Free-Market Advocate Takes Revenge on Orwell

2:08 PM

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

As an 8th grade student, back in 1983, in the run up to the year of the book's title, I read for the first time George Orwell's 1984. That reading began a series of readings in dystopian and utopian visions, including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as well as a then unsuccessful foray into Thomas More's Utopia. Those darker visions, especially Orwell's, were vivid and haunting. Later, as a freshman in college, I believe, I read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," and I found a new mission in attempting to be a clear writer and thinker.

Over time, my political vision has been driven more by hopeful visions of what we may become than by Orwell's haunted vision of governance at its worst. When Mark Zuckerberg selected Orwell's Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest by Peter Huber, I learned that I would revisit Orwell. This out of print book, published in 1994, is not easily obtained. Fortunately, on Zuckerberg's Facebook page I found a link to a .pdf version to read.

Peter Huber (courtesy of Manhattan Institute)
The author, Peter Huber, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has a jaw-dropping academic and professional pedigree. He has a law degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT. He clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and on the U.S. Supreme Court for Sandra Day O'Connor. The Manhattan Institute, a prominent conservative think-tank, promotes "developing ideas that foster economic choice and individual responsibility" (from the front page of their website).

A palimpsest, as Merriam-Webster tells us, is "writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased," from the Greek palimpsēstos meaning "scraped again." Using a then modern 486 computer, Huber digitized the text of 1984 and other writings by and about Orwell:
My crime began with the physical destruction of a book—1984 itself. I tore off the cover and cut the 314 pages from the spine. I then fed them into my optical scanner, 30 or so at a time, and transferred them by wire into my computer. 1984 lives there to this day, 590,463 bytes of ASCII text. For good measure, I scanned in the rest of Orwell's books, essays, letters, and BBC broadcasts too. To locate biographical details of Orwell's life, I scanned in Michael Shelden's excellent Orwell: The Authorized Biography. Altogether, these writings now reside in 9,546,486 bytes, which is to say a hundred million slivers of magnetized ferric dust glued to the surface of a spinning platter called a hard drive. (p. 9)
George Orwell
Huber then, cutting and pasting, creates a work within in a work, not unlike Orwell's original 1984. Huber creates a new novel that picks up where 1984 concludes and adds a dialog and reflection on Orwell's thought as illustrated in 1984 and his other writings. Huber heaps abundant praise on Orwell:
No one who has actually read Orwell can go a week without remembering him in one context or another. At any moment, some scene or neologism, which comes from this one short book, is liable to drop into your mind. Big Brother. The Thought Police. Newspeak. Doublethink. Reality Control. These were all created by Orwell in 1984. 1984 is not so much a book, it is a world. Even people who affect to disagree with Orwell quote him unconsciously. Through 1984, Orwell did what very few other writers ever have done: he added not only phrases but his own name to the English language. There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one's mind and alter one's whole attitude to life. 1984 is one of them. Whether you approve of him or not, Orwell is there, like the Washington Monument. (p. 4) 
And yet Huber offers a stark judgement on Orwell:
And the only trouble with that is that Orwell was wrong. Not wrong in the details—Orwell was in fact remarkably right about the little things in 1984. But he was wrong in his fundamental logic, wrong in his grand vision, wrong in his whole chain of reasoning. Wrong not because he lacked conviction, or industry, or moral integrity—Orwell brought more of those talents to his craft than any other person of his own time, or ours. Wrong, nonetheless, because Orwell built the essential struts and columns, the entire support structure of his magnificent edifice, on a gadget that he did not understand. The gargoyles in 1984 are magnificent. But the architecture beneath is rotten. (pp. 4-5)
Huber concludes that Orwell was wrong "about the telescreen—completely, irredeemably, outrageously wrong" (p. 145). The telescreen, according to Huber, is the undoing of Orwell's argument.

The genius of Orwell's Revenge is in its form. Rather than write a direct rebuttal of Orwell, Huber crafts a reply in Orwell's form and in Orwell's own words. Where Orwell is wary of capitalism and prefers socialism, Huber argues that the free market encourages creativity. Where Orwell sees the telescreen as the instrument of oppression, Huber argues that the device is the very author of liberation. Where Orwell coined the term "doublethink," Huber transforms it into his argument that unregulated free-enterprise will flourish, subverting the very technologies intended to constrain it.

The argument Huber advances in Orwell's Revenge employs some of what Moisés Naím would describe as the three revolutions: the More Revolution (wealth), the Mobility Revolution (movement), and the Mentality Revolution (new mindsets). Reading Huber's version of O'Brien as the interrogator of the prisoner (pp. 117-128), in spite of its unexpected conclusion, felt a bit like Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor. The prisoner reveals that the two-way nature of the telescreen, created by the government, has been used to promote freedom and the market.

I am less unabashedly optimistic about the place of technology than Huber. I remember in 1997 sitting on a small boat on Lake Titicaca in Peru, watching a woman spinning yarn from wool in a century's old custom of the Aymara while her son played with a plastic jeep on the floor of the boat. Electricity had only recently arrived to many places, and I marveled at the time about how different their lives would be. The arrival of electricity (and television) meant that the locals were watching dubbed versions of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The television brought new understandings of time and space and of what had value, of what was desirable. I had already seen in Chile how some streets, with the typical fast food restaurants, looked identical to streets in the U.S. I lamented a growing sense of sameness. Teens worldwide listen to many of the same songs. Corporations may know more of my purchasing preferences than I myself know. Google and Facebook know a tremendous amount about my life and my friends. And Edward Snowden gives ample warning of just how far the government's reach can go.

At the same time, I have heard of how technology has been employed in unexpected, almost subversive, ways. In India, children in the big city can transfer money to their parents in a remote village via cell phone. Twitter was a valuable organizational tool in the Arab Spring. While it could not save Walter Scott's life, a cellphone's video camera insured that his story would be told.

Given a choice between Orwell and Huber, I choose Orwell as more truthful. I am not as persuaded by Huber's faith that technology leads to freedom as much as I am chastened and vigilant from Orwell's perception of the threat of it being used coercively by the powerful.

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