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Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1 ­ Summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Chapter 2 - The telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-Four

Chapter 3 - From telectroscope to telescreen

Chapter 4 - Using the telescreen in 1984

Chapter 5 - Using the telescreen in 2003 and beyond

Chapter 6 - Conclusions

References

Literature

Appendix

Extra

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George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (fulltext)

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Big Brother is watching you (and you're watching back)

Orwell's telescreen from Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2003

Jeroen Steeman
Essay for TV as a New Medium, Faculty of Arts, Utrecht University
July 4th 2003


Introduction

Big Brother is watching you. This phrase about surveillance has become more real in the last twenty years. Techniques improved and prices dropped enabling more organizations and institutions to watch over us. Eric Blair, better known by his pseudonym of George Orwell, already wrote this phrase in 1949. On June 25th 2003 is as has been a hundred years past Eric Blair's birthday.
Eric Blair was already at an early age attracted to writing, he published his first poem in 1914 at the age of 11. During the rest of his life Blair worked at different jobs, from India to Paris, in the mean time writing and publishing essays and articles.
Blair was a convinced socialist and strongly anti every form of totalitarian regimes. During the Spanish civil war he fought with the POUM, a Trotskyites party in 1937. As the communists turned against the Trotskyites Blair could escape Spain and return to England. Back in England Blair wrote his two most read books; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The phrase I started this chapter with originates from this novel.
Nineteen Eighty-Four describes London and the world in 1984 subjected to a totalitarian regime and trials of an individual to revolt against this regime. As well in propaganda and surveillance the telescreen, a television-like apparatus, aids the regime in keeping control over its inhabitants. In this essay I want to closely study the use of this telescreen in this novel and discuss the accuracy of Orwell's forecast. I will do this by comparing the situation in Nineteen Eighty-Four with the situation in the real world in 1949, 1984 and 2003. Throughout this essay the word Nineteen Eighty-Four will refer to the situation in the novel, 1984 will refer to the situation of the real world in that year.
In the first chapter of this essay I will give a short summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The second chapter will sum up the different uses of the telescreen in the novel. The next chapters will discuss the actual presence of these technologies already at time of writing in 1949, at time of the prediction, i.e. in 1984 and at the present time in 2003.
In my final chapter I will try to make a conclusion about Orwell's prediction about the telescreen in 1949, and its presence in 1984 and 2003.

Chapter 1 ­ Summary of Nineteen Eighty-Four

This chapter will give a short summary of the plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four in order to refresh your mind or to get a brief insight of the story.

Part I
The story takes place in 1984, thirty-five years in the future from the time it has been written. Winston Smith lives in London, Oceania. The country of Oceania is a totalitarian state and is controlled by the Party and its leader Big Brother. As a member of the Outer Party Winston works at Minitrue, the Ministry of Truth. There Winston rectifies old newspapers that became incorrect because of the disappearance of certain persons or because a target in a Three-Year Plan wasn't reached.
Winston and other members of the Party are watched constantly by means of a telescreen. The telescreen also functions as a television; it transmits sound and moving images. A telescreen however cannot be turned off, it can only be dimmed.
Winston hates Big Brother and his system of absolutism, but there's not much he can do about it. Winston gives it a start by buying a diary and he starts writing down his thoughts, which could cost him his live if discovered.

Part II
In the second part of the book Winston falls in love with Julia, a girl that also works at the Minitrue. He saw her first at the Two Minutes of Hate, a daily propaganda film everybody at the Ministry has to see. Winston rents a room in a 'proles' neighborhood where the two of them can talk freely about their objections against the totalitarian regime of Big Brother.
One day O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party and Winston's superior talks to Winston about a new edition of the Newspeak dictionary. Winston is sure O'Brien is a way to get to the secret Brotherhood, trying to overthrow Big Brother. As Winston and Julia visit O'Brien he indeed seems to be a member of the Brotherhood and he passes Winston and Julia a secret book in which the underlying thoughts of the totalitarian system are explained. The morning after reading the book Winston wakes up by a voice that seems to come out a wall at their rented room, they discover that there is a telescreen behind a painting and they have been under surveillance reading the illegal book. Winston and Julia are taken to cells in the Miniluv, the Ministry of Love.

