Screen Play


Until now, freedom of thought and speech—real freedom—has eluded every society that ever sought it. Even a free market requires defenses against theft, trespass, and coercion. In the marketplace of ideas, that means keeping the peace between the quiet and the loud, the retiring and the intrusive, the decent and the vulgar. It means maintaining some sort of control over the noisy and the nosy. Free speech is a right shared by two individuals simultaneously. Mutual consent is the key. Consent spells the difference between nudity in the bedroom and in a public park, between pillow talk and dirty words on the public radio, between courtship and sexual harassment.

But half a loaf of consent is much easier to find than a whole. My handbill is your litter, my political sound truck your interrupted rest, my radio broadcast your static, my street art your ugly graffiti, my cross burning your intimidation, my inept wooing your sexual harassment, my copyright your right to publish denied, my privacy your inability to pry, my pillow talk your vulgarity, my auto-erotic flashing your indecent exposure. Every right to speak collides with some reciprocal right not to listen, not to speak, not to watch, not to give away your own words, thoughts, or privacy.

And so, to maintain a fair balance between those who wish to watch or listen or speak and those who do not wish to be watched or heard or bothered, to protect the public against perverts who like to inflame and psychotics who react violently to inflammatory expression, even the most liberal governments have always relied on the city hall to license parades, on the courts to enforce copyrights, on employment commissions to prevent sexual harassment, on public censors to suppress indecency, hate, and incitement, on the police to suppress fighting words, on the state to protect the softly spoken from the loud and the retiring from the nosy. Who then stood up for the individual? The Party. Who protected privacy? Big Brother. Who protected free thought? The Thought Police.

Imagine now the world that awaits—a world shaped by perfect communication over any distance, between any pair, or any cluster, of "telescreens," a world in which records can be maintained and manipulated, combined and merged, moved and processed, effortlessly and at almost no cost.

In a telescreened society, free markets will be irrepressible. The genius of a market is that it elicits information about what people have and what they want. That information, however, becomes powerful only when it is communicated to others. The invisible hand has no power unless guided by visible eyes and ears. Guided by telescreen, the most powerful eye and ear ever imagined, nothing can stop it.

After all, what are the essential ingredients of a market? Communication, to connect together the willing buyer and the willing seller. Promises, so that trades begun today can be consummated tomorrow. Memory, so that promises will be kept. Memory, to record what belongs to whom. Promises again, to create all other rights beyond property rights, because all social norms depend on a shared commitment to enforce them. Promises again, by which honest traders agree to ostracize cheats, deadbeats, and thieves. Promises and memories, trust and loyalty: These are the essentials on which all else in the marketplace is constructed. And the telescreen is the greatest of all communicating machines, an electronic scribe of records and memory, a laser-light weaver of trust and loyalty.

Yesterday's Party abolished private property. The telescreen will recreate it. Private property is an idea, built around a memory and a promise. The old capitalists maintained vast records to track who owned which parcel of land. That was the memory. And they committed among themselves to defend each other's claims and possessions. That was the promise. Now we have the telescreen, the most powerful machine ever imagined for recording memories and communicating promises. With private property resurrected, and the telescreen at hand for trading it, the market will create prosperity beyond anything ever before imagined.

The giant trusts and corporations that evolved in the early days of capitalism will not reappear. The old corporation operated in the image of Big Brother, as a homogeneous, collectivist autocracy, dominated by a single, all-powerful leader. In the age of the telescreen no such structures can survive; independent yet tightly interconnected business groups, linked by telescreen yet disciplined in all their relationships by market forces, will replace them. In the telescreened world, people will he paid because they work, not because they show up daily on the factory floor or in some glass-walled office. Services delivered over the new network will be metered with absolute precision. Specialists will specialize as never before.

Labor supplied over the network will be valued with scrupulous care. People who really produce will be in high demand, and no one will care at all about their race or religion, their sex, their social graces, their physical appearance, or how they smell. Quality services will be purchased wherever they can be found, across the street or across the ocean. Inferior services will be priced accordingly, and incompetence will not be purchased at all, however much employment commissions may protest. No government agencies will even be able to keep track of what is being supplied where, still less dictate who should be employed or on what terms.

