1984: History of technology

A nicely-written blog, “I Had an Idea This Morning,” had a piece by Anne from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, New York in the past week about just how far off the mark was George Orwell’s novel 1984 in its portrayal of the use of information devices, “1984 vs. the Blog: Orwell’s Big Blooper.” Instead of the government having a monopoly on the publication of news to be used to suppress the people, the people have fractured such distribution especially with the use of the internet. I find especially thought-provoking the last two paragraphs of Anne’s piece:

Looking back, it almost seems like the totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union were the fruit of a never-to-be-repeated phase in the evolution of communications technology. For a brief, horrific period, governments had total control over powerful tools—television and radio—that they could use to communicate with their citizens. The internet, by design, makes such centralized control impossible.

But does that make us safe from groups of super evil mean crazy people? It’s been widely observed that new technologies—from gunpowder to nuclear fusion—have historically been harnessed to serve malevolent ends. Why should communications technology be any different? While mass communication technology helped enable the rise of totalitarian regimes that laid down the law, the internet is pretty good at empowering destructive entities that work outside the law—terrorists, for one. Just as the new technology has given us a billion little blogs and news sites and tv channels and video streams, it’s also giving us thousands of new, super organized hate-based groups to worry about.

The actual year 1984 is a generation gone, and we don’t see exactly the evils that Orwell wrote about.

These are good topics for lesson plans. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) promulgated by the Texas Education Agency require that students be familiar with the effects of technology on history, virtually every year that history, economics, or geography is studied. For example:

TEKS 19 TAC Chapter 113. Subchapter B (Grade 6)

(20) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the relationships among science and technology and political, economic, and social issues and events. The student is expected to:

(A) give examples of scientific discoveries and technological innovations, including the roles of scientists and inventors, that have transcended the boundaries of societies and have shaped the world;

(B) explain how resources, belief systems, economic factors, and political decisions have affected the use of technology from place to place, culture to culture, and society to society; and

(C) make predictions about future social, economic, and environmental consequences that may result from future scientific discoveries and technological innovations.

There are similar requirements for Grade 8:

(20) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of scientific discoveries and technological innovations on the political, economic, and social development of Texas. The student is expected to:

(A) compare types and uses of technology, past and present;

(B) identify Texas leaders in science and technology such as Roy Bedichek, Walter Cunningham, Michael DeBakey, and C.M. “Dad” Joiner;

(C) analyze the effects of scientific discoveries and technological innovations, such as barbed wire, the windmill, and oil, gas, and aerospace industries, on the developments of Texas;

(D) evaluate the effects of scientific discoveries and technological innovations on the use of resources such as fossil fuels, water, and land;

(E) analyze how scientific discoveries and technological innovations have resulted in an interdependence among Texas, the United States, and the world; and

(F) make predictions about economic, social, and environmental consequences that may result from future scientific discoveries and technological innovations.


(28) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of science and technology on the economic development of the United States. The student is expected to:

(A) explain the effects of technological and scientific innovations such as the steamboat, the cotton gin, and the Bessemer steel process;

(B) analyze the impact of transportation systems on the growth, development, and urbanization of the United States;

(C) analyze how technological innovations changed the way goods were manufactured and marketed, nationally and internationally; and

(D) explain how technological innovations led to rapid industrialization.

(29) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of scientific discoveries and technological innovations on daily life in the United States. The student is expected to:

(A) compare the effects of scientific discoveries and technological innovations that have influenced daily life in different periods in U.S. history;

(B) describe how scientific ideas influenced technological developments during different periods in U.S. history; and

(C) identify examples of how industrialization changed life in the United States.

Teaching the Cold War is always easier if students are familiar with 1984, but that is not always what we see in Texas 11th graders (who study U.S. history from 1877 to today). They know about computers and the internet, however, and when presented as information technology that can either be used to enslave or to emancipate, discussion about computers and freedom gets an immediacy that leads to even deeper discussion and, in my experience, greater learning for the students.

I would like to be able to use 1984 in the class, but time simply does not allow it. Excerpts are provided by at least one history text publisher, and students can understand how information technologies like radio, television, telephones and the internet, make freedom more likely. Starting with the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a month after the peace treaty between Britain and the U.S. had been signed, through the use of railroads and telegraph during the Civil War, through the Spanish-American War and World War I, and especially the use of radio and radar in World War II, through television coverage of the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, through the use of media at the Prague Spring in 1968 and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in China, to the collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolving of the Berlin Wall, students can see how information technologies changed and how those changes affected the conduct of diplomacy and war, as well as effects on everyday life.

Other technologies were unanticipated by Orwell, too, and a short discussion on those areas can be very rewarding. For example, the great writer Isaac Asimov wrote a series about Orwell’s “predictions” and how well they worked, back in 1980. Asimov noted certain troubles of the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith. Winston could not get good, sharp razor blades consistently, and Big Brother’s manufacturing arm was unable to provide a solid supply of shoelaces. Asimov noted that modern society had found other ways around those problems: Electric razors and slip-on shoes. Even in the little ways, predicting trouble for the future is difficult to do with any accuracy.

Anne’s reflections show other trouble, however. Orwell also did not predict the oil crises of the 1970s, nor the rise of importance of the Middle East in world politics. And especially, neither Orwell nor most modern defense planners clearly foresaw the rise of non-state-sponsored terrorism that uses technology, like airplanes and the internet, to wage guerrilla war on non-military people.

My small Idaho hometown did not have television just over 50 years ago, and didn’t get more than one channel until late in the 1950s. All television looks near-miraculous, to me. I was staffing the Senate when then Rep. Al Gore made his case to save ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet, when it faced the budget axe. While arguing for saving the thing, the current proliferation of internet use for commercial and political purposes was wholly unforeseen, and this blogging stuff strikes me as yet one more near-miraculous tool.

5 Responses to 1984: History of technology

  1. […] Seven years ago I discussed 1984 in relation to the Texas TEKS for social studies – which have been changed since then, but not enough to make the book irrelevant to classroom use […]


  2. RobW says:

    Well, given the working title was 1948, the work is rather clearly more a Lucian satire than a prognostication; as such, pointing out its failed “predictions” is a tad pointless. Even so, the book still resonates in the modern age for its depiction of official propaganda; if the phrase “We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia” hasn’t occurred to you at some time in the last few decades, you haven’t been paying attention. And, as the unpublished preface to Animal Farm demonstrates, Orwell was under no illusions that control of information required a totalitarian state.


  3. edarrell says:

    Huxley was closer, but still off. I think perhaps we put too much stock in the liberating army concept, the idea that a force from outside a nation can provide its salvation. Freedom is something best developed from within a people, and perhaps impossible to impose from outside.

    But, yes, Huxley was much closer in some regards.


  4. Mark Olson says:

    Orwell wasn’t on the mark with 1984, but Huxley hit some in Brave New World, perhaps.


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