George Orwell was wrong. His 1984 wasn't at all the Orwellian kind of year he had forecast, with Big Brother peering over our shoulders and an officious state intimidating us with doublethink and backward slogans that reel our minds and turn us into sheep.

No, it's not the Age of Big Brother that has dawned. If anything, it's the antithesis of the world Orwell foresaw when the individual was eclipsed by the power of the state.

Ours is the Age of the Voyeur.

The most intimate aspects of one's life from birth to death -- whether love and sex to personal failures physical, mental or familial -- are played out for all to see, share and drool over.

In the process, everything is reduced to the level of soap opera -- and has about as much meaning.

A historian or sociologist chronicling this development would single out the saga of the Louds, that supposedly "average" happy American family that permitted television cameras to record their personal lives as the launching of the trend. The "average" family, of course, turned out to be a mess. Their saga was one of bitterness, feuds, fights, homosexuality, affairs, divorce and disintegration.

And all before "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and their many imitators filled the prime-time airwaves.

Recently, the celebration -- or exploitation -- of the individual has taken another turn. Now we are besieged with real-life dramas that have us hovering figuratively, if not literally, around the bedside of the afflicted human being.

Will they live or will they die? How are they holding up? What about the wife -- or husband -- and children? How are they bearing up? How good are they at handling the press? Who's their agent? What about an instant memoir, maybe a docudrama, or better yet, a full-fledged serial with exclusive Hollywood rights?

We're there in the operating room as the organs are removed or implanted, there in the recovery room, there in the intensive-care ward, there as they speak, or try to, with tubes dangling from their nostrils and masks over their lips.

Everyone gets into the act, from president down; it's all part of the TV drama.

Each time the drama seems to need more of a fillip to sustain public interest. It's as if normal personal problems are not enough to satisfy the craving for more sensational life-and-death episodes.

"Baby Fae" with the baboon heart dies and immediately we are witnesses at the next installment of the human with the artificial heart.

I don't mean to sound cynical or uncaring, but I confess to feeling deeply ambivalent and disturbed by all this public playing out of suffering. The latest act, involving William Schroeder and his mechanical heart, has been especially troubling.

There's something about the commercialization of this process -- the human being as guinea pig for a profit -- that raises immense questions. They were present in the Baby Fae case, too, but there it seemed more a question of the impulse to experiment than a drive for future profits.

Out of this latest situation, you can almost see the calculators computing the sales of the next model of the mechanical heart or hear the brokers touting which stock does best depending on the outcome of the latest live-and-in-color TV operation:

"Jarvik-7 heart pump down 2 1/4, artificial kidneys up, 6 1/2."

There's another side to this equation: the cost.

Even as scientific and technological breakthroughs accelerate in extraordinary fashion, providing stunning opportunities to prolong life in ways unimagined a few years ago, the cost of producing and maintaining these machines rises in geometric progression.

And all this comes as the nation grapples, unsuccessfully, with ways to reduce soaring health-care costs, its citizens face prospects of severe cuts in vital health benefits and the government appears incapable of dealing with the mounting level of U.S. debt.

That situation was poignantly and ironically underscored when Schroeder found himself unable to collect his basic, small Social Security benefit check while being hooked to all that expensive, new life-saving equipment. The president, happily, was able to solve that pensioner's benefit problem. But he has not been able to resolve the immensely more difficult -- and, for the country, infinitely graver -- problem of rising health-care costs.

Yet, for all this, the latest televised personal health drama has been touching and uplifting.

Schroeder has displayed the finest of human qualities in his ordeal -- humor, patience, courage -- and a brand of spunkiness and genuineness that is refreshing when so much else seems so phony.

I, for one, and I'm sure I was only one among many millions, felt a personal jolt when the news came Thursday night that he had suffered a stroke. Without realizing it, I had come to identify with him and his struggle.

It would be good to think he has been aware the entire country has been pulling for him. Without trying, he has provided us with an example of the worth of one individual. He has become a symbol of the fact that one person still matters.

I like to think George Orwell would have been the first to cheer.