Just shortly after the novel 1984 by George Orwell was released, the New York Times reviewed it and dubbed a “great work”, but stated that its greatness was something that was “only immediate” and will not hold true in terms of the future. As a book reviewer myself, this criticism completely boggles my mind. It is evident when reading the novel today that its powerful message is still very relatable and significant, especially when it comes to communication technology.
One of the strongest and most palpable themes throughout the entire novel is the use of communication technology for surveillance purposes. This is first established when the telescreen in Winston’s apartment is discussed in the very first chapter of the novel. The telescreen is described as an “instrument” that “could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely” (Orwell 2). More detail is then given stating that “[a]ny sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard” (Orwell 3). Thus, the reader is immediately introduced to the idea of surveillance, something that they can relate to, however not on a level as severe as what is seen in this novel.
Throughout the novel it is mentioned that when Winston believes that he might be doing something against the Party, such as writing in his journal, he puts his back to the telescreen or goes to the one place in his apartment where he knows he will not be seen (Orwell 3-9). The use of surveillance in 1984 is used for reasons much like today – to scare people into behaving the correct way. Whether it is the creepy slogan that threatens the citizens of Oceania that Big Brother is watching them, or it is the incessant and mysterious use of the telescreen, the residents are constantly made to feel like they are being observed and therefore feel the pressure to always act in the way that the Party expects them to.
Just as the citizens of Oceania are constantly being watched, we might feel as though we are in the same situation as we have surveillance cameras in nearly every store, parking garage, street, and public area that we encounter. The reason is essentially the same, for if we know that we are being watched, we are less likely to do something compromising, such as commit a crime.
While the novel 1984 was written more than 60 years ago, I truly believe that Orwell not only created a “great work”, but he created something that will only grow more prevalent as time passes. It is truly a shame that some, such as the New York Times reviewer, failed to see the ubiquitous features present in 1984 and the fact that it will remain contemporary as long as we have communication technology.