There are many evils in the world today. People steal, murder, cheat, and perform countless other deeds which harm their fellow men. With so many terrible things that go on, it is easy to become disillusioned with the world. Yet how often we stop and really think about what the worst thing in the world is today? What is the most dangerous? Is it the foreign terrorists who could attack at any moment? Is it the drug peddlers who makes our streets unsafe? Is it the animal abusers, who start out beating their dogs and often move on to their children and spouses? Is it our own government, slowly leeching away our rights and control until we are helpless in its iron grasp? Or is there a far more insidious evil lurking in the shadows of our society, which threatens to undo us as we do nothing at all? If literature and film have taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that the biggest threat in the world is not an active one, but rather the passive apathy of a society's own citizens.
One thing which many people fear is a controlling government, which stifles freedom tot he point where the citizens don't even know that they are not free and thus don't know to rebel. The world of 1984 is terrorizing to time. As a result, many comparisons are made between Panopticism and Orwell’s 1984. I believe that these are erroneous comparisons, and these misconception is what gives Panopticism that “creepy” edge which makes people uneasy when in actuality we have little to fear. There is a fundamental difference between Michel Foucault’s Panopticism and George Orwell’s novel 1984, which is often missed and causes people to fear that that Panopticism will result in that world, when actually the ideas of Panopticism is far more likely to result in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Panopticism is about openness, which in and of itself is nothing to fear... unless we stop caring and become too apathetic towards the world to watch what is happening. This is why all of those external threats are not something with which we need to fear, at least not to a greater extent then we fear our own apathy. If the world is falling apart but everyone is watching and actually cares that it is happening, then people will move forward to stop it.
In Orwell’s 1984, the people do watch each other. Like in Foucault’s imaginary prison, the common people all watch each other and are able to report on each other. They are supposedly able to see how things are run. Everyone is in control, which is imporant. “Furthermore, the arrangement of this machine is such that its enclosed nature does not preclude a permanent presence from the outside: we have seen that anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance, and that, this being the case, he can gain a clear idea of the way in which the surveillance is practised” (Foucault). It is not enough for everyone to be watched, but everyone must be able to see that they are watched. They must be able to watch the watchers. This is true transparency, sometimes which cam be extremely beneficial and should be strived for in the world.
Yet in 1984, there is not the true transparency which I believe was present in Foucault’s imagined world. This lack is very important. No one is watching the watchers in 1984. No one knows what is going on, no one knows what the Inner Party is doing. In Foucault’s world, everyone is watching everyone. In Foucault’s vision “the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole”. We can all see how the schools are taught. We can all see how the prisons are run. In contrast, no one knows what happens in 1984’s Ministry of Love except for the prisoners and the jailors within it! The transparency of society is a mere illusion, a front to keep the Outer Party watching each other and nothing else so that those who are in control may remain in control. The citizens are all watching each other, reporting on each other, and so they feel as though they know what is going on. They have constant news coming out at them, the paper is released daily and their telescreens infiltrate every aspect of their lives. As a result, they feel as though they must be connected. This is a dangerous error, and one which our own world is constantly making. We think that we are connected to the world through the Internet, the radio, the television, the newspapers. We imagine that we must surely know what is going on, and we are often stunned and appalled when some sort of crime or abuse is able to slip past us. How is it even possible? After all, 81% of all households in the United States has a computer (Leichtman Research Group). We shouldn't be so shocked. The mere presence of technology does not guarantee knowledge. Just because we have computers and televisions in near every home doesn't mean that people will get the right information. Windows do not mean anything unless they are actually able to give you a view of the world.
The world of 1984 lacks transparency. No one can see what is truly going on, and this is the problem. Their windows look out into brick walls. This is a completely contradiction of Foucault’s ideas,. Thu, following his principles would be unlikely to result in the world of Orwell’s 1984. Mandatory openness does not result in that type of domination, so fearing it is senseless. It is far more likely that Panopticism would result in the world which is presented in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Panopticism is dependent upon citizens having control. It is they who watch each other, who are the keepers, who are the watchers. Of course, sometimes this can cross the line from helpful into dangerous. It is this type of control which is represented in Fahrenheit 451. It is outright stated that people being oversensitive and overreacting to everything is what led to books being banned. People watched each other, they watched too much, and they saw everything as being unsafe. They did it to themselves, because they were the ones watching and they were the ones in power.
