I Blame George Orwell

Cover art from various editions of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four

The human mind sees patterns and projects forward. That’s the secret sauce of our survival. That’s how we’ve managed to adapt as the world has changed, and how we’ve changed our circumstances to perpetuate our species.

We focus our attention on things that are around us, look for patterns in them, and imagine a world that could possibly make those things exist. Then we conform ourselves and anything we can control to match the requirements of that reality.

Fiction is Reality

Fiction is an inextricable component of reality for human beings, and that’s part of the artistic challenge for writers. A novelist looks at the world the way it is, and then projects backwards or forwards, inwards or outwards, looking for ways that those patterns could create a new situation. They examine the way those systems seem to operate, and visualize where those systems could lead.
A friend of mine was recently re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel by George Orwell. In writing that novel, Orwell took a look around himself, and saw the patterns of a period of time in the mid twentieth century. Then he projected forward to a time when information could be subjective, and truth might be something that the power structures could dictate.

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of eternal reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”

It’s human nature to look at that and think about what’s happening right now in our world. Our minds draw connections between the constructed truths in world of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the way political surrogates get on the air today and take any question, reframe it around the point that they want to make, and then make statements so outlandishly unsupported by external facts that you don’t even know how to argue with them.

Imagining is Creating

You can say that it’s amazing how prescient the writing was. But it’s not that Orwell looked at the present of his time and accurately predicted the future that were now living in. Orwell saw patterns, wrote down what he imagined they could lead to, and in the process crystallized one vision of the future into something that we can recognize now through pattern-matching as the world we’re living in.
Do you see the distinction? It’s not about whether or not Orwell was able to predict the future. The human mind has the amazing ability to envision any number of possible outcomes, and even juggle multiple mutually exclusive possibilities in parallel.

What Orwell did was focus in on one of those possible outcomes and memorialize it as a novel. Then he distributed that novel broadly. And it resonated with all of us, highlighting shared fears, tickling familiar neural pathways, and forming permanent convolutions in our collective consciousness.

As a result, Orwell’s one static vision of a potential future that could come out of the patterns he saw around him became part of our shared reality, and it was so compelling, it touched us all so deeply, that we had no choice but to adapt. And in the process of adapting, we constructed a world in which the history we’re living through now was not just possible, but inevitable.

Hearing is Believing

It’s not about media enabling a post-truth society. It’s about all of us imagining it, recognizing it, and adapting to it. The human mind conforms reality to suit our expectations.

When we hear an idea, we automatically visualize a world in which that idea is reality, and construct a path from where we are now to where that idea takes us. It doesn’t matter what that idea is or where it comes from.

We don’t have to enable this faculty of the human mind in order for it to be there. It is built into all of us. And what we imagine becomes reality because we are powerful enough believers to see how it could be, and make it so.
Human beings are creative by our very nature. We will take an idea that strikes a chord in us and transform it into reality, no matter how sublime, how horrific, or how absurd.

Look at smartphones.

Look at Kim Kardashian.

Look at Hiroshima.

Blaming is Forgiving

So am I blaming Orwell? Only indirectly. The chilling picture that he painted of a dystopian future became so embedded in our culture that was inevitable that the institutions and processes that he predicted would realize themselves to the extent that we could see them reflected around us.

Someone was going to recognize that pattern. In this case it just happened to be Orwell. He pointed out the path toward this new reality. But we are all complicit in manifesting it.

Speculative fiction is not prophetic simply because the world eventually reflects the reality that it envisions. We all project parallels from the ideas we learn onto the world we see. Speculative fiction just captures our imaginations and channels them to create reality.

We all read Nineteen Eighty-Four. We all learned lessons from it. Some of us learned the lesson that this is something that needs to be avoided at all costs. Some of us learned that this is how we make that happen.

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