A posthumous letter to George Orwell

Dear Mr. Orwell,

I regret to inform you that your work on 1984 was a waste of time. Please understand, I regard it as a great book. It is well written; a good story; has believable, endearing characters; has a gripping plot. It has all the hallmarks of a true classic. I loved it when I first read it, and I still love it today. I bet even some of the kids who tried to skate by on the Cliff Notes ended up reading the whole thing. (It’s not that long, after all.) Just speaking for myself, if I had to have just one shelf of books, I’d make sure 1984 was on it.

But you didn’t do a very good job. Nobody gets it. The whole point has been lost on everybody.

The other day I was talking to a professional colleague of mine. (We’re in what they call “IT” today, which stands for Information Technology.) He was clearly excited—I mean, he was bona fide thrilled—about a new company his brother had started. This company was making a lot of money installing surveillance cameras all over the streets of Chicago. He went on and on about how wonderful this was. “Pretty soon,” he breathlessly told me, “you won’t be able to go anywhere in Chicago without being videotaped.” He had a big smile on his face—a real one, not the ironic kind that accompanies disappointment. I waited for him to make some kind of sarcastic smirk, or maybe to say something to show that he wasbeing sarcastic. But no smirk came. He was seriously happy about this.

So I said, “Big Brother is watching you!” I was hoping to see some glimpse of pullback; some indication that he realized the absurdity of what he was saying, once I pointed it out to him. But I didn’t really hope this. I just wished it.

“EXACTLY!” he shot back, excitedly. His smile got even bigger and his eyes got wide-eyed-toddler-big. This man, this knowledge worker of the 21st century, this torch-bearer for all that is educated and savvy and smart about our modern world, this ambassador for our bright future, was holding out his blissful ignorance as if it were the brightest star in the sky. He was clueless to the simplest lessons of the recent past. He was oblivious, and oblivious to his obliviousness.

And in that moment, I realized that he was not alone. His brother and their colleagues and the officers of government and all the market forces and systems swirling around them were all in on it. All of them, together, were quite content to have no idea what 1984 had to say to us, whether then or now.

The reason I have written to you, Mr. Orwell, is probably obvious to you by now. That little exchange wasn’t an isolated case. Mr. Big-Brother-Loves-You keeps showing up, Mr. Orwell. I’ve had that conversation at least ten times over the last few years. I’m supremely confident that if you were still alive, you’d be having it too—perhaps prompting you to write another novel (2084?).

People have actually fallen in love with Big Brother, Mr. Orwell. They want him to watch over them. They want him to think for them. They want to surrender their minds and their lives. They think Big Brother will take care of them and make them safe, if they will just let him watch everything they do all the time everywhere and not let them screw up.

I’m sorry to bring such bad news, Mr. Orwell, but I felt you would want to know. I’m sure you thought that writing 1984 would have an effect—you know, that wise people would get your point and act on it.

I bet you thought no society that had 1984 in its high school curricula would be so foolish as to allow government to spy on its own people with impunity.

I bet you thought that people would be too smart to trade their humanity for security.

I bet you thought people would never actually believe that freedom is slavery.

I bet you thought the sarcasm of the term “Big Brother is Watching You” would be clear to those who give power to those who make decisions.

I bet you thought that, after writing 1984, personal freedom would be pretty safe, at least in societies where the book wasn’t banned.

I bet you thought no one would ever actually believe them when they started to say, “We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing.”

I bet you imagined that the absurdity of the world you wrote about would be so obvious—so painfully obvious—that none of the terrors you imagined would ever actually come to pass.

I bet you thought that your story would stay safely in the realm of fiction. I bet you thought that the message was so clear and compelling, it would never come true.

 I know I did.