The world which Bradbury created had this transparency which upon which Panopticism is focused. Everyone knew what happened to people who had banned books – they books and the houses were burned, and everyone knew when and how and why it happened. In Panopticism everyone would know how the prisons were run, how the guilty were punished, and this is exactly what occurs in Fahrenheit 451. Of course, Bradbury’s novel presents us with a world in which Foucault’s ideas had been distorted. Eventually, instead of watching each other, they grew complacent. They stopped watching anything - until their own city was bombed in a war about which they knew next to nothing. Their excessive knowledge had crossed the link until they became apathetic. They all knew what happened to the people who own books – their homes were burned, and sometimes even the people were burned along with their houses. Everyone knew, and yet no one cared.
Although Panopticism seems creepy and intrusive on the surface, in reality there is no need to fear the oppression and all-seeing eyes of Big Brother. Although someone may be watching us at any time, we would have the ability to watch our watchers. We have the ability to see what is going on. The world would not devolve into the world of 1984. This means that we are the ones that we must watch out for, however. We must be careful to not relinquish control over our own lives, and become ignorant to our emotions, our lives, and our fellow man. It was not the watchfulness of Panopticism that destroyed the world of Fahrenheit 451, but oversensitivity combined with lack of caring. So long as we continue to care, we can watch without fear. So truly, it is not the government but we must fear, but our own apathy and lack of caring.
Can we be sure that that this lack of caring exists? And if so, then from where does it spring? We can once again thank Fahrenheit 451 for giving us the clues to the answer. In part, our apathy is caused by technology. Within the world of Bradbury's novel, people are completely bound to their television screens and don't care about the world outside of it. Their precious technology means far more to them than anything else, including the people who should mean the most to them. Despite the obvious distress of her husband, who was standing right in front of her in anguish, Mildred could only think of what would happen to her precious parlor screens should the books in their home be discovered: “She thought about it. Her face grew amazed and then horrified. 'He might come and burn the house and the 'family.' That's awful!'” (Bradbury, 73). Books have been screaming to us about the dangers of misused technology. Used correctly, they can be beneficial. Even the doom-and-gloom faber of Fahrenheit 451 knew that. He lamented to Mortag that, “It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite details and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not” (82). This same trend is started to occur to our world today. We fail to utilize our new technologies and instead we drown in them, allowing ourselves to sink further into the sea of apathy while the life-giving air of possibilities which could save us gets further away.
Instead of using our technological advancements to better the world, we often use them to simply entertain ourselves and fill our hours. We do this even with the things which should be important. David O. Solmitz notes in his article, “The Roots of Apathy”, that “we have become a nation of observers watching with increasing enthusiasm as the sensationalism of the show intensifies”. Even things which should make a difference in the world often do nothing of the sort. Solmitz continues his critique of apathy when he turns his words to Presidential debates, griping that “Presidential debates have even become an integral part of the entertainment industry. […] How can we take politics seriously, when opposing candidates, like actors, are trained to perform in a certain way in order to appeal to the voters?” Everything is a show, and even something important like a political debate which could help us decide who runs our country is reduced to nothing more then a peacock showing off his colorful feathers. Is it any surprise that, according to Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the United States 2008 presidential election had a turnout of a mere 63% - and THIS was the highest percentage turnout since 1960?Our technology has made the selection of our politicians into entertainment, and so we watch but do not truly care.
Of course, there is still plenty to fear in 1984 which DOES apply to our world today. We must wonder, why did Winston truly lose? He knew all along that he was fated to die, he knew that he would be discovered and tortured and executed. But what he, and Julia, truly feared the most was their own emotions. At the end of the novel, Winston has not only been defeated and his wished-for revolution turned out to be a hoax, but he has become a true traitor to everything he stood for. As Winston told Julia, “"What you say or do doesn't matter; only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you that would be the real betrayal” (Orwell 166). By wishing for a terrible thing to happen to Julia instead of him, Winston stopped loving her (286) and both of them acknowledge that after doing such a thing, you never feel the same way about that other person (292). The same events happen in the film. The hoped-for revolution fails. The Party remains in the control. Julia and Winston have betrayed each other. There is no hope that the Party can be overthrown, as O'Brien explains to Winston (280). In the end, all hope has been lost. The film version of 1984 underscores this particular interpretation better then the novel. Both end on with the idea that there is no hope, but during the novel we are allowed to feel as though there might be hope.
To the first time experiencer, the attitude towards hope would be massively different depending upon whether one was reading the novel or viewing the film. In the book, we feel as though there is love and passion between Winston and Julia. Although the Party wishes to kill emotion, we feel life within both these characters. We know that Winston as strong feelings, we can feel them in his speech to O'Brien: “'We are enemies of the Party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals. We are also adulterers'” (Orwell 170). One can feel the strength of his words, we feel as though Winston believes what he is saying, we have hope that such strong ideals can defeat the Party. Yet in the film version, there is no such hope. Radford presents us with a dismal world. Everything is gray and seems washed out, even the red sash which Julia removes the first time that she and Winston have sex. The characters have no passion, not even towards each other or when discussing how they want to bring down the Party. All emotion is muted, and it has the effect of sucking all hope right out of the viewer. You cannot hope that Winston may win, because he has already lost. He is already not human, he doesn't have emotion, he has already been defeated by the Party – before he even begins his revolution. This makes it difficult to connect with the characters when viewing, and thus makes the film somewhat ineffective on a commercial level, but it has the effect of underscoring the idea that there is no hope. The characters do not have real emotions, they do not care, and so they are doomed. So, too, are we doomed if we cannot manage to shake ourselves from our own apathy and DO something.