The factory will be irrevocably changed. A car manufacturer will become a truly efficient assembler of parts provided by hundreds of independent suppliers. Secretaries, accountants, designers—most of the enterprise's support services—will be replaced by independent outsiders, knitted together into an efficient whole by the network. Suppliers, assemblers, distributors, and customers will be coordinated with meticulous precision. Even the largest factory will operate with no inventory, no warehouses, no fitful starts and stops caused by shortage of supply or excess of output. A customer's order will be conveyed instantly up the chain of production to the assembly line, and back further still to the factory's suppliers of paint, tires, and radios, and hence back to their suppliers of rubber and steel.

There will be little waste, few unsold goods, almost no friction. Industrialism no longer requires collectivism. In every collectivist society of the past, the aim was to make men resemble insects in the hope that they would cooperate as effectively. With the telescreen, the insect-men are dead. An almost anarchistic form of society is now completely compatible with industrialism and a high level of technical development. Freedom and organization can be reconciled. Cooperation will be by consent.

The old systems of marketing will be transformed beyond recognition. In primitive societies, the market operates with tiny stalls and without reliable currency; trading extends only as far as goods can be carried. In a barter economy, the seller exchanges the pig directly for a dozen chickens. Payment is assured, but the process is terribly cumbersome. In societies that are stable enough to issue currency and imbue it with value, money marks a great advance. It records value in a standardized form that is widely understood; it conveys value without any need to transport pigs or chickens. The paper itself is worthless, except for the information it conveys. Money, then, is just another network—a system of communication, a record of past effort and a promise of future return. With money, the record is on paper, a primitive, inefficient, and vulnerable medium of communication. And a single, master record keeper, the government treasury, with a single, centralized printing press, has absolute power to determine value.

But there is ultimately only one valuable currency: the currency of reputation, of stable, honest, reliable loyalty. Once it is established of a man, or a leader, or a nation's central banker, that his word is his bond, he can issue currency at will. Once it is established that he is a chiseler, a deadbeat, or a thief, no amount of currency will do him much good, for his paper will be shunned wherever he tries to peddle it. The value of money thus depends on trust and promises among the people who control the records. If the network is powerful enough, nobody controls the records, or at least no central authority does. Trust begins among individuals; then it coalesces among larger groups; then it coalesces in larger groups still.

At their peak, the old capitalists trusted a thousand different private currencies in varying degrees: personal checks, stock certificates, bonds, credit card slips, futures contracts, green stamps, patronage accounts of every kind. Even the primitive network at their disposal enabled them to confirm that an account had assets, that a business was functioning, or that an individual faithfully paid his bills. Private enterprises were already issuing countless private currencies, by verifying credit, clearing checks, evaluating investments, dealing in futures, and insuring risks. All this was done on a network that was pitifully slow and unreliable.

All the while, yesterday's capitalists knew that governments could never be trusted, that even in the best of times the Treasury was corrupt and melted down the official currency a little bit every year, and that in the worst of times governments would simply repudiate their debts, deny their memories, and disclaim their bank-note promises. But with perfect memory and communication, the government bank is no longer needed—currencies of every imaginable description will be created by the market itself, like all other goods. With the telescreen, virtually every kind of good can become the equivalent of a bank note, available for inspection, conveyance, and storage at any distance. The telescreen spells the end of ration books, coupons, and degraded dollars.

Money is just one example among many. Almost everything that now belongs to Big Brother can be returned to the market. Lighthouses for ships? With advanced communication ships can be tracked and guided privately. Air-traffic control for planes? Planes, like pedestrians, can avoid colliding on their own, if they can see far enough ahead and communicate fast enough among themselves. Pollution of the air and water? This too is ultimately a failure of private dialogue and negotiation, as to who is willing to pay how much for air, water, or land. Prisons for criminals? The most pathologically violent will still need to be confined, but most asocial citizens can simply be ostracized, or tracked by means of electronic collars, credit reports, or private references.

The rule of law will be reborn spontaneously in a telescreened society. Law is created by consensus. Consensus is created by communication. The telescreen, the most perfect communicator, is also the most perfect police force. Not because the wires lead to a Ministry, but because free and honest people will always take up the hue and cry against brigands and thieves when the alarm is sounded. Our ancestors relied on branding and mutilation—crude records of past transgression, crude promises of future ostracism. An advanced network can brand people too, but with infinitely finer calibration and far less cruelty.

The telescreen will bring about the greatest liberation in the most important marketplace of all, the marketplace of ideas. In the age of the telescreen, men's thoughts will be freer than even the utopian dreamers of yesterday ever imagined was possible.

