Saturday, November 13, 2010

Orwellian memory hole

I don't know where I came across this concept in recent months--I just noted it down as something to explore at a later time. Although I have read  Orwell's 1984, it has been quite some time, so I didn't immediately remember this passage:

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston's arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

So, of course, over the years, these literal memory holes have expanded in meaning to include all kinds of memory holes--not just pneumatic tubes, but any way in which information of all kinds has been made to disappear or been doctored to say something different than it was originally intended to say.

I was curious to see what the modern manifestations of this phenomenon might be. As it turned out, several examples came up pretty quickly, and I thought I'd mention them here. The funny thing is that some of them at least will be quite familiar, but have already some what faded into memory, without making quite the stir they should. Which is perhaps Orwellian in its own way.

The first is the well publicized circumstance of Orwell's work itself  slipping down a memory hole. In brief, it vanished overnight from many Kindles when Amazon learned that the uploader did not have the rights for the book and were in copyright violation. People learned then if they hadn't figured it out already that they did not actually own the books on their Kindles, but had only been given the license to them, which could be revoked without even notification. Although Amazon promised never to do it again, in fact, they have now shown the world that they do have the power to do this, and any other copyright holders who might have a beef can no longer be told that withdrawing the copies "can't be done". Meanwhile a student from Detroit was suing Amazon over taking back the copy that his personal annotations were attached to, rendering, he said, his notes largely worthless.

In a perhaps more purely Orwellian example, because it has to do with government and government archives, I found this article about, which made such claims about being away for the American people to connect to the executive branch, disheartening. I would have thought the Obama White House would be better archived than Bush's, but according to this writer, it is not the case.

And finally, I found this little rumination from The Atlantic about how Orwellian our age really is or isn't interesting. A professor had made an effort to delete an unwise diatribe he had written from the world wide web, deleting it. In this age, though, nothing is ever truly deleted. The author, James Fallows, says that in this sense our world is worse than the one Orwell conceived, because it's not what goes unremembered but what is remembered that comes back to haunt us. A reader posted in, though, and pointed out that Orwell had, in fact, anticipated this too...The last line is worth reading through to the end for. 


  1. It's been years since I read Nineteen Eighty-Four, so I don't remember if Orwell tells us how the population reacted to the imposition of the state of affairs that prevails in the book. We in the real world have embraced the Orwellian aspects of our world -- some of them, anyway.

    Outside a small circle of book readers, for example, it is considered eccentric not to own a Kindle. And there was something vaguely Orwellian about Jeff Bezos' promotional statement that Amazon has introduced a new, upgraded Kindle "because I believe in the power [or was it the magic?] of reading."
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. No, I don't remember much about how the rest of the populace reacted either.

    It's funny, but most people I know don't have Kindles. A few have e readers of some sort, but not nearly as many as you'd expect, living so close to Silicon Valley.

    They do, however, buy lots and lots of books from Amazon. Unfortunately for us.

  3. Oddly enough, I just finished writing that and checked an email from a friend who told me that she couldn't remember what our next book group selection was, because everyone was so taken with the newest member's Kindle.

    So I guess it really is all over.