Part III
The last part of the book tells about Winston's imprisonment in the Ministry of Love. It tells us about horrible situation in the cells, constantly being watched through telescreens. O'Brien appears to be a member of the Thoughtpolice and not a member of the Brotherhood. He tricked Winston in committing 'thoughtcrime', the crime of thinking of disliking Big Brother. Winston will be 'cured' by O'Brien in Room 101. His methods vary from torture to injections. At the end of the novel Winston sits in his favorite café watching the latest news from the front and completely loving Big Brother.

Chapter 2 - The telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-Four

What is a telescreen?
From this chapter on I'll focus on the use of the telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell gives us two descriptions on the telescreen in the first chapter of his novel, one tells about the receiving capacities of the device.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.[1]

To us the telescreen immediately refers to our notion of today's television, a device broadcasting sound and pictures. However Orwell's telescreen has more up his sleeve, it also functions as a surveillance device.

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, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.[2]

The telescreen was not present in every house, only members of the Party had a telescreen. Members of the Outer Party, like Winston can only dim their screen, members of the Inner Party, like O'Brien, have the possibility to turn their screens off, however they will be noticed if they leave it off for longer than around half an hour. The lower class or proles as they are called in the novel don't have a telescreen, simply because the Party doesn't have much to do with this part of the population.

Using the telescreen
Orwell lets the telescreen play an important role throughout the book. It tells us about the possibilities of the Party to 'inform' it's members To discuss the use of a 'telescreen' in later years, I first will have to make a short analysis of the use of the telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-Four itself. Therefore I searched the novel for the word 'telescreen', luckily there is an online version of the novel making searching more easy and accurate. I then described every use of the word 'telescreen' and divided its different ways of use in categories. The complete scheme of this practice can be found in the Appendix. The chart on the next page gives an overview of the different categories I found and how frequently they occur in the novel, some categories are again divided by use, because it could be also interesting to look at specific use of the telescreen with propaganda for instance.
Next to the two most important uses of the telescreen, surveillance and propaganda, we see that the screen is also used as a clock, for exercise purposes and even as a computer for office application.

Telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-Four

Category

Freq.

Use

Freq.

Surveillance

50

 

 

which consists of

 

Surveillance in prison

12

 

 

No surveillance areas

3

 

 

Surveillance of public sphere

1

 

 

Turning telescreen off

1

 

 

Hidden telescreen

1

Propaganda

30

 

 

which consists of

 

News

13

 

 

Music

9

 

 

Two Minutes of Hate

4

 

 

Hate Week

2

 

 

Forming a myth

1

 

 

Production of content

1

Entertainment

4

 

 

which consists of

 

Music

4

Clock

3

 

 

Exercise

2

 

 

which consists of

 

Morning gym

2

Office application

2

 

 

Hacking (?)

2

 

 

Commanding

2

 

 

Hacking the telescreen?
The novel describes an interesting use of the telescreen, in two the passages it seems as if the telescreen is 'hacked'. I think it's worth it to pay some more attention to those passages. As Winston sits in a café a peculiar song starts to play on the telescreens.

And then, for perhaps half a minute in all, something happened to the telescreens. The tune that they were playing changed, and the tone of the music changed too. There came into it - but it was something hard to describe. It was a peculiar, cracked, braying, jeering note: in his mind Winston called it a yellow note. And then a voice from the telescreen was singing:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree. [3]

All other music that comes out of the telescreens has a propagandistic undertone, this tune seems to refer to the end of the novel, when Winston is tortured and he betrays Julia. Winston later learned that Julia went through the same 'treatment'. As Winston is cured, he sits in a café playing chess.

'At the time when it happens,' she had said, 'you do mean it.' He had meant it. He had not merely said it, he had wished it. He had wished that she and not he should be delivered over to the-

Something changed in the music that trickled from the telescreen. A cracked and jeering note, a yellow note, came into it. And then - perhaps it was not happening, perhaps it was only a memory taking on the semblance of sound - a voice was singing:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me-

The tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle. [4]

The same song is playing, cracking and jeering, as an old record. That should be impossible because the Minitrue, the Ministry of Truth, eliminated all the old records from the old days before Big Brother ruled over Oceania . New music is produced by special machines, versificators at the Music Department to make sure it would not serve as a mean to commit a thoughtcrime, to dislike Big Brother.
Unfortunately there is no more evidence or information about these two incidents.

