Surveillance State, Real and Imagined: Reading George Orwell's 1984

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

George Orwell's chilling novel 1984 imagines a totalitarian surveillance state. Last year sales of the book soared after Edward Snowden revealed the United States' large-scale program to collect phone data of millions of American citizens. George Packer, New Yorker staff writer and author of the National Book Award-winning book The Unwinding, will be here August 19 to discuss 1984. Pick up a copy and see if you find parallels between Orwell's dystopian future and our current reality.

Leave your comments and questions below to get the conversation started!


George Packer

Comments [36]

rz from uptown

late to the show - but if any one wants to know...

1984 isn't the year "1984" is supposed to be set in - it is the year that the protagonist, Winston Smith, believes it is. History is controlled, and the date itself is an instrument of this control. Orwell elucidates this notion when Winston first writes in the diary, and wonders what to write in for the date.

As a work of Scientific Fiction, this point is important, since the story could be set in 2114 or in any other time in the future.

Aug. 20 2014 06:27 PM

That's right, jgarbuz, and it's a good thing no other employer did the same, no employer ever cuffed their workers to their tables, exposed them to hazardous materials or worked them like dogs 12 hours a day 7 days a week. Because there was no regulation at all. We had to create and enforce LAWS to curb those abuses. Just as it took the General Slocum disaster to expose the steamship industry's anschluss of a government agency (up-to-date life vests were just soo expensive), the Triangle disaster exposed the true and widespread working conditions of the country's "future millionaires."

But that's ok--all was just peachy-kean in your politically charged, reality-denying, past-effacing fantasy world.

Talk about Orwellian.

Aug. 19 2014 07:23 PM
jgarbuz from Queens


The Left has changed NOTHING except laws. But remember this, "Times Change but People Don't."


The owners of the factory were concerned,and not unduly, about theft by the workers which was why a crucial exit was closed. That was obviously WRONG and cost 123 innocent lives, and clearly safety regulations are necessary, but the left wing unionizers made a BIG ISSUE over it. I'm for reasonable regulations, but it in many cases have become ridiculous and counterproductive.

Aug. 19 2014 01:50 PM
Bob Joyce from UWS

Ed says Isis is more barbaric than Ingsoc. I believe he needs to read the section of '84 subbed "Testament of Goldstein." If we're talk'g the size of the crimes, my contention is that the countries closest to AlQuaeda were Saudi Arabia + Pakistan + who most deserves a mental version of Nuremburg? As far as rewrites of history, what has been the last'g impact of the Tribunal on this crowded battlefield under the Nuke Shield? That's why my other post discussed the economic/industrial complex. Big Brother had nothing on Teddy Roosevelt.

Aug. 19 2014 01:39 PM

You're right on "newspeak," jgarbuz--let's call the 123 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire what they really were: "future millionaires!"

Aug. 19 2014 01:32 PM


You are absolutely right - there were no atrocities committed before Marx, there were no hunger, child prostitution, mass murder, etc.

You task for now is to find the person who named Ebola, so that we can get rid the world of this menace.

Aug. 19 2014 01:26 PM
jgarbuz from Queens


Marx "discovered" nothing. He was a lazy, worthless bum who never worked a day in his life and was supported by Engels whose father was an evil capitalist textile factory owner.
And thanks to Marx we got Lenin and Stalin and tens of million murdered in class war, which inevitably led to Mussolini and Hitler and millions more murdered in race war. The Left is just fine with class war but hates race war, as if one type of mass murder is more acceptable than another.

Aug. 19 2014 01:12 PM
Ed from Larchmont

It seems that the government in 1984 is closer to the Nazis or the Communists than to ISIS: ISIS has the power of religious conviction (although completely misguided), which the others didn't have to the full extent. The Nazis and Communists wanted to control and live, ISIS people want to die.

Aug. 19 2014 01:07 PM
Scott Lerman from NY

Listening to your discussion made me think about the current fight for the soul of Cooper Union. As one of the few players in the Gilded Age that truly cared about the success of working NY, Peter Cooper founded his The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art to be "free as air and water." Today, a its board, made up mostly of of real estate speculators and bankers, is arguing to the NY State Supreme Court that Cooper never meant for the school to be free! They are literally trying to rewrite the meaning of the Trust that formed the school. One Trustee even argues that he does no business in NY, despite being a Board member of a NYC-based college...

Aug. 19 2014 01:06 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Once they blow up a bomb in an American city we will go in with both feet.

