Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Worst of All Possible Worlds

I recall the moment I first realized the future we’d been warned about was here. “Free long distance,” said the ad in reassuring, fashionably thin sans-serif type, “just $19.95/mo.”

Now, I'll admit I'm not the world’s most plugged-in person. Words change meaning sometimes, and I fail to notice, as the mongers of consumerism and our government distort them in an effort to direct how people think. But as far as I'm aware, free, in both its senses—liberty and gratis—still means what it always has. Free long distance for a price? That’s like saying, “Free beer Wednesday nights for $7.95 a pitcher.” Free means free, pay means pay. One excludes the other. Both cannot be true.

Not, that is, outside of doublethink.

Doublethink, in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is defined as: “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them...” In the novel, doublethink is propagated through the use of Newspeak, a castrated form of English utterly devoid of nuance, like the soundbites heard on CNN. Its function is control, and its architects the Party. Quite unlike Zen koans (“the sound of one hand clapping”) and the gentle paradoxes of Lao Tzu (“the greatest fullness seems empty”), doublethink is not a tool for apprehending the eternal “real” beyond a scrim of words. Its goal is to induce an unmoored, schizophrenic state wherein reality becomes whatever those in power say it is.

In Western culture, doublethink is part and parcel of contemporary life. And it’s bad. Very, very bad. As bad as Orwell warned us it would be. When Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in '49, doublethink was in its infancy, a child of Stalin’s Soviet regime and Josef Goebbels' mastery of propaganda. It was just a trend, but Orwell spotted it, got scared, and used his powers as a novelist to show us what would happen if it carried on unchallenged.

Yet here we are, despite his warning, drenched in doublethink:

  • the former President of a country that styles itself the shining beacon of democracy rigging the elections—twice
  • perfect, controlled demolitions being set off by jet planes crashing into the World Trade Center
  • “greed” being equated with “good”
  • democracy being imposed by force
  • freedom being abrogated in the name of liberty

But it’s not these textbook proofs that 1984 is here and now that frighten me the most. Their blatancy, like all Big Lies, ensures that dissidents and other saintly malcontents will tend the fires of truth. No, what terrifies me is a slogan no one took exception to: “Free long distance, $19.95/mo.”

Doublethink is so pervasive we’ve grown used to it, so much so that, plastered on a billboard, there for everyone to deconstruct, no one even noticed.

* * *

Nineteen Eighty-Four is, of course, best known for the catch phrase: Big Brother is watching you. Perpetual surveillance is but one prong of the strategy employed by Orwell’s Party to control the “proles,” but it’s the bit that stuck, the theme that everybody knows. And, you’d think, would live in terror of.

Yet here we are, the most surveilled society in all of human history.

The twentieth century was a hotbed of cautionary tales, from the post-apocalyptic visions of Walter Miller (A Canticle for Leibowitz) and Neville Shute (On the Beach), to Suzette Haden Elgin’s feminist-themed Native Tongue (from which Margaret Atwood appears to have, shall we say, borrowed a few ideas for the Handmaid’s Tale) to Frank Herbert’s tinkering-with-biology-themed The White Plague (which—shall we be charitable again?—prefigured Atwood’s Oryx and Crake), to William Gibson’s dark, corporatist futures—to name a few.

Three, however, stand above the rest and have emerged as classics: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

Each has entered popular imagination via Cole’s Notes-like synposes: Nineteen Eighty-Four is “about” Big Brother; Brave New World is “about” test-tube babies; Fahrenheit 451 is “about” burning books.

More accurate descriptions would run thus: Orwell’s novel is about a state that limits people freedoms by depriving them of discourse; Huxley’s is about control through drugs, consumerism and state-sanctioned hedonism; Bradbury’s most famous novel (other, I suppose, than Dandelion Wine) concerns itself with the anaesthetizing influence of entertainment media.

However, what disturbs me more than seeing complex novels shrivelled into two-word husks is how specifics of the novels' three dystopias have been embraced instead of shunned.

Take, for example, Huxley’s “scent organ,” a concert instrument that, instead of playing sound, wafts odours through the audience. Huxley meant the instrument to represent the lengths to which a society benumbed by drugs and sated by consumerism would go in search of novel stimulation. Imagine my frisson of horror when, a few years back, Glade (or was it AirWick?) marketed a plug-in that, according to the ads, would play a symphony of scents to freshen up your living room.

My first thought was: Is this some sort of sick, postmodern joke? My second was: Brave New World—it’s here. I don’t know why I was surprised. Test-tube babies were already nothing new; consumerism had become the sole means millions had to validate their lives; Valium and Prozac were, for all intents and purposes, Huxley’s state-provided soma.

But just like “free you have to pay for,” one small ad—banal, unnoticed—clued me in: we’re living in not one but two of the dark futures we had more than ample warning to avoid. Bad enough we let the powers that be surveil us with cameras and track our every movement on the Internet, bad enough our language is approaching Newspeak and our thoughts are paralysed by doublethink, bad enough we serve the Party (these days known as “the Economy”), we’ve gone and grafted Huxley onto Orwell’s airless hell.

Andrew, my first lover (mentioned elsewhere in this blog) liked to say that science fiction authors should be shot. His admittedly light-hearted thesis was that cautionary tales bring about the futures they decry; some bozo somewhere always thinks, “What a great idea,” and the warnings get converted into blueprints.

Nowhere is this easier to see than in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s great fear was not the censoring of books, but rather television’s impact on the act of reading, which, for him, symbolizes thinking and imagination. When his book came out in '53, commercial network programming was scarcely five years old, yet Bradbury’s astounding genius extrapolated wall-sized flat-screens, multi-headed displays, rooms devoted to home theatre systems, reality TV and interactive broadcasts. In itself, pretty cool stuff. But Bradbury could also see how television’s vivid, forged realities might lead to losing our imaginative faculties, and posited a world so media-benumbed its citizens had lost the power to think—a vacuum easily exploited by its government.

Sound familiar? Kinda makes you wonder: did someone, reading Fahrenheit 451, say, “Cool! Let’s make the future look like that?”

* * *

Our headlong rush toward the very futures we were warned about is hardly news. Writers with more skill than me have written on it better. These are the meanderings of somebody who doesn’t understand how we, as individuals, are capable of so much good, while as a race we’re so impossibly retarded.