“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?”
— Syme in George Orwell’s “1984”
Most of you read, or pretended to read, 1984 in High School. It was probably your first brush with dystopian literature. Dystopia, for the purposes of this piece: a vision of the future, or of some alternate version of the present that has been degraded from what is ideal.
Let’s get something straight: we cannot be in a dystopia, because dystopia exists only in contrast to something else. It’s what you get when you say “imagine how bad things would be if they were like this!” The dystopian future is merely the decayed version of what now is.
Still, this hasn’t stopped like 90% of my Twitter feed from talking about how we’re living in some sort of post-cataclysm dystopia every time Trump tweets. So let’s take the above passage from 1984 as something of a microcosm of the world that the novel creates, and see if it can help me in my plot to take over the actual world we’re living in today.
The Destruction of Wor(l)ds
Crucial to the plot of 1984 is the construction of a language instituted by the all-powerful Big Brother. Syme’s position: homogenize language into something the novel calls Newspeak. In Newspeak, shades of meaning are to be entirely eliminated, along with connotations, inferences, assumptions, meaningless babble, and verbosity. Why say “bad” or “horrid” when “ungood” and “plusungood” works just as well? Simplification of communication is the aim, so it is said.
We read passages like the one above in a dystopian novel and become slightly unnerved, because it seems so cold, so sterile. We are to be appalled at the notion. The very existence of a book — a collection of words that develop thoughts — serves to refute this idea and construct in the mind of the reader an instinct against an establishment that would condone it. We have no problem sympathizing with Winston, who becomes increasingly disgusted and harassed by the system described.
Perhaps because of novels like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, we could never have a society like ones they describe. We’ve been warned against them and taught to recognize the signs of oppression like that which inhabits their worlds. We tend to want to defend Winston’s desire to continue using Oldspeak because of what it enables: free thought. After all, the language we speak is the language we think in; if there no longer exists words for certain thoughts, be they unpatriotic or subversive or hateful, there can also no longer exist the corresponding thoughts and feelings.
Look at some foreign examples of words:
In Dutch, the word “uitwaaien” is used to mean “walking in windy weather for fun.”
In German, “waldeinsamkeit” describes the feeling of being alone in the woods.
In Japanese, “kachou fuugetsu” transliterated means “flower, bird, wind, moon,” but means, more aptly, “experiencing the beauties of nature, and in doing so learning about yourself.”
These are succinct words, but descriptive beyond their brevity. Feel the lightheartedness of uitwaaien and the swelling in your chest as you’re exhilarated by a strong gust of wind. Weigh the existential loneliness of waldeinsamkeit: the Wordsworthian, Romantic aloneness. Think of the process of kachou fuugetsu and the implications of learning about yourself from experiencing the things surrounding you.
We do not have words for these things. We have descriptive phrases, but the power of having something to call them is absent in English. In that way, our minds are fundamentally different — restricted, even — compared to those languages’ speakers. You may never have even thought about any of those feelings before, but perhaps you would have if you’d had the words for it. Dutch and German and Japanese people have, and they treasured them enough to give them a name.
There are two ways of looking at this; one is positive, the other, negative:
1) Depth and range of feeling may be limited by language, but still it is there to be discovered. New emotions, discoveries, and realizations about yourself and the world around you are there to be experienced so long as we find ways to describe them. Perhaps the reason that writers write and the reason that word-lovers love words are the same: because discovering these things about how they are, how they think, and how they feel are cathartic to them.
Human understanding and soul-communication, in this first context, is limited only by the extent of our observation and our persistence at finding ways to describe it.
2) Taking away the means of expression and removing the methods we’d use to describe the indescribable will eliminate those thoughts, those feelings, those experiences from our minds. Perhaps you’d never notice what happens in your nose after a storm until you hear of petrichor: the smell of earth after the rain (and no, Dr. Who did not invent this word). You may never appreciate the infinitesimal windows of opportunity in your day until you hear of ichigo-ichie: the practice of treasuring each moment and trying to make it perfect.
Destroying words, in theory, destroys opposition. It eliminates dissent and shallows the pool of thought. It could, if executed with the ingenuity of a society like that of 1984, successfully herd its speakers like cows in a cattle run.
Communication as Division
It’s not a point I am prepared to develop yet, but there is a good deal of language-shifting going on around us. The “LET’S CALL TRUMP SUPPORTERS WHAT THEY ARE: NAZIS” posts on my Facebook and the “OH, THEY’RE FAKE NEWS ANYWAY” coming from the President of the United States’ Twitter certainly have their smacks of Orwellianism. Indeed, the boiling-down of complex ideologies into a single word may be a form of Newspeak. But I don’t think that a full-fledged assault on language by an all-oppressive force can be legitimately argued.