Aug. 19 2014 01:03 PM
Ed from Larchmont

One thing ISIS has is right - there are many virgins in heaven. But after that they have it wrong. Our president is convinced that Christians, etc., are imperialists, so don't deserve protection. But England is starting to act.

Aug. 19 2014 01:02 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The only difference I can see between ISIS and Big Brother - ISIS just executed a few hundred people - beheaded - in a village that tried to escape from them. The only difference I can see is that the members of ISIS seem all involved, - ISIS is more brutal.

Aug. 19 2014 01:00 PM
Barb from NYC

1984 is NOT depressing. It's just a cautionary tale. Unfortunately one that's coming true. We must safeguard our democracy, or we'll lose it.

Aug. 19 2014 12:59 PM


I am afraid you become senile.

Discovering a phenomenon and giving it name is not the same as inventing or creating it.

Aug. 19 2014 12:57 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I'm not sure if/how "1984" depicts the equivalent of "the 1%"--certainly *someone* is benefitting from the system, but it all seems to be about the gov't. & its control.

Aug. 19 2014 12:54 PM
panopticon from Washington Heights

Please discuss the relevance of Michel foucault and particularly his interpretation of political power and the idea of the panopticon and self -surveillance . Foucault s book, "discipline and punish, the birth of the prison" is equally just as powerful as Orwell s masterpiece and needs due discussion .

Aug. 19 2014 12:51 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Karl Marx INVENTED "newspeak." Workers became "oppressed wage slaves." Highly successful businessmen became "robber barons." So we can say Bezos and Gates and Zuckerburg and the rest of the relatively new computer industry are "robber barons" too. Class warfare-speak was not created by the Right but the mendacious, status-quo overturning Left, for whom fathers have become evil, child-abusing patriarchs. The LEFT created Newspeak and Orwell knew it very well. He was really explaining the Soviet Union.

Aug. 19 2014 12:50 PM
Jim B. from Queens

Check out the "Words" episode of RadioLab for an introduction to how lack of words can change cognition.

Aug. 19 2014 12:49 PM
gene from nyc

Packer is way off about the Apple ad extolling technology per se.

The "Big Brother" figure chanting to the drones was specifically meant to refer to the technological domination of IBM.

Apple allowed for individual choice. You dind't have to be a drone to be able to use it.

Based on his "insight" into this--I don't have much faith in any of his others.

Aug. 19 2014 12:47 PM
Ed from Larchmont

I always thought a nice touch was that the man who turns the hero in is Irish - the Irish are fiercely independent, and even they have been forced and coopted into the system.

Aug. 19 2014 12:47 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I read 1984 in 8th grade, which was longer ago than I care to admit, but I still remember it as being pretty spooky. The idea that the government is literally watching people, even in their bedrooms, and that there is no one one can trust is quite unnerving.

As it is, I am a geek and I suspect part of the caution I take in my online activities - as far as limiting it and NOT using social media - is due in part to the influence of that book, subconscious though it may be. This is when we start easing into perpetual paranoia and covering our webcams with duct tape.

It is only because we are still human and there are places we can go for privacy that there is any hope for the world at all. As Ford Prefect says in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, the only way to fight against computers is to count, because it keeps us human. Big Brother is faceless, nameless, inhuman, and can take over in the most insidious ways if we are not on our guard, and George Orwell's version is as haunting, if not more so, than anything Stephen King can concoct.

Aug. 19 2014 12:46 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Today "Big Brother" is the liberal left wing press that so distorts reality that neither Stalin, Hitler nor Orwell could have imagined. For example I lived in Beersheba and worked outside Sderot when thousands of Gazans came to work in Israel every day and there was no blockades, and even my ex father in law used to bring his car to be maintained in Gaza a few times a year with no problems. The liberal press will never tell you anything like that. The liberal press is more evil than anything the great tyrants could conceive of.
Even the term "Robber Barons" was a left wing invention of the early Marxist scribblers of the 1890s. Anyone who had become rich must have robbed his wealth from someone else, mainly the "poor oppressed working class."

Aug. 19 2014 12:45 PM
Anne F. from South Orange NJ

Thanks so much for a great discussion of Orwell.

Another face of Big Brother: Lord Kitchener, whose face was on the "Your Country Needs YOU!" recruiting posters of WWI. That, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda of all time, would have seemed particularly cruel to men of Orwell's generation: the way that a nation, a general, in England, used a stern face and a tone of command to encourage men to sign up to be slaughtered in the trenches.

That is to say, echoing what George Packer is saying here, that Orwell may have been as concerned about domestic abuses of power as about Stalin.