How are we so sure that this is what is needed? Because when we have hope, we feel encouraged to do something instead of simply let life happen because we feel as though we cannot influence the outcome. As Elaine Sihera explains, “it is difficult to feel involved and included if we do not feel a part of our social milieu, if we believe there is nothing in it for us and if we feel excluded from the outcomes.” If we examine it from this angle, the film version of 1984 could be seen as more accurate and meaningful by some. We do not have any hope, and we never had any, unless we have the freedom to think about the world in which we live. We have to feel connected to that world, have to able to feel ourselves influencing it. If we were to lose that, then we would lose everything. Walter Benjamin would certainly support the idea that we cannot escape our fate. In his article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin explains that, “Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.” So long as we are closed off within our own tiny lives, as the characters of 1984 are so closed off, then we are trapped. But if we have a way of escaping that and seeing outside, then we have hope, at least according to Benjamin. Yet if we fail to use our technology to bring the world into our selves, as Benjamin preaches, then we will end up just like the characters in the novels which we classify as dystopian. And that is exactly what has started to happen in today's society, and is why we feel so apathetic in our lives.
Of course, part of using technology to prevent apathy depends on people not only using the technology properly, but also knowing HOW to use it. What do you do if you care, yet you don't know how to use the tools which would enable you to educate yourself and feel connected to the world? As Elaine Sihera explains, "there has to be something which makes it worthwhile for that person to participate. Today's world is changing so rapidly, especially older folks, there is a general air of apathy through fear and apprehension. [...] This has left those people without an anchor, feeling isolated, fearful and expendable in a morass of new technology and outdated customs." This is important to note, as Sihera herself believes that “apathy is a direct by-product of fear, disappointment and neglect” and “when we fear and feel disconnected it is easy to be apathetic”. So, if older generations feel uncertain about new technology, they cease to feel connected to the world. If this lack of connection causes them to feel as though the world is ignoring them, they become apathetic towards it. And it is this apathy which threatens to undo us.
If the older generation does not care, then what hope does the younger generation have? We are dependent upon our elders in order to achieve anything in the world. George Santayana explains that, “progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is vital to maintain the connection to the older generation. If we allow them to become apathetic towards the world, then they will cease to be a resource for us. Even if we care, we will not be able to do anything about it because we will be caught in mistakes which we could have avoided. Eventually, the next generation will come along. By that time, we will not understand them and their technology and will be distanced from the world. And even if they have not been swallowed by apathy, we will have been. We will not be connected to them. And they will repeat our mistakes, eventually learn, and then become distanced from the following generation. An endless loop of technological advancement and repeated mistakes.
So, what is the lesson in all of this? What is the great evil which we must avoid? Simply put, it is apathy. There is no evil which we cannot conquer, but we cease to care then we will never try. Ergo, we must always continue to try. Of course, it can't really that simple. There is a corollary to the rule of caring: we must all be connected. Being connected makes us care and enables to learn from each other. If the older generation becomes disconnected from the world, ant thus apathetic towards it, then we cannot learn from its mistakes. And thus, even we care about progress, we will not be able to achieve it. So we must be careful with technology. It can be our greatest strength is used properly. If not, it is worse then useless – it is an actual impairment because it can cause disconnection and thus apathy. We must use our technology carefully. And most importantly, we must always care.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 15 November 2009.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
Center for the Study of the American Electorate, American University. "African-Americans, Anger, Fear and Youth Propel Turnout to Highest Level Since 1964" (PDF). Web. 10 December 2009.
Foucault, Michel. “Chapter 3: 'Panopticism'”. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage Books, 1995. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, 1977. pp.195-228. Web.
Nineteen Eighty-Four. Dir. Michael Radford. 1984. Film.
“Over Half of U.S. Households Subscribe to Broadband Internet”. Leichtman Research Group, Inc. Web. 10 December 2009.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: New American Library, 1961. Print.
Sihera, Elaine. “Apathy in modern society explored”. Helium. Web. 8 December 2009.
Solmitz, David O. “The Roots of Apathy”. Local Voices Online. Web. 8 December 2009.