“Would George Orwell have had a smartphone?” asks a page title on the BBC website. Without clicking on the link, there is no hesitation in giving an answer in the negative.
The writer of 1984 would have recoiled at the idea of the control of the world’s information by a handful of major corporations. Computer-generated algorithms have the capacity to shape the knowledge available through a phone without the repressive measures featured in Orwell’s novel. The major Internet companies will declare that there is complete freedom of speech in the knowledge that those who exercise that freedom may find themselves speaking into a cyber vacuum. What danger is someone who has no access to any listeners because their web pages are found by no search engines? There is no need for a Room 101 to instil fear in people when disappearance from the web means that their existence becomes marginal.
The government in 1984 would have been delighted at the capacity to disseminate fake news with the effectiveness with which it is spread on social media apps. There would be no need for state propaganda broadcasts when the people themselves are happy to spread untrue stories on Facebook. The re-writing of reality in Animal Farm, casting the exploiters as good and the exploited as bad, is a phenomenon that would readily be re-created by so-called influencers.
Orwell felt a deep aversion towards the totalitarian regimes of his times, feeling a deep antipathy towards the demagoguery of the dictators. The despotic regimes of the 1930s and 1940s depended upon secret police and a network of informers. In the times of smartphones, tracking people has become a simple matter of monitoring the location of their phone and the networks and sites that they access.
Orwell’s diaries from the 1930s until the end of his life point towards someone who aspires toward self-sufficiency. Whether in the south of England or on the Hebridean island of Jura, Orwell’s daily entries detail his activities in growing fruit and vegetables; in his raising of hens and geese and goats; in his catching of fish and shooting of rabbits. No practical detail is too small to record and Orwell stuck in numerous newspaper cuttings with recipes for cookery and tips on animal husbandry and practical repairs. Orwell’s sustainable lifestyle is as far away as might be imagined from the world of the smartphone.
If further evidence were to be needed of how unlikely it would be that Orwell would have a smartphone, then it is in the austerity with which he lived his life. Frivolous purchases, the unnecessary spending of money, the consumerist ethos, these were alien to Orwell.
Would George Orwell have had a smartphone? No.