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George Orwell’s dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four, while a work of fiction had, as most in the genre do, a basis in the reality of the time of its release.
Published in 1949 when the world was still coming to terms with the true horrors of Nazi Germany — not to mention those of Stalin’s Russia — the idea of an all-powerful, one-party state brainwashing its people, exerting almost complete control over the media and (continuously) rewriting history to suit its narrative wasn’t quite fiction. The technological means of doing this portrayed in the novel were somewhat far-fetched for the period, but the concept certainly wasn’t.
Not quite Orwellian, but it doesn’t bode well
Seventy-one years later, the all-seeing telescreen depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four seems rather primitive. For sure, the surveillance under which we find ourselves in the 21st-century may appear less obvious, less personal — although the likes of Alexa and other artificial intelligence talking directly to us is, in a way, now happening — and less centrally controlled, yet only the naïve believe that we’re not being profiled. It may be mostly by private companies for purely marketing reasons rather than a sinister state, but it’s taking place nonetheless.
In a democratic society with free elections, that this happens isn’t inherently the worst thing in our lives. We can, after all, opt out, even if the practice of actually doing so is a tad more difficult than the theory. Some of us are in too deep. What’s more, not having at least a smartphone these days puts one at a distinct disadvantage in practically every corner of the world across a range of diverse sectors, both socially and professionally.
Nonetheless, the hope is that as long as we allow free speech, robust debate and ensure that we clearly know the sources of the content we engage with in our virtual world, we can avoid an Orwellian-style manipulation of the masses. (As alluded to above and noted in a previous post, we’re well into this battle.)
From a Western perspective, the lack of meaningful independent regulation of the not-quite-so-innocent FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) aside, I am — believe it or not — on the optimistic side that we can preserve our somewhat free society.
‘The result will be an overly sanitised population of hypochondriacs, where our own natural defences will be rendered practically useless. And our actual lives will be numbed to the point of nothingness.’
I take this view in relation to my peers and older generations, where there appear to be sufficient numbers of sceptics and critical thinkers to thwart would-be brainwashers. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks and all that.
One is less optimistic, however, for the younger generations. Indeed, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was the children who were shown to be most loyal to the Party. They would even go as far as to rat out their own parents to the Thought Police if they displayed even the slightest disrespect to Big Brother, the omnipotent, omnipresent, unquestioned leader.
Snowflakes all around us
Watching how many of today’s children appear to have taken gung ho to the biosecurity measures aimed at combatting the spread of coronavirus, one can’t help but think of the over-zealous youths in Orwell’s classic. For sure, it can be said they’re simply mimicking, harmlessly, the adults closest to them. There are, though, some worrying points to note.
Should, as seems likely, the new health protocols remain in place for some time, children may come to accept them as normal. ‘What’s wrong with that?’, you ask. Well, for one, considering there’s much debate in the scientific community as to the efficacy of mask-wearing in controlling viral contagion, it’s unsettling to think that their use will become widely accepted.
Ditto with the over-the-top use of alcohol gel and sprays in public (although, I must admit, before coronavirus arrived I had something bordering on addiction to using alcohol-based gels where they were available solely because I love the smell).
The net result is that we’re killing the good with the bad in terms of microorganisms on our bodies, in the same way that those who overuse antibiotics can do more harm than good to their internal defences.
Effectively wrapping ourselves in cotton wool means that when we inevitably face a threat, viral or otherwise, our bodies — and minds — are at risk of simply submitting. We’re taking the fight out of our species. But hey, whaddya know, there’s medication available, at a not-too-extortionate price, that will see you right.
On top of this, social distancing is instilling in our children the idea that a fellow human is a potentially lethal viral infection personified. Thus it has ever been, of course. Where there are humans there are diseases to be spread, from a mild cold to a deadly flu and everything else in between. Yet, we got on with our business and took the risk to socialise. The current approach being enforced upon us amounts to ‘stop living in order to live’.
We appear to be well on the way to creating an overly sanitised population of hypochondriacs, where our own natural defences will be rendered practically useless. And our actual lives will be numbed to the point of nothingness. That virtual sex scene between Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone in the 1993 movie Demolition Man doesn’t seem so ridiculous now.
It’s not quite a dystopia in the strict sense of the word. We could call it, sticking to the Greek origin, a ukalostopia — a no-good place. Our misinformed do-gooders at the wheel are driving us to an insipid future. It’s time to take back control while we still can.
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