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Orwell's '1984' even more pertinent today

Sixty years ago, he foresaw the rise of spin, spying.

By John P. Rossi

It is 25 years since 1984, the eponymous year of George Orwell's terrifying novel of what the future held in store, and this month marks 60 years since the book's publication. Nineteen Eighty-Four has sold 25 million copies, is still read in high school and college, and remains the best-known example of anti-utopian literature.

While Orwell did not see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a prophetic work, some of his concerns about the future have taken on a new urgency.

According the Times of London, the average English person is recorded on camera 300 times a day. By one estimate, there are 4.2 million closed-circuit television cameras operating in England today, accumulating personal data that is filed away by the government.

Video advertising screens in shopping malls, health clubs, supermarkets, and other public areas can have cameras embedded in them that track the viewer, much as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four was watched by his "telescreen." These cameras contain software that can determine the viewer's sex, approximate age, and even ethnicity.

It is increasingly common for cameras to be mounted on traffic lights, outside buildings, and in elevators to record the public's daily comings and goings. Big Brother - a character invented by Orwell - is truly watching you.

But it's not only today's technology that Orwell envisioned. Another one of his major concerns, the corruption of the language, is everywhere around us, especially in advertising, public relations, and politics.

No politician, for example, admits doing anything wrong. Instead, "mistakes were made." The agency of our government charged with waging war is, of course, the Department of Defense - just as the agency in charge of propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-Four was the Ministry of Truth, which coined such slogans and terms as "two plus two equals five," "Newspeak," and "war is peace." Similarly, the U.S. Strategic Air Command adopted the slogan "Peace is our profession."

Orwell was so concerned about the state of the language because he believed that its debasement would make it difficult for people to think critically and make concrete distinctions. He worried that the concept of historical truth would disappear amid the foggy thinking brought on by the language's corruption.

We see this today in denial of the Holocaust, the belief that astronauts never landed on the moon, the popularity of vampire tales, and a wide variety of conspiracy theories. The success of such books and films as The Da Vinci Code and its companion, Angels and Demons, is another example of the widespread inability to think critically and historically.

A major theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as well as other Orwell writings, was his belief that government, whether of the right or the left, was growing too powerful. This power, Orwell thought, would eventually be used not for the benefit of society, but to further enhance the power of the state. Looking around the world, who is to say he wasn't right?