Happy 110th birthday, George Orwell! (Nice job on the pen name, by the way. “Eric Blair” just doesn’t have the same ring to it). I know I’m a little late, but that just means the birthday celebrations can last longer, right? And everyone’s watching.
Dutch artists Front404 celebrated Orwell’s birthday (last Tuesday, June 25) by putting party hats on top of surveillance cameras in downtown Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth largest city.
The goal of Front404’s project is to remind us of Orwell’s continuing relevance: “By making these inconspicuous cameras that we ignore in our daily lives catch the eye again we also create awareness of how many cameras really watch us nowadays, and that the surveillance state described by Orwell is getting closer and closer to reality.”
It’s hard to overstate Orwell’s contributions to literature, philosophy, and culture in general. His ruminations about the human condition, and where it might eventually take us, are as insightful and prophetic as any other thinker or writer that comes to mind. Remember reading 1984? Whether it was voluntary or for English class in high school, I’ve never met anyone, student, teacher, or otherwise, for whom that book isn’t memorable.
It introduced the phrase and concept of “Big Brother” into popular culture. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, believes Orwell got the idea from Bennett’s correspondence courses offered in World War II. Ads for the courses featured Mr. Bennett himself urging students, “Let me be your father.” When Bennett’s son inherited the company, he put himself in the ads, this time imploring, “Let me be your big brother.” Other scholars think Orwell’s Big Brother was inspired by Lord Kitchener and WWI British military recruitment tactics; others simply think Big Brother symbolizes Stalin. Let’s give Orwell the benefit of the doubt and say they’re all right.
While I’m a huge fan of Aldous Huxley, and I agree with Neil Postman that the vision of the future Huxley depicts in Brave New World is probably closer to today’s reality than the vision Orwell depicts in 1984(check out a cartoon version of Postman’s argument here), recent developments illuminate Orwell’s prescience once again.
From beyond the grave, Orwell’s thinking, “I told you so.” Luckily, he’s identified some red flags to watch out for: if the government forms a Ministry of Truth or a Ministry of Love, we’re in trouble. But if the EU’s response to the spying scandal is any indication, Two Minutes Hate might come first.
But hey, at least it’ll all be recorded by spiffy cameras that know how to party!