The Truth lies in Oceania: “1984” and “The X-Files”

Happy happenstance is when you complete “1984” and catch the first two episodes of “The X-Files” reboot in the same week. Think about them too long, though, and a sickly feeling might overcome you.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in “The X-Files.” Credit Ed Araquel/Fox

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in “The X-Files.”
Credit Ed Araquel/Fox

Reading George Orwell’s tale of a government’s all-consuming need to meddle destructively with humankind and the lengths we would go to make them stop was me fulfilling the first Shelf Improvement1 book challenge of 2016. The task was to reread a classic book (something 50 years old or older) that you read in school. Orwell wrote “1984” in 1949. I first read it nearly 35 years later.

Nineteen eighty-four

Reading “The X-Files?” I did that for the aliens, growths, creepy siblings and dry, subtle humor alluding to the many years that have passed since season 9 aired to a world without — for the most part — social media. Yes, creator Chris Carter’s story of FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigating strange phenomena successfully managed nine long seasons without a hashtag. In part, the show’s success stems from Carter’s mission statement, “It’s only as scary as it is believable.”

According to John Ross of Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, Orwell’s success in making “1984” believable in part had to do with his health. In 2005, Ross published a study in m.LiveScience.com asserting Orwell’s bouts of bacterial pneumonia, dengue fever and tuberculosis “made him a better and more empathetic writer, in that his sense of human suffering made his writing more universal.”2

Did Orwell’s ill health make his work predictive as well as well as universal? Is “X-Files” believable because it skirts close to the realm of possibility?

Many argue whether art imitates life or life art, and I don’t care to rehash that fight. I do know, however, that watching what’s happening worldwide with governments and technology (who’s listening to whom?), watching “The X-Files” and rereading “1984” make it clear that conspiracy theorists aren’t to be taken lightly.

“X-Files” special agent Mulder (played by David Duchovny) reinforces that thought when he rants that aliens aren’t the problem, but sketchy humans who misuse nano-, bio- and other technology are the problem. He and an Alex Jones-like character (played by Joel McHale) cite FEMA concentration camps, weather control and a collection of additional questionable actions that conspiracy theorists have proven true as proof that the public indeed is being manipulated. The question is by whom? The government? Well, that’s a big unwieldy entity. The unknown conspirator, like Big Brother, seeks to use innovative minds to destroy a way of life and control the future.

 


Side note: I am a tech geek… with an English degree. I am far from technologically savvy; however, I am curious. I write news stories and fiction about tech; and I believe there are some brilliant people using technology, like virtual reality headsets for terminally ill children, for positive transformation or inspiration. That said, I believe technology can be effective without being invasive.


 

In “1984,” everyone has a telescreen. Those on the other end of the telescreens regulate every portion of the collective lives, what they said and did as well as what they might say or do.

“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.” George Orwell, “1984”

A few years ago, “Dateline NBC,” “20/20” or one of the other be-scared-be-very-very-scared TV news magazines revealed the ease in which hackers can access an individual’s computer to listen and watch them unawares through the PC’s camera.

Nowadays, we purposefully allow invasive technology into our homes — to make life simpler. On the low end of the spectrum (I think), my television learned what time I most frequently turn it on; so, according the Sony manual, it turns on faster during those times.  Early last year, TechCrunch.com reported on the privacy statement associated with Samsung’s “smart,” voice command-enabled TV. 3 According to the statement, Samsung might collect what users were saying when the TV was listening (even if it wasn’t a direct command), transcribe that information and send it to a third party… to improve service.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” George Orwell, “1984”

For a while, there was some hoopla in the news about Samsung’s statement. Eventually, the company apologized, and then the news faded away without word of people destroying their televisions or of the market seizing from the dearth in purchases. Life went on. We accepted tech’s new role.

A few days ago, I called a bank and its telephone artificial intelligence informed me I needed to set up a voice-recognition password to use the service. For some reason (baaaa), I did. I repeated a phrase three or four times until the computer recognized and possessed a record of my voice.

Today, a source copied “Amy” on an email, requesting “she” send us a meeting invite. Shortly afterward, I got an invite from Amy Ingram, an artificial intelligence service, which negotiated times and days until we came to an agreement on when we would meet.4

Simpler? Maybe. Better?

The book and television episodes were entertaining and enlightening; but the more I reflect, the more I realize they are downright scary visions of our possible futures. Think about it too long and I can’t help but want to put a beer bottle on my doorknob.5

So what do we do? Toss our TVs, laptops and tablets on the trash heap? Swap our smartphones for landlines — if they still install them in your town?  Dump our everything-enabled cars for a Deuce and a Quarter — if you can find one that hasn’t been “upgraded”? I mean, I love my Sirius and rear-view screen, which was developed (at least in part) to decrease the number of accidental deaths and injuries.

