How does technology affect the Party’s ability to control its citizens? In what ways does the Party employ technology throughout the novel?
Of the many iconic phrases and ideas to emerge from Orwell’s 1984, perhaps the most famous is the frightening political slogan “Big Brother is watching.” Many readers think of 1984 as a dystopia about a populace constantly monitored by technologically advanced rulers. Yet in truth, the technological tools pale in comparison to the psychological methods the Party wields, which not only control the citizens but also teach them to control themselves.
To be sure, the Party uses technology in scary and effective ways. Its most notable technological weapon is the telescreen, a kind of two-way television that watches you as you watch it. Telescreens literalize the idea that Big Brother, the mysterious figure who represents the Party’s power and authority, is always watching the people of Airstrip One. Even the citizens’ most mundane actions are monitored by the telescreens, which must remain turned on at all times. When Winston performs his Physical Jerks exercises, for example, a voice from the telescreen criticizes his poor effort. When he is arrested, a voice from the telescreen tells him what’s coming. Another terrifying technology used by the Party is vaporizing, the means by which the government executes those who displease it.
Yet despite the power of the omnipresent telescreens and the terror of vaporizing, they are just two among countless methods of control. And the most powerful methods turn out to be non-technological in nature. Posters announce the watchfulness of Big Brother; mandatory daily meetings called Two Minutes of Hate rile up the citizenry, allow them to vent their emotions and solidify their xenophobia; public hangings make examples out of traitors; physical torture awaits those who commit thought crimes; and Junior Spies turn in any adults they feel are not sufficiently loyal to the party, even if those adults are their own parents. None of these methods involve technology. Instead, they rely on psychological manipulation. Together, these methods produce a complex mixture of terror, paranoia, groupthink, and suspicion that keeps the citizens cowed and obedient.
In addition to, and as a result of, these government tactics, the citizens of Oceania are constantly policing themselves. In order to avoid being jailed or vaporized they closely monitor their own actions, second by second. Most citizens would find it unthinkable, for example, to demonstrate such blatant misbehavior as enjoying a torrid love affair, as Winston does. But the citizens go even further than simply regulating their outward behavior: they also monitor their private thoughts. They have been manipulated into believing that any independent cognition is grounds for arrest by the Thought Police, so they try to keep their inward selves as loyal and unthinking as their outward actions. Because they have been conditioned since birth to accept whatever the Party identifies as truth, they are also able to use doublethink, a method of believing absurd contradictions such as “war is peace.” Again, self-policing and doublethink involve no technology beyond the human brain, but they are perhaps the most effective means of control available to the Party.
The Party maintains power primarily through the use of psychology, not technology. We get the sense that if no technology existed, the Party would find equally effective ways of controlling the populace. Orwell wants to warn us against more than the power of technology; he wants to suggest that the human mind is the most dangerous and advanced weapon of all, and that we should never underestimate the ability of people to control each other—and themselves.