Chapter 3 - From telectroscope to telescreen

Robida
However television in its actual form exists only for a bit more than fifty years, the ideas of television are way over a hundred years old. In the early years of the ideas of television, at the end of the eighteenth century, television was seen as a means of personal communication, like a telephone with moving images. To fulfill this idea a camera should be combined with a television set. We see this 'in use' in drawings in Albert Robida's La Vie Électrique [5]. An other cartoon shows an image of a man in a bar, while his wife is watching him through a hidden camera and television. This image of a television that is able of watching back stayed for some time in the public's collective memory.

Film history
Films have always been a place of futuristic thoughts. After the invention of television, but before its introduction to the general public, television played major roles in Hollywood movies, mainly negative roles. Richard Koszarski analyzed pre-war motion pictures on their use of the television. He describes the 1936 movie Modern Times starring Charlie Chaplin, in which Charlie is tracked down, harassed and put back to work by a television.
Modern Times offers perhaps the most unnerving vision of television as 'all seeing eye', a high-tech mixture of telescope and crystal ball combining equal elements of surveillance and voyeurism. [6]
He lists more movies in which television is used as an extremely useful tool for villains, next to the death ray weapons and metal robot arm.

Television as education
Beside the telescreen's use for surveillance, it's also used for propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is not remarkable if we take a quick look at television in its early days and Orwell's own encounters with propaganda. Interesting is Rudolf Arnheim in his article A Forecast of Television , written in 1935. Arnheim concludes that television a very well suited as a documentary medium. It can educate people and show them about places they will never be able to visit.

But like the transportation machines, which were a gift of the last century, television changes our attitude to reality: it makes us know the world better and in particular give us feeling for the multiplicity of what happens simultaneously is different places. [7]

But Arnheim also warns for negative consequences of television: If it doesn't give its viewers enough to think about, it will put their minds to sleep. But television also offers viewers the opportunity of solitude. In concert halls and theaters a viewer is one of the people in the masses, while at home a viewer is not able in interacting with what he is viewing. He can only accept it.

Orwell at the beeb
The ideas of education through media were not new before Arnheim in 1935. In 1923 John Reith, Managing Director of the BBC wrote that radio should not be used for entertainment purpose alone, but that radio had an educating role and could make the nation as one man. [8]
Orwell himself had experience with educating the people by broadcasting before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Between 1941 and 1943 Orwell worked as a Talks Producer on the Eastern Service of BBC Radio, broadcasting at Britain 's colonies in the East. Because of a real threat that Japan would invade India the BBC tried to persuaded the intellectual Indians to support Britain in the war. In August 1941 Orwell attended a two-week crash course of the BBC on war propaganda. [9]
Orwell however regretted that he had to tell lies to his public. In 1942 he wrote in his diary:

You can go on and on telling lies, and the most palpable lies at that, and even if they are not actually believed, there is no strong revulsion. We are all drowning in filth... I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgement have simply disappeared form the face of the earth... Is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in hands of paranoiacs. [10]

Lots of aspects of Orwell's time at the BBC went straight into Nineteen Eighty-Four. Room 101 was the room where the Eastern Service held there committee meeting became the room in which Winston was tortured and 'cured'. The cafeteria with its horrible food became the cafeteria in the Minitrue. In the mean time Orwell's wife, Eileen worked in the Censorship Department, her work had to be influencing Orwell as well.

The BBC closed its near experimental television service at the start of the war because they feared of intervening with defense signals. In 1946 the BBC re-opened television services and broadcasted special events as the Olympics of 1948 and it started in the same year with its own newsreel. [11]

Chapter 4 - Using the telescreen in 1984

So did Orwell predict television's future right? On first hand we would say he didn't. But maybe we can find some interesting points if we look closer.

Tv in Russia
It is often said that Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning against the threat of communism and I can understand that's the way people understand it. But actually Orwell wrote the novel as a warning against all totalitarian states, from Hitler and Mussolini in the Second World War, to Stalin in Russia, but even in Britain or the United States it could happen that its people would loose control over their government. It is not a coincidence that Orwell let Winston live in London, Airstrip One, part of Oceania which covers all the United States, South Africa, Australia and Britain.
However we can conclude that in 1984 Britain and the US are democratic governed, except some people that believe in some conspiracy theories. Accordingly they offer commercial television or a public broadcasting system independent from the government. Russia however is still a totalitarian state at that time. Accordingly its television department, or State Committee for TV and Radio was a top-level federal cabinet responsibility. The actual broadcasting equipment was operated and maintained by the Ministry of Communications, or Minsvyazi. This Ministry was responsible for all TV and radio transmitters in the country, and for the microwave lines used to distribute television programs from their source to the transmitters. Then the Ministry of Defense was involved because they controlled the satellites that were used to transmit images to more distant places. [12] On the covers of the magazine Radio the Russian government tries to show how 'eager' the Russians were tuning in on their state controlled stations, as this example from 1981 above shows. Unless their hard work, as can be seen on other covers of Radio, Russians didn't succeed in making a television to look back at you while you're watching television.

