George Orwell. 1984. New York: Plume,  2003. 323 pages.
In the kind of horrifying coincidence that surely would have prompted one of his more acerbic essays, the news that various U.S. government surveillance agencies have been gathering data from millions of citizens’ phones, email accounts, and web searches broke during the week of the 64th publication anniversary of George Orwell’s 1984. As the news reports poured in, and as sales of 1984 surged by an astonishing 6,884 percent, a friend asked me whether the PRISM story strikes me as more Orwellian or more Kafkaesque.
My response? We’d better hope it’s Kafkaesque.
No one wants to inhabit a Franz Kafka novel. But the surveillance states he describes do have one thing going for them—incompetence. In Kafka’s stories, important forms get lost, permits are unattainable, and bureaucrats fail to do their jobs. Like the main character in Kafka’s unfinished story, “The Castle,” if you were trapped in Kafka’s world you could live your whole life doing nothing but waiting for a permit. But at least you could live. Incompetence creates a little space.
What is terrifying about Orwell’s 1984 is the complete competence of the surveillance state. Winston Smith begins the novel by believing he is in an awful, but Kafkaesque world where there is still some slippage in the state’s absolute control, and still some room for private action. Winston says that Oceania’s world of telescreens and Thought Police means that there are “always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape.” But he follows that by saying, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” He also believes that while the diary he keeps will inevitably be discovered, the small alcove in his apartment where he writes his diary puts him “out of the range of the telescreen.”
The feeling that some tiny space for private thought and action can be found leads Winston into his relationship with Julia. Though they know they will inevitably be discovered, Winston and Julia believe that, for a time, their relationship and their meeting place will remain secret. They could not be more wrong.
One day after making love to Julia in their clandestine room, Winston, prompted by a singing thrush and a singing prole woman who is doing laundry, has a vision of a future that “belongs to the proles.”
In this very moment, just as Winston comes alive to what feels like hope and possibility and the dream of some kind of a future for humankind, the telescreen that has been hidden in the room all along speaks to Winston and Julia. The Thought Police break down the door. The couple is taken off to be imprisoned, tortured, and broken.
There has never been any private space for Winston or Julia—not in their “secret” meeting places, not in their sexual rebellion, not even in the few cubic centimeters inside their skulls. “
F or seven years the Thought Police had watched him like a beetle under a magnifying glass. There was no physical act, no word spoken aloud, that they had not noticed, no train of thought that they had not been able to infer.” Winston should have taken more seriously the description of Oceania he read in the forbidden book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by Emmanuel Goldstein:
The Orwellian surveillance state is terrifying not because—as in Kafka—you might be arrested because of a rumor or a mistake, or because despite your innocence you might be caught in the surveillance state’s unnavigable maze. It is terrifying because it never makes mistakes. It does not need to listen to rumors. And it knows that no one is ever innocent.
Sarah Skwire is a fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.