A friend and former news colleague, Gary, is notorious for restoring what a group of us call “serial-killer” cars. Steel monstrosities that take a half a city block when parked. Currently, he is driving a 1979 Buick Electra 225 with original parts (all working) and an interior that’s just a few swatches away from DayGlo green. Gary has a plan to outwit all the connected sheep like me.  When all other vehicles like choreographed swimmers are traveling down the highway — synced with the road, traffic lights, each other and the mothership — he’s going to cruise. He will barrel through traffic; because as, he put it, the tech-enabled cars are going to part like the sea when they predict (wrongly) he’s going to hit them if they don’t.

But would he ever leave his location-enabled cellphone and Facebook friends behind? Unlikely. Could he outrun the neighbor’s drone? The Electra is too easy to spot. And what about his kids, should he ever have them? Will he disabuse them of the thought that visiting a Disney park is an American-given right just because of the “magical” wristbands that “enhance” the Disney experience (and send use data back to the company)? 6 Don’t count on it.

The point is this: Fiction or not, “The X-Files” is a good reminder that we need to speak up and speak out when we know the creep (illegal human experiments7) and conspiratorial factor of industrial, medical and whateverical technology is too high. Otherwise, it won’t be long before we are living in a more extreme version of Orwell’s Oceania with Blade Runners as Thought Police.

“Replicants are like any other machine – they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” “Blade Runner”8


1 Shelf Improvement: Take the Classics Challenge.
2 http://m.livescience.com/425-study-george-orwell-illnesses-influenced-1984.html
3 http://techcrunch.com/2015/02/08/telescreen/
4 https://x.ai/
5 “Conspiracy Theory”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adYGUai7PNc
6 https://hbr.org/2016/01/customer-tracking-technology-can-work-without-being-creepy
7 http://freebeacon.com/politics/company-of-major-cap-donor-conducted-deadly-illegal-human-experiments/
8 “Blade Runner”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_9rhPDLHWk

Journey to the Center for Fiction

Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 11.04.55 PMI’ve been traveling a lot recently, back in time to World War II via “All the Light I Cannot See,” “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” and “The Nightingale.” Yet, some of the most enlightening and inspiring trips I’ve taken in recent months have been to New York’s Center for Fiction by way of the web.

No, The Center for Fiction is not a figment of this writer’s imagination. It is an actual brick-and-mortar facility providing dream-like resources to its members.

“The Center for Fiction is the only nonprofit literary organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to celebrating fiction, and we work every day to connect readers and writers… We also feature workspace, grants, and classes to support emerging writers, reading groups on classic and contemporary authors, and programs to help get kids reading. …”

For those who cannot afford the membership fee or haven’t the time or financial wherewithal to drop in on the New York-based facility, The Center for Fiction offers considerable online resources to readers and writers.

Personally, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on The Center’s “Writers on Writing” page, where Patricia Park shares how a writing class helped her (and now me) learn about perspective (one of my favorite topics) and Teddy Wayne writes about dialogue.

Experts on “The Book Business” offer sage advice and “Essential Books for Writers” helped me find new books for my toolkit.

Overall, a fiction writer and reader can spend hours on the website; unlike social media, though, it’s time well spent.

Inside the writer's mind… Or the reader trying to get inside the writer

In university, literature professors often asked us what the author was thinking. This would infuriate one classmate, who would become one of my closest friends. She would exclaim, “How can we know! He’s dead! No one can know these things.”

Inevitably though, the question would appear on an exam as if we indeed could look into the mind of long-dead, now-revered novelists, short story writers, and poets. Years later, I find myself looking at book jackets for some indication of the author’s persona. What could have happened in her past to make her kill this character in such a brutal manner? How could he craft such a rich, loving life for a little girl?

Now Tim Parks, in “The Writer’s Shadow” on The New York Review of Books site, has posted a thoughtful blog looking at the manner in which we readers try to learn writers. Read on: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jun/08/writers-shadow-antonio-tabucchi

This Writer May Inspire

While editing our recent Moving People column, I learned about the author and inspirator William Zinsser and couldn’t wait to share a link to his many books with you.

The Writer Who Stayed book coverHere’s an excerpt from one book:

“’We’d like you to give our students some tips that will make them better writers,’ he said.

Tips! The ugly little word hung in the air, exuding its aroma of illicit information. Bookies live on tips delivered, horseplayers on tips received, investors on stock tips, preferably hot, and taxpayers on tips about how to evade the tax code. College-bound students pay for tips on how to pass the SAT test.

The tip is presumed to be based on inside knowledge, giving its recipient an edge in outwitting life’s cruel odds, and never has the tip-dispensing industry been so alive and well, plying us in magazines and books and on television programs with maxims of salvation. …

‘I don’t do tips,’ I told the man calling from the school’s English department. It’s not that I don’t have any; On Writing Well is full of what might be called tips. But that’s not the point of the book. It’s a book of craft principles that add up to what it means to be a writer”

Moving People: A Novel Journey Through Books

Ron Bernas

By Ron Bernas

Artists are always seeking inspiration. To seek is to find, and they find it in the way the sun reflects off a lake at dawn, the sounds of nature or someone else’s turn of phrase. But immediate inspirations are one thing; and to make something meaningful out of them, the true artist builds them on a basis of a long-term philosophy.