Aug. 19 2014 12:45 PM
Amy from Manhattan

And Orwell predicted something like "Big Brother in our computers & phones," w/his idea that your TV would watch you.

Aug. 19 2014 12:44 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Yes, the Stasi was Big Brother...*your* big (& little) brother (& sister, parent, child, etc.).

Aug. 19 2014 12:41 PM

"1984" is is not as much about the surveillance state, but mind control. At the end, the objective of the state was for everyone to love the Big Brother.

There is plenty of this in this country, like, for example, political correctness. Compare "war is peace" with its endless "war against terror" and "Islam is a religion of peace".

Aug. 19 2014 12:40 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Why are kids still reading this junk? I read it in 1958 back in the eighth grade along with "Brave New World" and immediately realized even than that "1984" represented the past, whereas "Brave New World" spoke about the future. What does "1984" tell us that we didn't already know from Stalin's gulags and Hitler's death camps? By contrast, "Brave New World" speaks about Soma (a legal drug) and babies being produced in hatcheries and developed into different classes of intelligence and capabilities for different levels of work, and where marriage, natural pregnancy and the family are barbaric practices and relics from the past relegated to a handful of savages at the periphery. Basically, Brave New World prophesied what is coming.

Aug. 19 2014 12:39 PM

I'm 14 yrs old and I recently read 1984 by George Orwell. At first all I thought was that it was confusing and boring but as I got deeper into into the book I really got into the love affair of Julia and Winston (though I never trusted her) and I never expected O' Briens betrayal.Though I doubt I actually found the true message of this novel what I think the meaning is to be very cautious about how much control the government has over our society. Even though 1984 is decades behind us it is an ever present reminder that we must never let the government gain that much control over our lives. Anyways I loved this book and I look forward to the show.


Aug. 18 2014 09:31 PM
Bob Joyce from UWS

Some of the most popular wargaming presently being done on the Mideast concerns how to keep fighting (think: Gaza every year) w/out victory. Vietnam + Afghanistan have no significant oil + we're gone. Everybody, in this diminished age, saves military expenditure for economic targets ( the Ukraine, except Crimea , has more built assets than Russia ). Central Europeans will tell you the STASI + KGB wired less selectively w/ less focus. Except maybe Crimea when their clones visit. The EU snoops mail + polices taxes (Like GCHQ clones). Gil Scott Herron knew that the Nixon IRS ended the most creative lives.
Now all the way to the US weed belt we're doing the kind of occupation operations I , as U.S.A. airmobile, trained Post-S.E.A. + PRE-S.E. Hemisphere.
Only 3 generations under the Nuclear Shield "+ I feel fine".

Aug. 18 2014 03:18 PM

FREE COPY OF BOOK - When I heard you mention the program Leonard, I knew had to speak out. I went to the blog and saw my novel noted by a fan already. (that is a great joy to a new author) I decided right then and there to give a copy free to all of your listeners. They should use the coupon code:
at Smashwords. It is almost impossible to do this on Amazon where they force you to make money on it, no giveaways there unless you are exclusively marketed through them. You can announce this on the air if you like.

Aug. 16 2014 06:43 AM
JessieHenshaw from Way Uptown

I'm a physicist who has long been fascinated by both the coherence and seeming accuracy of Orwell's scenario as a prediction for our future. Whether he studied it as a the apparently very natural outcome for a world economy driven to global crisis by attempted infinite growth on a finite earth or not, seems almost beside the point.

His story seems enough like what we are now actively experiencing to say that both seem directly related to the underlying natural phenomenon of attempting to extract ever faster growing wealth from naturally shrinking assets. That basic scenario also seems to underly the collapse of all prior complex wealth driven human societies too, like Rome or the Biblical civilization represented as Babel, the Mayans and many others that left histories of creating enormous explosions of wealth followed by societal collapse at the center.

People in the cases of ancient times, like us, appear to have clung to their idea of what produced their success, until it caused their failure. That's the "working explanation" that seems to fit them all. Our present idea of a "steady economy", for example, remains as it always has been as long as we've talked of the state of the economy, as "steadily doubling" its "returns on investment". That goes naturally with steadily doubling demands on the earth and its people too. One can go into lots of detail about how the escalating inequities of such a system naturally develop, but the simple answer is that a system for imposing ever increasing demands on the fragile ecologies of nature and people is bound to eliminate the conditions for its own existence.

So our problem, like the people of Orwell's 1984, is our inability to object to what is clearly a problem. It's very hard to object to the entire thrust of one's own society, encapsulated in its very words and rewards of success. The system itself robs us of the words for how to object to it, giving us no way to complain but in doublespeak.

