Past, Present and Virtual

Guest Post by Sandra Clayton

In an earlier blog here I described the effort needed, a decade ago, to post a manuscript from abroad to a publisher or magazine editor back home. Nowadays, of course, one click of a mouse sends any amount of material anywhere in the world. During that same decade the internet has also democratized publishing as well as providing affordable means by which to publicize our books ourselves. Its range of other benefits is vast.

But as time passes I find myself worrying about a generation which has no memory of life before the internet. In particular, I wonder about human isolation and the actual quality of life as it edges ever more into virtual reality now that so much is done online. We can buy our victuals and entertainment without ever leaving home, play virtual sport by waving a remote at the TV, have virtual sex with someone on the other side of the world via a webcam and socialize on networking sites with a thousand close friends we shall never meet. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is whether the vast amount of information being gathered about us is turning us into prey. Our personal details, kept online by government and healthcare services, enable any thief with computer savvy to steal our identities and empty our bank accounts. Hackers read our private emails. Pictures of our home are launched into cyberspace. Our internet browsing habits are tracked so that we can be targeted demographically for marketing purposes. At least, I’m told that’s what it’s for. Reading a newspaper online this morning I accidentally leaned on the keyboard and up popped a list of every article I’d just looked at. Meanwhile, the cell phone in my pocket emits a signal identifying my physical location.  

Yes. I know. I can remember when doomsayers the age I am now were convinced that civilization as we knew it was going to collapse because of the threat posed by television. And I laughed along with everybody else. But this is where the great artists come in, with their imagination, compassion and that apartness which produces a greater clarity of vision. Writers like George Orwell, who recognized earlier than most the threat of authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it usually takes the rest of us a good thirty years to catch on; so even great writers become voices crying in the wilderness for a generation at least, leaving Hitler free to march into Poland, and Stalinist Russia and McCarthyism to flourish. 

Orwell published “1984”, with its omnipresent public screens and repeated threat “Big Brother is watching you”, in 1949. But when the year 1984 had come and gone there was a mass sigh of relief. “See!” we said. “Orwell was wrong. Nothing’s happened after all.” By then, over thirty years had passed since the publication of his novel and the social control that it envisaged had not materialized. Not in our backyard, anyway. But what we failed to notice back then was another sort of screen, making its way into homes and businesses throughout the country, in the form of the personal computer. Within a decade they would usher in the world wide web.  

George Orwell died in 1950 aged only 46, but he left us three extraordinary novels―“Animal Farm”, “Brave New World” and “1984”―which between them continue to resonate with our past, present and future. A major difference between the futuristic world of “1984” and our own future is likely to be the physical coercion meted out to the book’s central character, Winston Smith, to make him conform. This probably won’t be necessary. As levels of computer dependency increase, any rebel who tried to challenge the status quo would simply be deleted. Because if all those numbers, codes and passwords that identify you online cease to exist, then so do you.

Still mulling over this dystopian future I was inventing, and having a quiet laugh at myself in the process, I received a jolt back into the present from a New York Times report on a young Egyptian called Nancy Okail. She was charged by Egypt’s military regime with promoting democracy in a country which supposedly had just undergone a democratic revolution during the Arab Spring. Sitting in a Cairo courtroom, in a cage originally built to contain President Sadat’s assassins, significantly she had with her an Orwell novel. A great writer is a gift that keeps on giving … as long as we keep on listening. 

In the late ‘90s Sandra Clayton and her husband David sold up their home and set sail in a 40-foot catamaran. Since then they have covered around 40,000 miles and visited more than twenty countries. Nobody needs to sail to enjoy her books. They are written for anyone interested in travel, people and places and a different way of life.

Her second book about their travels, Turtles In Our Wake, was published by Bloomsbury in March 2012. A third is due out next Spring. 

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Posted on June 5, 2012, in General, Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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