ONE 3 • Orwell’s Sound of Silence

As Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” George Orwell never claimed to be a prophet, but as ANDREW B. SMITH shows, his thoughts about the trends of his time still resonate today.

Nearly 60 years after his death, the legacy of George Orwell’s writing remains very much alive. However, his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four continue to have a disproportionate influence on the general view of his work.

Popular media references to doublethink and Big Brother live on, but his non-fiction is a better representation of his output. Orwell’s recurring themes were more clearly outlined in his essays and journalism before they were eventually repackaged in Nineteen Eighty-Four. By his own admission, the writer said he had “ballsed it up” with his dystopian novel.

The first thing that strikes you about reading Orwell’s later essays and journalism (1945–50) is the contemporary feel of the subject matter. Random sampling shows that many of the key concerns of the immediate post-war years—housing, education, immigration—remain today. In fact, many of Orwell’s pieces would not look out of place in a modern-day newspaper. Of course, that doesn’t mean Orwell was a perceptive prophet—he was merely describing things as he saw them at the time—but it does seem to show that, in many respects, the agenda and debate on major issues haven’t moved on far in nearly 60 years.

However, in one particular area—Orwell’s ambivalent loathing of mechanization—it is interesting to see how well his arguments stand up now.

Orwell’s 1945 description of an “air-conditioned, chromium-plated, gadget ridden existence” has well and truly arrived in 2008. His distrust and dislike of “the Machine Age” surfaces frequently in his later essays and journalism, and in many guises: he refers to “the machine [which] has frustrated the creative instincts and degraded aesthetic feeling”. For Orwell, the use of modern technology is typically a dehumanizing process.

His short article “Pleasure Spots”, published in Tribune in January 1946, is a good example of how he foresaw the type of culture that would develop in the Western world as a result of the machine.

The opening line of the piece is classic Orwell:

“Some months ago I cut out of a shiny magazine some paragraphs written by a female journalist and describing the pleasure resort of the future.”
You hardly notice the way he slips in what seems a quite innocent adjective, “shiny”, to describe the magazine; however, for Orwell, this denotes superficiality and thus is not worthy of serious intellectual discussion. Describing the journalist as “female” is also quite gratuitous—he deploys this to again suggest “lightness” and lack of critical judgement.

He goes on to examine the ideas of an entrepreneur she refers to who was planning a “pleasure spot which he thinks will catch on tomorrow as dog racing and dance halls did yesterday”.

The description of the leisure area—”a space covering several acres, under a series of sliding roofs—for the British weather is unreliable and with a central space spread over with an immense dance floor made of translucent plastic which can be illuminated from beneath”—appears to predict today’s Centreparcs. Other modern-day developments are also anticipated, including multiplex cinemas, muzak and Starbucks coffee shops. More importantly, it is Orwell’s analysis of the real purpose of these commonplaces of the contemporary landscape that is worth looking
at more closely:

“On a pleasure cruise or in a Lyons Corner House one already gets something more than a glimpse of this future paradise. Analysed, its main characteristics are these:

1. One is never alone.
2. One never does anything for oneself.
3. One is never within sight of wild vegetation or natural objects of any kind.
4. Light and temperature are always artificially regulated.
5. One is never out of the sound of music.”

Items one and two are recurring themes throughout Orwell’s writing—most notably in the concept of “Big Brother is watching” in 1984. However, it is the fifth item that bears further examination because, for him:

“The music—and if possible it should be the same music for everybody—is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude.”

He saw a direct correlation between the use of technology as a tool of political control and the misuse of language

According to Orwell:

“The radio is already consciously used for this purpose by innumerable people. In very many English homes the radio is literally never turned off, though it is manipulated from time to time so as to make sure that only light music will come out of it. I know people who will keep the radio playing all through a meal and at the same time continue talking just loudly enough for the voices and the music to cancel out. This is done with a definite purpose. The music prevents the conversation from becoming serious or even coherent, while the chatter of voices stops one from listening attentively to the music and thus prevents the onset of that dreaded thing, thought.”

In fact, this “background noise” has increased steadily since Orwell’s time—quite whether he could have predicted our current music- and media-saturated culture is a moot point. On the subject of prophecy, he himself said:

“The most one can say is that people can be fairly good prophets when their wishes are realizable. But a truly objective approach is almost impossible, because in one form or another almost everyone is a nationalist… The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. All these mental vices spring ultimately from the nationalistic habit of mind, which is itself, I suppose, the product of fear and of the ghastly emptiness of machine civilization…”

Can we detect the roots of Orwell’s distaste for a technology-driven future in his past?

Although it is impossible to point to a specific incident, his journey from “chubby boy” to bullied prep school pupil, then servant of Empire in Burma, through documentary reporter in London, Paris and Spain, to minor novelist, newspaper columnist and, ultimately, one of the great political writers and thinkers of the twentieth century, clearly drove him to this viewpoint. Indeed, he saw a direct correlation between the use of technology as a tool of political control and the misuse of language.

It is fair to say that Orwell’s aversion to the world of mass production was contrasted with his love of nature. His 1946 essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad” remains a sublime example of his ability to write with taut eloquence about the simple pleasures of toads spawning and still land a well-aimed political punch:

“Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle?”

Orwell would have made a fine political blogger

At the same time, we should be careful not to label Orwell as a simple anti-technologist—a charge he was well aware of:

“The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous.”

Worse than this for Orwell would have been the label of “crank”. He may well have been a staunch defender of individuality, liberty and egalitarianism, but he too was vulnerable to irrational mental vices. His character assassination in The Road Tto Wigan Pier of what he described as crank socialists—who stand accused of the heinous crimes of vegetarianism, wearing sandals and drinking carrot juice—have been well documented in the past. Perhaps another, less well noted mental vice was his nationalistic habit of mind when it came to his early view of the Scots.

But the machine civilization that gave rise to all this clearly didn’t go away after Orwell’s death. Indeed, the machine age has given way to the so-called information age, a term which Orwell would no doubt have questioned: bits versus atoms? It is interesting to speculate what he would have made of the internet and digital technology. No doubt he would view the iPod as the ideal aid for ensuring that one is never out of the sound of the music:

“Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one’s life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so.”

On the other hand, surely the internet would have appealed to him—not least because it provides a platform for expressing heterodox views. As he said himself:

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events.”

Orwell would have made a fine political blogger.

Ultimately, he wasn’t totally against technology per se. It was a question of balance:

“Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human?”

Sixty years on, that test remains a useful one. In a technology-saturated culture, have we become more or less human? Surely Orwell would have seen both the potential for improving our culture with technology such as the internet rather than a simple blanket dismissal.

And yet, the nagging doubt remains that Orwell’s original fears of how technology can be used to restrict our liberty and destroy our ability to think clearly and critically have somehow arrived by the back door—not through brutal imposition, but perhaps worse, through indifference.

Andrew B. Smith has over twenty years of experience in journalism and PR. He wrote “Saving the Last Dance” for the first issue of ONE Magazine. His interests include the writings of George Orwell, of course, as well as music, film and books.