On June 6th 1949 George Orwell’s 1984 was published. In his nightmarish vision of the future the novel’s all-seeing leader, known as "Big Brother", became a universal symbol for intrusive government and oppressive bureaucracy. Thirty years on from the date he chose, the question is whether Orwell was right in his prediction of how the ideals of an egalitarian society could be corrupted by a malevolent leadership who twisted language as a way to aid oppression? In 2013 The Guardian conducted a poll asking readers this question and the results suggested that people are unsure if the future for humanity is a utopian or a dystopian one.
Many of the predictions made by Orwell in relation to "Big Brother" surveillance, corruption of language and control of history have already come about to a great extent in Communist countries and, also to some extent, in the West. The powers of security police in Western countries to intercept mail and tap phones have been extended, police agencies keep numerous files on law-abiding citizens, and more and more public officials have the right to enter private homes without a warrant. Many government departments keep computerised information on citizens and there is a danger that this information will be fed into a centralised data bank.
History tells us that the steps to tyranny are all too easy to take. When we create in-groups and out-groups, it becomes easier to discriminate against those who seem different in some way. If this difference makes some people seem less human or, if they can be de-humanised, then it becomes possible to do them harm – especially when someone gives this as an order.
Thankfully, Orwell’s vision is only a possibility not an inevitability. In the 1960s Gene Roddenberry, a police officer in Los Angeles, submitted a script for a new sci-fi series called Star Trek. Here was a very different, optimistic vision of the future of humanity – one in which our failings had not prevented the creation of a better world. After a lukewarm reception, the series gathered critical acclaim and went on to become a hugely successful global franchise, recently re-imagined by J.J. Abrams.
Roddenberry, himself a deeply flawed individual, imagined an alternate future – one in which human imperfection did not stop the use of technology for good nor undermine the aim to live life according to a higher set of standards. In wanting sexual and racial equality, Gene Roddenberry was going against all the stereotypes common in the 1960s but he stood by his values, and so created a very hopeful, utopian vision of the future: one in which human beings can solve problems through reason and co-operation; that human understanding and intelligence will help us to develop and progress and that the universe is a natural wonder waiting to be explored and understood.
This is a version of humanity that I believe in. Orwell’s vision of a world where evil will triumph will only happen if good people let it.