Long before American Edward Snowden informed people that their government was spying on the public via their electronic devices; Orwell thought of it first with the infamous telescreen.
Imagine a flat screen TV that's flushed against the wall and looked like an “oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror” (p. 2) and you have yourself your very own genuine telescreen. That's not so bad right? Until you realize that you could never turn it off. The only thing Winston is allowed to do is turn the brightness down and lower the volume and even then “the words were still distinguishable” (p. 2).
How many infomercials do you think it'll take someone before they start to crack? I know I can't stand an advertisement for longer than the five seconds that are spent staring at the skip button countdown.
Alongside the endless background noise mumbling, the telescreen is equipped with an alarm that wakes everyone up with an “ear-splitting whistle which continued on the same note for thirty seconds” (p. 31) at 0715 sharp. So you can't use the excuse of being late because you pressed the snooze button every six minutes for the next half hour.
For the health and well-being of society, Big Brother provides morning calisthenics through the telescreen for everyone to participate in without leaving the comfort of their home. Sounds like something we can all get behind here since we know physical exercise is one of the greatest things you could do for you health. Unfortunately for Winston, he can almost guarantee he'll have an asthma attack when he wakes up and it'll get to the point where “he could only begin breathing again by lying on his back and taking a series of deep gasps” (p. 31). In a sane society, it would be understood to give Winston a second to catch his breath before joining morning exercise and maybe he should sit this one out in case his lungs are doing worse than usual.
Thing is – Physical Jerks are mandatory and it was time for the 30-to-40 group to start lining up, so Winston better suck it up and get to morning workout.
But how could any authority hold people accountable? Anyone could just log into a video conference program like 'Zoom', for example, and pretend to be an active participant.
No need to worry because Big Brother already has it all figured out:
“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. There was no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.” (p. 3)
Winston is expected to be with the 30-to-40 group if he knows what's good for him. So he makes it in time after his coughing fit and maybe he should just take it nice and easy today instead.
Bad idea Winston, he gets called out “6079 Smith W! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You're not trying. Lower, please! That's better, comrade. Now stand at ease, the whole squad, and watch me.” (p. 36) and publicly shamed amongst his anonymous neighbors.
How have you reacted the last time you were in a similar situation? An annoyed glance here, an embarrassed flush there, an aggressive mumble, a witty excuse - everyone responds to this scenario in some way.
Everyone but the loyal citizens of Oceania, they know how to behave themselves. They've learned to “[n]ever show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away.” (p. 36) and Big Brother was always watching.
The 'Physical Jerks' instructor ended their morning exercise with a sprinkle of propaganda, “Anyone under forty-five is perfectly capable of touching his toes. We don't all have the privilege of fighting in the front line, but at least we can all keep fit. Remember our boys on the Malabar front! And the sailors in the Floating Fortresses! Just think what they have to put up with. Now try again. That's better, comrade, that's much better,” (p. 37) (speaking to Winston) who had, “with a violent lunge, succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent, for the first time in several years.” (p. 37).
Picture that scene or if you can't touch your toes either, picture yourself in Winston's shoes.
Let's take a second here and point out any problems, besides the obvious, with Big Brother's health approach. When's the last time you stretched and touched your toes? Maybe you used to have the ability until your musculoskeletal began stiffening as you got older and less active. That's alright, we know if we dedicate some time and effort to regular stretching, we know we can get back to that flexibility. The problem is, would you rather do it on your own time with your own pace or would you rather have someone intently direct you?
You can't force health on someone, it can only be self-enticed. We're only responsible for our own health and the health of our dependents. It's how we choose to live our lives. It's the reason why people choose to smoke or consume alcohol or enable their obesity. It's the reason why people choose to lift weights or do crossfit or kayak down the river. Those are some types of lifestyles we are all free to pursuit. The moment we defer that freedom away from our own personal decision making, we're in trouble. Society is filled with individuals and what might work for someone, may not be as beneficial for someone else. Everyone is different and we all have our own interpretation of what “health” is and how to live it.
The instructor dismisses morning exercise by mentioning the war and reminds us how intoxicated Oceania is with it. The telescreen is perhaps the most important piece of equipment that can be used to update and promote whatever Big Brother wanted. Even in today's society, we can see how screens have their users fixated on keeping up with the latest and greatest as events unfold. The telescreen even came with its very own notification, “[a] trump call, clear and beautiful, floated in the stagnant air” (p. 25)
Winston immediately braces us for bad news before the newsflash can begin. The telescreen informs us that the war may be “within measurable distance of its end” (p. 26) and describes “the annihilation of a Eurasian army, with stupendous figures of killed and prisoners” (p. 26). Of course, Winston was right when it was “announce[d] that, as from next week, the chocolate ration would be reduced from thirty grams to twenty” (p. 26). In spectacular nationalist fashion to end this sequence, “[t]he telescreen – perhaps to celebrate the victory, perhaps to drown the memory of the lost chocolate – crashed into “Oceania, 'tis for thee” (p. 26)...sweet land of liberty - just kidding.
To put it simply, citizens were given highly favorable news followed by a ration tightening and a reminder to support their country. This is an intentional tyrannical tip-toe by Big Brother to squeeze control onto its herd. Everything done by Big Brother has its own purpose in their grand scheme of oppression and this subtle expression of propaganda comes through an emotion harvest. Even major victories in an ever-lasting war are celebrated with restrictions. The updated rations are easily accepted alongside what appears to be Oceania's national anthem as if their suffering is for the war effort. Those soldiers on the front require ten more grams of chocolate for the final push in the closing of war!
Are there any instances in the new century alone where we can see governments seizing power for a 'greater good' and never restoring it at its end?
This power could neither be challenged or proven wrong since “[d]ay and night the telescreen bruised your ears with statistics proving the people today had more food, more clothes, better houses, better recreations – that they lived longer, worked shorter hours, were bigger, healthier, stronger, happier, more intelligent, better educated, than the people of fifty years ago” (p. 74). An endless barrage of statistics in favor of Big Brother with no one available to say otherwise as if the reality of situation is suppressed. Sound familiar?
It must be difficult enough to have to stand by and accept these lies told by the government without showing any sort of resentment or disgust, but to force yourself to express “quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen” (p. 5) must be internally wrenching. It brings forward images of obviously fearful North Koreans posing with their dictator in photographs.
Controlling one's facial features can be learned, especially with the encouragement of living under an oppressive regime. However, there is still one bodily function that isn't under our command. And it's not the lungs since those too can be controlled “but you could not control the beating of your heart, and the telescreen was quite delicate enough to pick it up” (p. 79).
Big Brother is always watching.
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