Good Lord, it's almost 1984.
George Orwell's terminally bleak vision of things to come, written in 1948 as an idealistic socialist's cry of despair over Stalinism, is part of the language now.
"That's very 1984," we say, "very Orwellian," referring to some computerized inequity or some dreadful new nonword spawned by the technology. That date, surely as famous as 1492 or 1066 -- a legend even before its time -- has come to mean a gray world of thought police, of Big Brother watching from a video screen in every room, of unending poverty, narrowed horizons, disinformation, cultivated hatreds: a world without humor, without hope.
Well. Only 730 more days and it will be here. What do the professional future-students think of George Orwell? And what do they see for 1984, so close upon us now?
As you might imagine, they are split down the middle.
Ralph Hamil, who represents the World Future Society at the United Nations, notes in an article for the society's magazine, The Futurist, how tyrannies of both left and right have taken to technology to control their subjects, and "even the most liberal governments have had to use advanced technology to counter international terrorism and domestic crime." He also mentions that as long ago as 1969 a scientist stopped a maddened bull in mid-charge by activating electrodes in the beast's brain.
Generally, Hamil worries about a technological dictatorship based on the elitism of science. "In the near future," he writes, "communications technologies will become an even more important cog in the daily functioning of society. Will new methods of conveying information fall exclusively into the hands of governments, which could use them to increase repression, or will they come to enhance popular participation in decision-making?"
In the same magazine, systems analyst Joseph Maloney sees high tech plus population growth bringing 1984 to the world -- but not in this generation or even the next. However, "the chance that terrorism alone," he footnotes cheerfully, "could cause Orwellian totalitarianism in traditionally democratic countries is negligible."
Science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl rejects the whole idea of Orwell as a forecaster of a specific future, if not as a moral prophet. Even if, as one analyst found, 100 out of 137 predictions in the book have come true, the general trends of history show no resemblance to the nightmare, Pohl writes. In America, not only has the "party," so basic to Orwellian politics, virtually withered away, but an attempt by a president to short-circuit the democratic process ended in Watergate. Increasing secrecy in government? Nonsense: Look at the Freedom of Information Act. As for a totalitarian future, "even in countries like Italy, Germany, Japan and Israel, despite extreme terrorist provocation, it has not happened yet."
Perhaps these debaters are a little too close to the subject. They seem to be criticizing Orwell as merely some amateur scientist, not a great artist describing his vision. True, he predicted some things uncannily, even the triumph of the ball point pen. He also missed badly on the electronic revolution: His people are still using pneumatic tubes for messages and a "memory hole" incinerator instead of a shredder or tape eraser.
But that's not the point. What Orwell was writing about was a frame of mind. When he mentions "the great purges of the Fifties," he is not predicting events, and he cannot be put down on the grounds that there were no such purges. The purges were a metaphor for the vast surge of fear and paranoia that he saw coming in the wake of Stalin. For fear and paranoia are contagious. And what we caught was McCarthyism.
His famous view of what would happen to our language -- "newspeak" and "double-think" and "unpersons" -- has been attacked as being not exactly news. After all, what is more double-thinking than a slave-owning Founding Father who proclaims that all men are equal? But the point is not literally the composite words themselves, the upcomings and ongoings and backspacings and storyboardings. The point is that our wonderful singing many-colored language is gradually being harnessed to serve the most ordinary and narrow of purposes, the computer: a racehorse hitched to a milk wagon. And as language deteriorates, so does thought.
The greatness of "1984" may be that it reveals the hidden agenda beneath virtually all science-fiction utopias: the fact that a world based totally on material progress requires a totalitarian system, fascism. Ever since the pharaohs built the Pyramids, dictators have delighted in using their total powers for vast public works. Caesar drained the Pontine marshes. Napoleon III leveled the heart of Paris for Haussmann's boulevards. Hitler built Nuremberg. (The Rayburn building has been called a prime example of Nazi architecture, and perhaps it is, but one look at the years of struggle, the budget squabbles, accusations, scandals and public uproar before its completion will reassure you that it was never built by a Nazi regime.)
It was the fascist state of mind, so macho it is mechanistic, that Orwell sensed in the future. He writes:
"The terrible thing that the Party had done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world. . . . And yet to the people of only two generations ago, this would not have seemed all-important, because they were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships, and a completely helpless gesture, an embrace, a tear, a word spoken to a dying man, could have value in itself."
The weakness of "1984" is a charming one, only to be expected from a resident of Britain, the last refuge of the eccentric individual, the last city-state: For all his grimness, Orwell never conceived a power as anonymous as the power we must deal with today. His Big Brother has an actual face, his spies and villains are palpable people. Apparently he never dreamed of credit card billing systems utterly unresponsive to human appeals. He never heard the modern refrain, "The machines are down," meaning that you can't get your money out of the bank or your story written or your phone call processed, and there is absolutely no one you can blame. He never guessed how faceless, how amorphous, how insidious, how ubiquitous, how easily accepted and assimilated automation can be.
Ironically, it is the computer that enables us to control the incredible volume of information which bombards us today. Professional forecasters rely on computers to collate data for them and give them the projections they seek. One successful electronic prophet is Marvin Cetron, whose Forecasting International has clients ranging from IBM to the U.S. Navy. His book, "Encounters With the Future: a Forecast of Life into the 21st Century," is due in April. This is what he sees for 1984:
The reunification of East and West Germany. "It's already under way. It will make Germany the dominant member of the nonaligned countries. The question is whether it will lean toward a Finland-type or Sweden-type profile."
Conception of life in vitro. "With genetic control of humans becoming possible, we will face staggering new moral problems. Also, people will be living much longer, working longer. This should solve the Social Security money troubles."
Decline of the unions. "They only have 17 percent of the work force now; it'll be 15 percent by the end of 1984. Blacks will assume much more power in the unions."
Robotics. "Forty percent of car bodies will be made by robots, which means better quality. Fifty percent of the car will be plastic. Japan, which faces retirement of a fifth of its work force by 1990, will go heavily into robotics, and we will have to follow to compete. People with word-processing skills, who control the robots, will become very important. They are mostly women, who are less costly to hire. At the moment."
Reelection of Reagan. "It's not the man himself, it's the victory of the middle class. Just before the '84 election the president will try for new SALT talks to get some sort of nuclear pact. Oh yes, and ERA will die."
That's how 1984 looks from here.
On another front, the Hebrew year corresponding with 1984 is Tav Shin Mem Daled, or Tashmad, which happens to mean "destruction." There are those who believe this portends that the entire world will be wiped out, except for Jerusalem, in that fateful year.
A word of caution, however: Orwell saw the media of 1984 as "a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology . . ."
Read at your own risk.