George Orwell’s 1984 – A Dire Prediction for the Future of Mankind

By Garry Costain

The Price of Freedom Is Eternal Vigilance

No-one is sure who first uttered the aphorism about freedom’s price being eternal vigilance. It might have been Voltaire; it might have been Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine; it might have been John Philpot Curran. It matters very little who it was: it matters that the aphorism is true. Today, there is no threat to our freedom more insidious than the surveillant society.

In 1949 George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. The novel depicts a dystopian world of the near future: Nineteen Eighty-Four is compulsory reading for anyone concerned about the liberty of the individual.


Superficially, you can read the novel and sigh with relief that Orwell’s totalitarian vision has, on the whole, not materialised. The Berlin wall came down, the iron curtain went up, God’s in his heaven – All’s right with the world.

There is a great deal more to the novel, however. A number of disturbing themes run through it, including the prescient portrayal of the surveillant society. Big Brother represents a contradiction that can be seen as a triumph of the state’s psychological manipulation. On the one hand, he is to be feared because he knows everything and you can never escape him. On the other hand, why would you wish to escape this supreme source of protection?

Orwell describes a chilling image of what has been called “panoptic surveillance”: “The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover… he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.”

Big Brother Is Watching You

Panoptic surveillance derives from Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison called the Panopticon, a circular shaped prison with a central observation tower. In the Panopticon prisoners would never know when, or if, they were being watched. Referring to this the French writer and philosopher, Michel Foucault, said; “… in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

Orwell’s vision was chilling enough; however, when Foucault referred to Jeremy Bentham’s never realized prison design, to allow, amongst other things, the efficient inspection and maximum surveillance of inmates, he was using it as a metaphor for the more widespread surveillant society.

Far more chilling than mere surveillance is how surveillance leads to social control: far more insidious than mere social control is how panoptic surveillance leads to self-regulation. That today we live in a surveillant society is not something that is new. Governments have always wanted to keep people under surveillance because it is an effective means of social control.

All governments, not just totalitarian ones, have an interest in social control. The difference today is the increasingly sophisticated means that are available to governments to keep people under surveillance. And the most effective surveillance is that which forces you to modify your behaviour because you might, you just can’t be sure, you just might be being watched.

We live in a surveillant society where a similar psychological manipulation takes place to that depicted by Orwell in his novel. Governments have means to collect data about the lives of individuals: and you know that. Governments may misuse the data they collect: and you should remember that. Governments argue that data collection is necessary, and used only, for your safety: Do you believe that?

Remember: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

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