George Orwell’s idea of technology

Orwell was no scientific illiterate, but his focus on the moral implications of surveillance society suggest a disinterest in the realities of technology.

Still from a 1956 dramatisation of George Orwell's novel 1984. Credit: Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo
Still from a 1956 dramatisation of George Orwell's novel 1984. Credit: Allstar Picture Library Limited. / Alamy Stock Photo

Technology lies at the heart of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The real lords of Oceania  — Big Brother’s henchmen and the zealous enforcers of his will — are architects, designers, and engineers: the people responsible for the towering ziggurat of the Ministry of Truth, the telescreen, and the military hardware of Airstrip One. The lesson that Orwell took from his dystopian forebears — H.G Wells, Aldous Huxley and Yevgeny Zamyatin — with their shimmering concrete skyscrapers and devious experiments in mind-control, was that the real power-brokers of the future would be technocrats. As he puts it in his essay on James Burnham, the American management guru, the age of the military strongman is in sharp retreat. Tomorrow’s world will belong to the managerial class.

How does this work in practice? The operational landscape of Nineteen Eighty-Four is dominated by sophisticated machinery. The telescreen, the chief instrument of state control, is simultaneously the principal weapon of a surveillance culture and a metaphor for the window that the state opens into the consciousness of the average human being. To extend the range of this 24/7 webcam comes a bugging system so all-encompassing in its sweep that his main characters, Winston and Julia, are forced to meet in the countryside or a secret room to evade its gaze. And yet, though the novel is crammed with sinister gadgetry, to the point where practically any human interaction can be spied on by unseen eavesdroppers, there is almost no indication of how the technology actually functions.

Take the telescreen. Do you plug it in? Who installs it? What do you do if it goes on the blink? Is there a hot-line to call? Who exactly is watching at the other end? The voices that reprimand under-performing exercisers or rebuke misbehaving detainees in the bowels of the Ministry of Love know their targets by name. Unless some extraordinarily sophisticated data-sharer is in charge of the proceedings — and Oceania doesn’t seem to run to computers — this suggests surveillance is being carried out by teams of screen-watchers, each with a vast bank of individual clients before them. It also suggests that, in practical terms, thousands of people must be involved, and that getting on for half the population is employed to monitor the activities of the other half.

It is the same with the bugging system, of which Winston and Julia go in perpetual dread. How does it work? How far does its range extend? There is a suggestion that it picks up conversation in the street, so where are the devices installed? Are there drop microphones suspended from street lamps or drones roving overhead? Orwell never says, and so you are left with the spectacle of a surveillance society in which every minor indiscretion is liable to be stamped on by vigilant authority, but whose scientific basis is well-nigh unintelligible. As for Winston’s day-job doctoring back-numbers of The Times, how exactly is what must be an immensely complex production process carried out? Orwell was writing in the days of hot-metal printing, which would have meant preserving each original plate should anyone want to correct it, so presumably some technological refinements have been introduced. If so, what do they consist of?

Not, of course, that any of this really matters. Orwell was interested in means, not ends. His angle of attack is moral, not scientific. Yet all this stirs a suspicion that Orwell’s imagination is not really animated by the hi-tech, gizmo-ornamented aspects of the future with which science fiction traditionally concerns itself. He is excited (and cast down) by the idea of technology and what it can do, but the realities of technological innovation leave him cold. Inevitably, all this goes back to his classical training and an education that put Greek particles ahead of Bunsen burners. No one could accuse Orwell of being a scientific illiterate — he was keen on biology as a teenager and knew enough chemistry to concoct a primitive form of gunpowder for the small boys he tutored. On the other hand, some of his adult engagements with technology are almost breathtaking in their naivety.

One might note, as evidence of this conspicuous detachment from the mechanical basis of the modern world, a jaw-dropping conversation with his friend Richard Rees on the journey from Glasgow to the Gloucestershire sanatorium where he spent the first eight months of 1949. As the train sped south across the English border, Orwell ventured a characteristically ingenuous comment. Was it possible, he wondered, for the trains of one railway company to run on the tracks of another? Or there was the time when, newly arrived at the BBC’s Eastern Service in the autumn of 1941, he discovered that the Corporation ran to a ‘special effects’ department. Orwell is supposed to have immediately rung up to ask if they could send round ‘a good mixed lot.’ Few writers have combined such prescience about what technology might do to the world with such a fundamental lack of interest in how technology works.

Author

D. J. Taylor