Frankly, any society reaching the depths of 1984’s dystopia would collapse quite immediately. The economy and feasibility of that level of totalitarian government wouldn’t be allowed to stand. It’s too stark, too oppressive, too cold, too dramatic to be real.
Or is it?
Back to the point I began with: If I were to try to corral an entire nation like sheep to fit my whims, how would I do it?
I certainly wouldn’t use the thought police. Thought police is too obviously and overtly oppressive, especially in whatever vision of the future we live in right now.
I wouldn’t be able to shovel something the people deemed unnecessary or oppressive on anyone; it’d have to be a thing that the people wanted. That means that it’d have to be sneaky. Subliminal, even. The longest of all long cons.
To start, I wouldn’t begin by taking means of communication away; I’d instead give it. In fact, I’d give every single person a voice and an equal chance to make that voice heard. After connecting people to each other in as many ways as possible, I’d give the them media to capitalize on their newfound freedom of expression and encourage the outward communication, rather than the inward act, of thought.
I would then give something else: ever-present access to news media (which would all be owned by a handful of people). I’d bombard them with it from both newscasters and their news feeds. I’d ensure that this news is given in plain speech and with an emphasis on the lowest common denominator of the thing being reported. When complex stories are whittled to a headline, it will set up the third part of the plan.
Only after I’d given would I begin removing: the gray areas. Doling out the ability to instantly broadcast every human’s thoughts for free, encouraging them to do so, and almost constantly feeding them information in headlines and snippets short enough to be, say, Tweeted, would force each person to choose a side. It’d set the people against each other, but not so against each other that they take action and do something about it; they’d simply start talking about it louder and with bigger characters.
Supporting a specific person’s policy would be supporting every policy. Understanding a side’s justification would imply alignment with every argument of that side. The Last Jedi can’t be “alright”; it either has to be a steaming pile of dog mess or God’s gift to cinema. Trump can’t be a mixed bag; he has to be a pure fascist or the literal right hand of the Almighty.
Innovation as control
With the thirst for efficiency and innovation established, the control can begin.
Historically, the simplest way to get allegiance is to give people what they want. If it comes through force, that is a dictatorship; if it comes through patriotism, that is a democracy (or something like it).
I’d start with the children.
What do children want? They don’t want efficiency, they don’t want ideology; they want play. They wanted balls and sticks once upon a time, then they wanted jump-ropes, then they wanted television, then they wanted Xbox.
As a developing brain gets conditioned to each successive leap forward, it requires something new in order to caulk the emptiness once filled by the innovation-gone-stale. I remember the first time I saw a Nintendo 64, I was convinced that nothing in the future or in the past could’ve ever compared to the realism of the playing experience offered by Goldeneye 007. Some years later, I saw the Playstation 2 and realized just how archaic that old N64 was. Then I saw the Xbox. Then I saw the Xbox 360. Every improvement blew the previous out of the water and promised a richer, more fulfilling playing experience.
Black and White “I Love Lucy” became astronauts in color on the moon. Primitive color televisions became bigger, more diversely colored screens. Which gave rise to High Definition. Which produced 3D. Which gave us Avatar. But I digress.
In 1990, the New York Times published an article on addiction to television, and it scared people. It started a conversation about this booming phenomenon. Parents got worried, and kids got hooked. So entertainment companies had to innovate, again: a handheld Nintendo you could fit in a backpack. Then a color version. You get it.
Create the desire, implant the addiction, innovate the drug.
But very soon after I started with the children, I’d have to move on to adults. I’d need to offer them something beyond mere entertainment, because they have lives and jobs and families to provide for, right? So I’d give them things to make all of that easier. I’d make it so that the television wasn’t just the big bad wolf attempting to eat your child’s brain, I’d use it to give them ways to increase their child’s learning and brain capacity through educational programming. That way, they’re getting smarter, you’re getting more free time, and the quality of your life is improved.
I’d give them cars that have more features, telephones that didn’t require them being connected to their house, and devices on which they could store all of the things they once filled their pockets with. Suddenly, they are never disconnected from work, they are never disconnected from each other, and they are never disconnected from the World Wide Spiderweb.
I’d give them Computers that no longer filled entire houses, but a small corner in one room. Keyboards once reserved for putting words on paper became keyboards used to send messages instantly across the world. Innovate the keyboard, connect people through it.
And I’d integrate it for the children: when television programming ran its course, I’d put its benefits in their hands. Make them interact with it. I’d put on a screen so they can touch the things that were once fed to them by talking yellow birds and songs about friendship. I’d make it so overwhelmingly positive, so unquestioningly wholesome that it seemed necessary. Colorful learning applications on tablets they can hold in one hand. Effective devices for entertaining them when they felt particularly unruly to their busy parents.
Here’s the “why.”
