Print as a Thought-Control Device

From Orwell’s 1984, which I’m teaching today in my History and Future of the Book class. This is an excerpt from the book-within-the-book, purportedly written by Emmanuel Goldstein.

By comparison with an existing today, all the tyrannies of the past or halfhearted and inefficient.  The ruling groups were always infected to some extent by liberal ideas, and were content to leave loose ends everywhere, to regard only the overt act, and to be uninterested in what their subjects were thinking.   Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards.  Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance.  The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further.  With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end.  Every citizen, or least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed.  The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, notice did for the first time.

I find this passage intriguing, in part because the printing press is usually seen as a tool that created an intellectual tradition (by fulfilling and extending an economic and social demand for the mass production of accurate, authoritative texts) rather than the first step in a process by which the control of the means of production shapes the thoughts of the consumers.  This passage points out the invention of the two-way telescreen as the tipping point, because in this vision the means for broadcasting over telescreens is not distributed to the masses. Even in his office, Winston Smith does not communicate by telephone, only via paper orders sent through peneumatic tubes.

If we have time, I’ll introduce the students to a little bit of Michel Foucault.