Ceefax
Television became slight more interactive with the introduction of Ceefax in 1971.[13] Together with each station an extra signal is sent, this signal contains extra textual information that can be viewed on a television set. By pressing the numbers of the page on the remote the corresponding page pops up on the screen. This use of the television is very different from its other use. To get information a user has to actively search for the right page on Ceefax, as where a regular viewer can sit back and receive his information passively. But Ceefax doesn't transmit any information, for instant how often the sport pages are called, back to the BBC. Ceefax makes the television a bit more interactive, but there's no sign of surveillance through television.

MTV
Orwell described in Nineteen Eighty-Four the use of the telescreen for music in cafés and in homes as a form of entertainment. This bares close resemblance to MTV, the music channel that started in 1980. It broadcasted music videos all day, entertaining its viewers with the latest music, just as some music in the cafés entertained its visitors.

Chapter 5 - Using the telescreen in 2003 and beyond

While reading Nineteen Eighty-Four it was hard for me to remember that is novel is not playing in the future anymore for us. It's a story about a history that never happened in the way it has been written. But maybe the ideas of the telescreen are getting closer to reality in 2003. I'll discuss some interesting aspects of today's and tomorrow's television to see how close - or far away we are from the telescreen.

Digital television
Digital television gives the viewer a whole range of possibilities. He can be interactive with game shows, he can buy 'on-line' if he sees anything nice on Sex and the City. These features are all possible because digital TV is capable of sending more information at a time to the viewer. The interaction is also possible because instead of one way broadcasting, digital TV can send signals back to the cable company or broadcasting company.
An example that this interaction is not desirable in all cases shows TiVo. TiVo is a kind of super VCR, it can record an enormous amount of television on its hard disk. Next to that it offers a smart program guide. With hundreds of television channels it's impossible to zap through all them or to make a list of shows you want to see. TiVo can do the job for you, it remembers your preferences and gives you a list of your favorite programs as you turn it on. At first sight this is a great future, but TiVo admits that its apparatus sends information about his viewers preferences back to the 'mothership'.

TiVo admits that it's been gathering information from its 154,000 subscribers and will continue to do so. The company says it plans to sell the data on viewing habits to TV networks and advertisers eager for details on the popularity of shows and the preferences of viewers. [14]

So TiVo enables some Big Brother to watch your viewing behaviors. These Big Brothers investing in TiVo are likely to be the big entertainment companies as AOLTimeWarner and Sony, listed in TiVo's FAQ as initial investors. [15]

Back to the movies
We already discussed the willingness of Hollywood to produce movies about the future in the chapter about the telescreen 1949. More recent movies can teach us about the future of surveillance as we see them from nowadays.
In Minority Report John Anderton is wrongly accused of a murder. He has to escape to proof his innocence. In the world of 2054 it is however impossible not to be found because all irises are registered in a database. Every time somebody walks by a billboard he is recognized and the billboard displays an advertisement especially for the person that walks by. This information is combined with the crime database. The only possible solution is getting new eyes, and thus 'changing identities'. This image seems to take part in a far away future, but personal recognition is only a couple of years away if we have to believe the Information Awareness Office.

Two Minutes of Hate: Iraq
The recent war in Iraq and the events preceding can help us with taking a look at propaganda nowadays and its use on television. The United States invaded Iraq on March 20th 2003, but president Bush started in January of that year with his propaganda tactics to get his own people and the rest of the world behind his plans to 'liberate' Iraq. Almost every day the US government came up with new speeches, which condemned Saddam Hussein and his regime. Bush made several accusations that Iraq had or was producing weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam had connections with Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network. A temporary climax was reached at February 5 th when Collin Powell presented hard evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This presentation was broadcasted live across the whole world to see the proof of Iraq 's forbidden weapons.
Not satisfied with Iraq's information on their weapons the US and its allies invaded Iraq on March 20th to 'liberate' its people and to find and destructs Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, supported by a majority of the American people. As of today Iraq 's weapons of mass destruction haven't been found, neither has Saddam Hussein.

