate the enemy of the people. His spokesperson introduced, with a straight face, the dystopian notion of alternate facts. Remarkably, no sooner had the political idea of alternate facts been raised by an American presidential spokesperson then your novels 1984 and Animal Farm have catapulted anew to best-seller status.
Of course, you were so much more than merely a novelist with a rich imagination. You traveled to Spain to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and were severely wounded. George, you risked your life to oppose fascism. To you, writing about fascism and authoritarianism and a totalitarian takeover wasn’t simply good grist for the literary mill. It was a passion. Some might read 1984 or Animal Farm and see your work as literary entertainment. They would be missing the point. These literary works are much more a warning than entertainment.
As literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, “1984 is a profound, terrifying and wholly fascinating book. It is a fantasy of the future, and like any such fantasy serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present.” In your case, George, the writing must have also caused you to agonize over what that rhetorical magnifying glass revealed about your own flirtations with racism and antisemitism. Surely that must be why you criticized the popularity of antisemitism in Britain, denouncing it as an irrational absurdity.
There is no Ministry of Truth in America today. 1984 has gained a new resurgence because the fantasia at its heart has blossomed into a reality we cannot ignore today. No one forces anyone to listen to 1984’s Big Brother pronouncements on the ubiquitous telescreens of 1984. Instead, we have become a land of thought silos where tens of millions of citizens absorb, primarily, information that conforms to their worldview while tuning out all that challenges that worldview. Still, supercomputers, the learning machines of Google and Facebook and YouTube, Tik-Tok and Redditt make the tools of 1984’s Ministry of Truth seem, by comparison, as Atari’s Pong of 1972.
This reality today, the self-selection of information that conforms to our inner-most predispositions to the near exclusion of competing points of view, is eerily close to the fictional reality you described so presciently in 1984. George, you, of course, could have never met MIT professor Sinal Aral who wrote, The Hype Machine, which was published in the United States just last year. I suspect you would be terrified at just how close 1984 came to describing the capability, if not the reality, with which we live today.
It took a few decades to realize just how possible was the world you created in 1984. The technology upon which the dystopia you so elegantly described was dependent, however, is now alive and well and generating unimaginable information about all of us. How well we will use it remains to be seen.
MIT’s Irving Wladawsky-Berger recently described Professor Aral’s work. As Wladawsky-Berger observed, “today, supercomputers ingest what we post, how we read, who we follow, how we react to the content we see, and how we treat one another. It then reasons over this data to display new content. We tend to choose what the machine suggests because we don’t have the time or attention to search more broadly… By providing us with an algorithmically curated set of options; technology both enables and constrains us. In this way, what Professor Aral describes as the Hype Machine influences what we read, who we select as friends, what we buy, and even who we love.”
Think of it, George. Today, super learning machines predict how we will act by instantly analyzing massive amounts of information that we reveal to these supercomputers every minute of every day. Every day what we type, what we say, even our facial expressions reacting to what we read and see can be analyzed. These machines can, and do, learn what we are doing and what makes us sad or happy. Just think if 1984’s Big Brother had such tools.
One thing Professor Aral says he has learned, from twenty years researching and working with social media and their supercomputers, is that “these technologies hold the potential for exceptional promise and tremendous peril – and neither the promise nor the peril is guaranteed. Social media could deliver an incredible wave of productivity, innovation, social welfare, democratization, equality, health, positivity, unity, and progress. At the same time, it can and, if left unchecked, will deliver death blows to our democracies, our economies, and our public health. Today we are at a crossroads of these realities.”
And so, George, you drew back the curtain and gave us a glimpse of where we find ourselves today. An incredible array of information is at our fingertips. We have the tools to use the information to vastly improve the outlook for humankind or to allow ourselves to be misdirected into the dystopia of 1984.
1984’s Big Brother can remain a fictional warning, or Big Brother can become a ubiquitous reality in our lives. We are on the cusp of either eventuality, and the decision is ours to make. Thank you, George, for making the choice so clear.
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I really enjoyed reading your letter to Orwell. I have thought a number of times in recent years how prescient he was. You really nailed our current condition with this edition of : Of Thee I Sing. I will share with friends and family. Best of the season to you and family.
Well said, Hal. Oh how can we get our leadership and ourselfs to take the right road.
Great essay, Hal. Thank you. I fear that we are headed toward the side of greater peril because the worst of today’s electronically driven human condition is so subtle that most of us haven’t a clue that we are being algorithmically manipulated. But then, there is also Marjorie Taylor Greene to consider.
“Beasts of England, Beasts of Scotland” (and Beasts of America)…..
Don’t listen to those PIGS!!
“Back to the Future”…meaning I will re read this wonderful tome of warning and hopefully take heed this time!
Thank you , Thank you Hal , I am grateful i have YOU , and Heather Cox Richardson to learn from ,,
Read Todays LA Times Section California page 3 “Antisemitic fliers left at homes on first day of Hannukkah. “Beverly Hills police investigating papers placed in front yards”