by Phil Harvey
Light Reading, 25 June 2003
The great writer George Orwell was born 100 years ago today, and, like just about every other living writer, I can't let the day pass without acknowledging his contribution – and his prescience.
[Ed. note: His birth name was, of course, Eric Blair; and thank God he changed it. "Blairian" doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?]
Not only was Orwell a skilled journalist, but he was unmatched in his ability to observe social and political conditions and extrapolate uncanny visions of the future.
In 1984, for instance, Orwell created the "telescreen," a universal information portal that couldn't be shut off and was used by the Thought Police to spy on (and broadcast to) the people of fictional Oceania. Hell's bells! We've got'em in taxicabs now.
There's also Orwell's famous vision of the government bent on disinformation. Now, not a day goes by without the words "Big Brother" being tossed around in the media as a facile descriptor of everything from an oppressive company or the reality TV craze to nearly every White House press release since Bush took office. His coinage of the term "Doublethink" – "the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them" – has also cropped up often in these dangerous days.
But other, less well known Orwellian writings also pointed the way to the future. Though he was rarely 100 percent on the mark, they provide some fleeting (and fascinating) Nostradamus-like glimpses of today's reality.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell predicted that future families would hardly do any manual labor because everyone would be "educated." In that same book, he gives a nod to central heating: "And there won't be a coal in the fire grate, only some kind of invisible heater." (He did not, contrary to popular legend, foresee the advent of magic fireplace logs.)
In his essay, "Thoughts on Radio and Telephonic Communications," Orwell mused that information "would best serve its intended recipients if it were made portable" – perhaps a pointer to hand-held data devices.
Later in that piece, he wrote that if only there were a way to "alert someone who is on the phone that another caller, perhaps a mistress, is imminently trying to phone them," then communications might be made more efficient (not to mention more intrusive).
Orwell's love of sport was widely known. Though he never set foot in America, his study of baseball's rules led him to wonder in his essay, "Throwing Crickets at Baseball," why "our colonial cousins" didn't "designate some manner of specialist batsman, who may play on the defensive team in place of pitchers, who are widely regarded as poor strikers of the ball." The use of designated batsmen for pitchers wouldn't become a practice in the American League until the 1970s.
Late in his life, Orwell used his newspaper column to propose that pro athletes should have "limits placed on their remuneration" (salary caps, anyone?). He also suggested that someday people would "value the work of pitchmen-sportsmen even more than stories of everyman characters who excel in sport." Interestingly, the $90 million sum that LeBron James will get from Nike is about equal to the all-time box office gross of the first "Karate Kid" movie, which debuted in 1984.
Internet pornography would also be a big player in Orwell's vision of the mechanically efficient, industrialized world. In his essay, "A Writer's Loneliness," he asked: "Why would a bourgeois man settle for a girl in his grasp when those visible on personal projected screens could fulfill his fantasy without the strains of a relationship or the sin of hiring a tart?" Our boy George was a bit of a loner.
Orwell wasn't always so dead-on. He also mused that a modern society's entertainment could devolve to the point where its "dramas" would comprise "those who willingly humiliate themselves and risk serious injury whilst doing so." What a laughable notion!
As if all of the above weren't uncanny enough, Orwell's final essay, "I Am Dying," cautioned that too much analysis of a writer's collected works, "might lead to an uncontrollable urge by any learned man to take the sum of his idol's ideals and subject them to barbaric satire – all for a cheap laugh from his proletariat readers, who should be working, not gazing at the author's navel."
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