Chapter 6 - Conclusions

In this essay I tried to follow the use of the telescreen from the past to the present and even the future. The main question of this essay was if Orwell did a right prediction of the use of television in his future.

Hourglass model
We can see that the development of television is shaped in the form of an hourglass. Before the 1950s there were lots of different ideas of television, ranging from sending drawn pictures to talking over a telephone with moving pictures and to spying on your husband in the café. After the 1950's when television is introduced to the general public, it's mainly used like radio where one transmitter broadcasts to its viewers across the country.
Only in recent years we can see that the possibilities of television are widening thanks to digital television, a problem that comes with digital television however is the fact that two-way traffic makes it possible to transmit private information to some Big Brother.

Consumer vs. Citizen
A big difference we can conclude from this essay is that Orwell thought about the telescreen as a way to reach citizens and to keep them informed of the great results of the Party and Big Brother and to teach them that they are a citizen of the great Oceania.
Television nowadays is in the hands of commercial interests. They see the viewer mainly as a consumer. They want to sell commercials to other companies, and more viewers let them make more money on them. A system as TiVo helps the companies with information about interests of their viewers, being able to target directly at one costumer.

Was he right? Was he wrong?
I think it is hard to just say if Orwell was right with his prediction or wrong. Television in 1984 was not much like the use of the telescreens in Nineteen Eighty-Four, except for the use of music to entertain viewers. But if we look just a bit further to today, we can see that there are gaining possibilities for surveillance of what we're watching through digital television. We can also see that television is still a powerful media when a leader wants his country to back him on a war.
Fortunately we are far away from a totalitarian state as George Orwell describes it in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. But in a meanwhile we have to pay more attention to the way television is changing in the future to prevent the telescreen from Nineteen Eighty-Four to happen.

References

  1. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
  2. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
  3. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
  4. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
  5. Robida, La Vie Électrique (1892)
  6. Koszarski, Coming next week: Images of television in pre-war motion pictures (1998)
  7. Arnheim, A Forecast of Television (1935)
  8. Branston, Histories of British Television (1998)
  9. Meyers, Orwell (2000)
  10. Meyers, Orwell (2000)
  11. BBC, History of the BBC - 1940s, http://www.bbc.co.uk/thenandnow/history/1940sn3.shtml
  12. Internews, A Survey of Russian Television, http://www.internews.ru/report/tv/tv31.html
  13. BBC, History of the BBC - 1970s, http://www.bbc.co.uk/thenandnow/history/1970sn3.shtml
  14. Godoy, TiVo Raises Privacy Fears, 2001, http://www.techtv.com/news/security/story/0,24195,3318701,00.html
  15. TiVo, IR FAQs, http://www.tivo.com/5.6.2.asp

Images

  1. Cover of the Russian magazine Radio, 1954, http://propaganda.unas.cz/54-12-1.jpg, last visited on July 4th 2003
  2. Image from Robida, La Vie Électrique
  3. Poster of Modern Times, 1936
  4. Cover of the Russian magazine Radio, 1981, http://propaganda.unas.cz/81-10-1.jpg, last visited on July 4th 2003
  5. Poster of Minority Report, 2002

Literature

Arnheim, Rudolf, A Forecast of Television, Intercine, 1935, in: Film as Art, University of California Press, Berkely, 1957

BBC, History of the BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/thenandnow/history, last visited on July 4th 2003

Branston, Gill, Histories of British Television, 1998, in: Geraghty and D. Lusted, C., The Television Studies Book, Arnold, London, 1998

Godoy, Maria, TiVo Raises Privacy Fears, TechTV News, 2001, http://www.techtv.com/news/security/story/0,24195,3318701,00.html, last visited on July 4th 2003

Internews, A Survey of Russian Television, http://www.internews.ru/report/tv/tv31.html, last visited on July 4th 2003

Koszarski, Coming next week: Images of television in pre-war motion pictures, 1998, in: Film History, Volume 10

Meyers, Jeffrey, Orwell, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Secker & Warburg, London , 1949
An online version of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be found at http://orwell.ru/library/novels/1984/

Robida, Albert, La Vie Électrique, 1892

TiVo, IR FAQs, http://www.tivo.com/5.6.2.asp, last visited on July 4th 2003

Appendix

Recurrence of the word 'telescreen' in Nineteen Eighty-Four and its use. [The original document contains a elaboration of the use of the telescreen in Nineteen Eighty-Four. This table can be found in the PDF-document.]

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