I've written a great deal on the subject in small bits, and how to escape. Nature's more lasting economic systems also begin that same way, with explosions of organization for using wealth to multiply wealth, consuming the world around them ever faster. The longer lasting ones generally lack our "advanced cognitive ability" to culturally freeze our minds on a culture of the past. So the others often smoothly transition from using profits to build more and more profit, to instead use profits to care for what they built. That's what establishing an *actually* stable economy would involve.

Aug. 14 2014 02:20 PM
Geraldine from Bayside, NY

A recently published e-novel, "Technis Dei: The Digital Prophecy", by TC Davis Jr, brings the theme of George Orwell's 1984 into our 21st Century.
This novel eloquently draws the parrallels into 2014.

Aug. 14 2014 01:52 PM
Peter Talbot from Harrison NJ

I find it interesting that Mr. Blair wrote this on Jura in stone cottage without electricity and now the only way we can read a "new" copy is to subscribe to a reading service (Kindle, Nook, etc.) that records our purchase, what else we looked at before we did and how long it took us to read it. No helicopter gunships needed any more. The Winston of today is even more vulnerable to newspeak, doublethink and all the wiles and ways of the Ministry of Love.

Aug. 13 2014 09:53 PM
Michael from Brooklyn, aka gods country

I read the book in HS but before that I had seen the original movie version with Edmond O'Brien (which I just found out is on youtube). Last year my daughter (then 13) expressed interest and I was able to find an out of copyright Australian edition in PDF format to load on her Nook to bring to camp.Shortly afterward she spied an old dog eared paperback edition (the same one I read in HS)left out for the picking on someones front steps. There are copies of various editions to be found in various places, so please forget about Amazon. Bezos et al are further indicators of a 1984 type realm, just as the "computer for the rest of us" advertised in the infamous commercial that aired just once in 1984 is not really a tool of an alternative or counter culture fighting against a totalitarian system as portrayed in said commercial. We are not all that far from what Orwell envisioned sixty five years ago. He just underestimated how far the technology would come in such a short time.

Aug. 12 2014 02:27 PM
Karen from Bloomfield, NJ

I recently listened to 1984 as an audiobook, after having read it in high school about 40 years ago. Although I found some of the lengthy descriptions tiresome (for example the rules of newspeak), for the most part it was as compelling to me as the first time. I was impressed that Orwell didn't pull any punches; the horrific machinery of the plot is allowed to come to its logical and chilling conclusion. No happy endings here.
As far as comparisons to our society today, while we all joke about Big Brother watching us, it doesn't seem so funny when you read the book. Of course Orwell took it all to the nth degree, and we are nowhere near the totalitarian regime he describes - at least not yet!
Beyond the political aspects, I found certain passages of 1984 very moving, as when Winston recalls his early years before being separated from his mother and sister. His sense of isolation as one of the few humans alive who is willing or able to remember how it was "before" is also touching. Finally, the doomed relationship between Winston and Julia, culminating in their mutual betrayal, is sad and haunting. Not a book that's easily forgotten.

Aug. 12 2014 01:12 PM
Susan from Erewhon, New Jersey

Hardcopy 1984 is not easily purchased. Amazon carries 1969 editions, used and "new," but recent reprints are not available. When I went to England to do research recently, I found a "new" paperback at skoob/books , behind waitrose and near the Russell Street Station. The bookstore is a gem and at least dates back to Betrand Russell's day: a photograph shows him steppring out from the store with a book in hand. My ancient copy is covered in dust and its paper brittle and brown with age. Though my research is not about Orwell, buying his book was on a list of to dos when I reached London.

Being an avid reader of Orwell, I wondered why I could not get a recent edition of 1984 from Amazon. The company sells practically everything, but only kindle 1984s. Yes, Animal Farm is available, and other publications, such as his early novels, but not a bound book that one dare not speak its name. I wonder if our government intervened silently, once "orwellian" was selected to describe surveillance now and the kind of anxiety and life that accompanies a society where the "brain" knows all about you, unless you only write your texts on paper.
Of course such a question and supposition places one on the raft of the paranoid; surely, one might reply that publishers would rush copies into print and make money on such renewed interest. But just as the NYTimes held back Risen's story, why would publishers and distributors here not respond as the editor and publisher of the newspaper did, with the fear-real or not-that the diffusion of Orwell's 1984 vision might encourage questioning the nature of our nation.
If fewer people read the entire book, all the better. Keep the lid on tight.
Much more to say, but the main point is how available is the text of 1984, and who reads it?

Aug. 11 2014 09:34 PM

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