A culture obsessed with innovation becomes hooked on the next big thing. It is, by nature, founded on discontent. What you have is not enough, but this next thing may be.
Keep them looking up and ahead and they don’t realize that the ground underneath them is actually a conveyor belt drifting them in the direction I designed for them to go.
I would then have all of my measures in place: dependence on products; a drive to communicate rather than to reason; and the obsessive chase after “next.” I’d even make individuality a commodity to be bought rather than an inward ideal to be pursued. Imagine the irony of a clothing or product line promising that the thing they sell would help you be yourself! (Which has totally… never… been… done)
These measures of control are just the bad guy that gets caught three-fourths of the way through the book; the twist that the protagonist has been dead the entire time is reserved for the last page.
Through each step of innovation, something from the previous step is shaved off. Unnecessary clunkiness, unreasonably slow performance, precious seconds’ worth of work.
My target would be, ultimately, focus.
It is more efficient to read books or news articles on an iPhone, for instance, but that has consequences that resonate deep. Screens literally change (click) the way (click) we read (click). Discounting entirely the fact that reading a book on an iPad can be replaced by the flinging of upset fowls in less than 5 seconds, the problem is that we lose the ability to trace a complex thought through several pages of words.
That’s all part of the plan, though. I am not attempting to destroy words, remember? I’m not trying to take things away, I’m trying to give them to you.
I will have given you the ability to share as many words as you like with as many people as you want, so long as they fit within the character limit. I let you get more news and get it more quickly than humans have ever had the capacity to, but I do it in sentence-length paragraphs. I present more catastrophic, globe-shaking, humanity-threatening events than you’ve ever seen, and in doing so raise conversations that are worth having. But you’ve already been conditioned to move on to the next bite-sized chunk of information by the time the thought can begin to develop (Remember Kony? Knowledge of government-sanctioned, nation-wide, unrestrained spying on regular people? ALS?).
Catastrophe is presented as commonplace, and we become conditioned to move on to the next one. To look for the next thing. To hit refresh to see somebody else’s dinner or to see how many more likes our picture has gotten in the last 2 minutes.
All of the sudden, the innovation and the collaboration, with all of their ups and downs, reach a head: The culture of innovation has made it so that we’re looking forward, the product of innovation has made it so that we can communicate instantaneously (read: without having taken the time to reasonably develop ideas), and the emphasis on creating a sustainable, global culture has caused us to hop on board whatever the next huge thing is or else you hate progress.
“If we can make people outraged about a serial kidnapper in Africa who has been out of commission for a decade, what else can we do?”
“If it can be outed that we are literally spying on our own citizens, but people forget about it after two weeks, what else can we do?”
“If we can get millions on millions of people to fill tubs with ice water and post videos of themselves dumping it on their heads, what else can we do?”
“If we can have the entire nation talking about the content of Executive Orders that they haven’t read, what else can we do?”
By taking the individual out of the equation and replacing him or her with their alignment in a false dichotomy, I’ve successfully created something spectacular: a hive of drones aligning in their places on either side of a stick I toss in their midst.
Just like that, I’d have a group of subjects primed to accept, or ignore, anything.
What would, say, our founding fathers decide about the above-described (purely hypothetical, of course) scenario? What would they think of a society that reads the most beautifully-penned, solidly-reasoned document advocating independence, free thought, and the acceptance of the fact that happiness may not be attainable, but can at least be pursued, merely as an intellectual exercise?
What would George Orwell see if he looked at the groupthink of trending topics on Twitter?
What would Parmenides, Socrates, and Mill say about a people more inclined to say “Yes!” and “Outrage!” than “Why?”
They’d say that the control is too ingrained to be reversed. That the mind has become enslaved by the manacles put on it by technology. That the thoughts of an entire generation are being reduced to robot-speak in order to fit in within the almost-too-long 140 characters. That children don’t need to read the book anymore, because the flashy, loud, derivative big-screen adaptation comes out next year.
Books don’t need to be burned or banned in order to not be read. Thoughts don’t need to be censored for content now that they’re edited for time. Words don’t need to be intentionally slashed from the dictionary to not be used.
We are instead enslaved by a lack of focus, medicated to bring it back, and marched forward by whoever it is that’s providing it, whether that end be dumping buckets of ice water on our heads or by stepping off of the cliff when we’re told, “jump.”
It’s okay to have a gut reaction to something, but be careful confusing gut reactions with gospel. It’s okay to hold dear to your ideology, but consider the end that ideology leads you to.
Question your gut. Examine your heroes. Reckon the direction in which your nation is moving and know that the ultimate display of patriotism is not blindly marching where it tells you to march, but attempt to improve it where you see it needs to be improved.
And for the love of all that is worth loving, treat the people around you not as summaries of belief systems, political stances, or Twitter feeds, but as humans. Be people, together.