As a storyteller, I find inspiration in things that make me look in a new way at something that’s familiar or mundane. If it makes me laugh, too, that’s even better. As a playwright, I am inspired by many writers: Horton Foote for the way he tells meaningful stories that are quiet and powerful, and Moss Hart for the heart around which he builds all his work and George S. Kaufman, for his way with a one-liner. Kaufman and Hart collaborated on, among others, “You Can’t Take it with You,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and has always been one of my favorites. It makes you laugh, it makes you think and it makes you want to be a better person. We should all aspire to reach that bar.

I talked to three artists about the books that have guided them on their creative journeys. Here’s what they had to say:

James PujdowskiArtist, teacher James Pujdowski

“Much like everyone who lives through their 20s, I felt I was going in the right path in education and was in the middle of earningPublished by Important Books an advertising design degree. I was a freelance graphic artist picking up jobs and I thought this was my only life. Then I took a required painting course at Wayne State University and an Instructor suggested ‘The Art Spirit,’ by Robert Henri.

This book mirrored every thought I had about art and life. I could not get enough of this guy and on each page it validated exactly what I felt was right with who I was and how I was going to let art be what my life would be about.
“I re-read the book several times until it became my mantra. When I reflect on the words in the book, I imagine I’m in one of Robert Henri’s lectures or, while I’m working on a painting, he is right over my shoulder guiding my hand. I’ve given copies of the book to choice students in hopes they pick up the torch and find the same aesthetic direction and peace it gave me.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘There are two dates in your life that are important. First, it’s your Birthday. Second, it’s when you realize why you are here!’”

James Pujdowski is a longstanding member of the Michigan art scene. His expressive landscapes and still lifes are drawn from direct observation from his travels around the country and benefit from his imagination and love of vibrant color. His work can be found in public and private collections across the country, and he is in much demand as an art show jurist. James is also a teacher at a private school in Grosse Pointe Woods and at art centers, colleges and universities.

Oneita Jackson

Oneita Jackson photo by Cybelle Codish

Photo by Cybelle Codish

“I’d been taking notes in the back of a book called ‘Foyle’s Philavery:  A Treasury of Unusual Words’ and a woman asked, ‘What do you do?’ We were at a funeral repast talking about the homily, one of the most powerful sermons I’ve heard in any church, any service. ‘I do words,’ I told her. And there is no one way I do them—I read dictionaries, stylebooks, and English books.

“Writers are the custodians of memory.”
~ William Zinsser, “On Writing Well”

But as a satirist, I refer to five books constantly to ensure I’m doing my best, most honest work when making observations of humanity: ‘Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition,’ for mechanics; ‘Beating Around the Bush,’ by Art Buchwald, to make sure I’m on point satirically; ‘On Writing Well,’ by William Zinsser, for the vision that informs my body of work; ‘A Handbook to Literature,’ by C. Hugh Holman, for technical terms, and ‘The Best of Simple,’ Langston Hughes, for my common-man voice.

Oneita Jackson is a Detroit cab driver who studied English at Howard University. She was a Detroit Free Press copy editor for 11 years and wrote a column called “O Street,” which received a Free Press Columnist of the Year award in 2008. Her latest writing project is the “Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome,” observations of a cab driver in awkward situations. Find her on Facebook at Oneita Cab Driver.

Chris Emmerson

Chris Emmerson “I love German author Herman Hesse. He has so many great books. ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ is great, and ‘Steppenwolf’ is, too, but my favorite is ‘Siddhartha.’ It’s all about the spiritual growth of a man and I Siddhartha by Herman Hessefind that so inspiring and motivating. He really understands the multiple nature of good and bad in each of us. He explores the many different aspects of people and uses really cool imagery.

I read this at the same time I was getting into yoga, right about the time I read Gandhi’s book and the works of Rudolph Steiner. Still, ‘Siddhartha’ really gets right to the heart of the themes of personal enlightenment that interest me so much. Stories like this are important to me because I view life as a spiritual journey and I’m always intrigued by how people can have different beliefs and ideologies and achieve growth and enlightenment from different paths.

“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”
~ Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Chris Emmerson has been a fixture on Detroit’s rock scene for more than 10 years, playing at many of the city’s most popular venues. He started playing guitar at the age of four and started his first band in the fourth grade. Gigs with his father led him to a career as a professional musician. He released his first album, “It’s So Easy from Far Away,” in 2014, playing guitar, bass, drums, keyboard and percussion in addition to laying down all the vocal tracks. His second album, which tends toward the pop rock genre, is due out this year. In addition, he’s also a popular yoga instructor. His work can be found at chrisemmerson.com.

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Ron Bernas, who compiled this post, is a freelance writer, editor and former reporter. He is the author of the screwball comedy-inspired play “A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody,” which has been performed around the world. He reads nonstop and is the author of Ron’s Bookshelf, a blog about books and reading at ronsbookshelf.wordpress.com.

©Ron Bernas and Wildemere Publishing LLC [2015]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is to Ron Bernas and Wildemere Publishing LLC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.