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The Internet Ruined 1984

Posted in Editorials on April 9th, 2012

With all the hype around the Mega Millions record jackpot, I found myself with the urge to reread George Orwell’s 1984. As I walked around New York City and saw the lines outside stores, listened to my co-workers excited chatter, and even bought a few tickets myself – I couldn’t help but think of the part of the novel that discusses the proles fascination with the lottery and the way it was rigged and used to control them.

This must be at least the fourth time I’ve read this book, and this time I am having trouble with a part of it that always seemed to be one of the best parts. Orwell writes of a language called “Newspeak” which the government creates. The goal is to eliminate as many words as possible from language and therefore making rebellion impossible because people won’t be able to think or express objectionable thoughts. Ayn Rand also plays with this idea in Anthem. As my high school English teacher taught me, this is based on the “Sapir-Wharf Hypothesis.” However, according to Wikipedia, this isn’t exactly what Sapir or Wharf had ever written. And while there is some evidence that the language a person speaks can have some influence on their thoughts, there’s nowhere near enough proof to support the idea than an experiment like Newspeak would ever work.

The reason I looked into this was because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the internet has changed the way I communicate. After a day on reddit, I occasionally find myself wanting to communicate in Advice Animals. I love the way that hyperlinks shape and color an article or blog post, providing a richer experience than mere footnotes. The way that twitter allows people to have a conversation on a hashtag delights me. And the vocabulary! Last week I was rolling my eyes on an article about Gloria Steinem which “discovered” the feminist blogosphere for about the fourth time in the past two years:

The big political issues of yesteryear have been supplanted by messier sociocultural questions that a new generation debates in its own patois of activism, with terms like “rape culture” and “slut shaming” and “fat positive” and “cisgender.”

The author forgot mansplaining, and hippie punching.

But while the jargon of feminist blogs or any internet culture might be confusing to a newbie, it’s not impossible to learn. That we continue to find and create the language we need to express our ideas and that these neologisms are understood fairly quickly is enough for me as a lay person to doubt the idea that Newspeak would gain any traction.

While the nightmares of a police state or constant surveillance still seem startlingly possible, I will rest easy knowing that the versatility of language will probably frustrate the efforts of those who would try to stifle thought.

2 Responses to “The Internet Ruined 1984”

  1. Sheri Says:

    You’re totally right, if there’s a need for a new word, people have no trouble inventing them. I never thought about it when reading the book, but it really doesn’t hold up when you scrutinize it. What makes Brave New World so much scarier is that society becomes so dumbed down and distracted with entertainment, they don’t have the ability to reason in that way, and therefore they are controlled without even being aware of it. Sometimes I feel like we’re just a few more reality TV shows shy of that state….

  2. Justin Says:

    According to the following article, women add to and change language in the analogue world as well. I find the expansion of the language to be fascinating, but I *really* hate the vocal fry!


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