In the best days of the old capitalists, freedom of the press still belonged only to the few who owned one. The telescreen will give voice to the average man, the man who has never before owned a printing press or a broadcast station. It will mobilize public opinion, giving every man a stake in free speech itself. Once large numbers of people have their own, private interests in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it. By giving people the power to speak freely, the telescreen will also give them the right. No law, no Thought Police, will be able to change that.

The telescreen will resurrect memory too, and expand it indefinitely. The Party thought that history could be obliterated in a telescreened society; in fact history will be more accurately preserved, memory will be more constantly and widely refreshed, than ever before in history. Any document of importance, any title or deed, any record of science or business, any poem or book, any newspaper or photograph, can now be replicated any number of times and distributed to any number of people, creating new memories far faster than any Ministry can alter or incinerate them. Every act of communication creates a new memory, if only inside another human skull.

Ignorance—or at least rigid, class ignorance that endures generation after generation—cannot survive the telescreen. Not simply because wealth creates leisure, and leisure creates literacy; as often as not, leisure in fact creates passive ignorance. Ignorance will collide with the telescreen itself. People will now educate themselves and their children, if they wish to. The Party may continue to own the public schools—the buildings themselves—but the telescreen can create a school out of any pair of desks. The great universities, the great libraries, will no longer be in places; they will reside in cyberspace, securely out of reach of the Party torches and bonfires. Heresy can no longer be eradicated by fire. Heresy is now fire itself, pulses of light in a network of glass.

The telescreen creates the one freedom that matters in the realm of free expression: the freedom to choose. When men lived as crowded as ants, they quarreled endlessly about who could make noise and who was entitled to quiet, who could watch and who had a right to close his curtains against prying eyes. The telescreen gives man eyes and ears that can see at any distance, so that thoughts and words and gestures can inhabit infinitely spacious parks. It frees his senses and so frees his intellect and his conscious mind. It gives him the power to hear, see, and speak, to be heard and seen, in the company of his own choosing. Now men can create new assemblies, new congregations, new cities whenever they need them, in the capacious light beams of the network and the airwaves of the stratosphere.

The network is boundlessly public but also as private as the womb. The owner of the telescreen designates who may receive his transmissions. He designates which signals he wishes to receive. He can broadcast to the world from his bedroom or reserve his great novel for the enjoyment of a few choice friends. He can screen out all racists, sexists, pornographers, drug peddlers, or others whose messages he finds hateful. Distance was once privacy but also isolation, peace but also loneliness. The network erases distance or creates it, precisely as directed by the owner of each telescreen. The network is the true master of distance: It can maintain distance as easily as it can cross it. The power is in the individual's hands, and his alone.

In the days of the old capitalists, the press, the film industry, radio, and television were all stagnant oligopolies, dumping the same mind-numbing rubbish into every home. The owners of those media pitched their programs at what the great mass of people share in common—their prurience, their neurotic fears—and relied on crude polling to estimate how many people were attracted by sex and violence to endure advertisements for sugared cereal and laundry soap. All of this will now disappear. Every hobby and pastime—cage birds, fretwork, carpentry, bees, carrier pigeons, home conjuring, philately, chess—will have at least one telescreen channel devoted to it, and often several. Gardening and livestock keeping will have at least a score between them.

Then there will be the sporting channels, the radio channels, the children's comics, the large range of channels devoted to the movies and all more or less exploiting women's legs, the various trade channels, the women's soap-opera channels, the needlework channels, and countless others. These dime-store novels of the telescreen will exist because there is a definite demand for them, and they will reflect the minds of their viewers as a great national network cannot possibly do. Ours will become, once again, a nation of flower lovers and stamp collectors, pigeon fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon snippers, darts players, and crossword puzzle fans. The days of mindless broadcast to the mindless masses are at an end.

Amid all this freedom there will still be prurience, violence, necrophilic reveries, and the disgusting art of Salvador Dali. Yet in the universe of the telescreen, speech in public spaces no longer needs to be regulated. Public spaces—or at least the ones of any importance—are no longer surrounded by walls or gates. Bulletin boards, auditoriums, theaters, schools, stadiums, squares, subway walls—electronic replacements for all the traditional public forums—can be created upon demand. The network gives the pamphleteer and soapbox orator not just a place in Speaker's Corner but the whole of Hyde Park.

There is room for the pacifist, the communist, the anarchist, the Jehovah's Witness, and the Legion of Christian Reformers, who have declared Hitler to be Jesus Christ. Temperance reformers, Trotskyists, the Catholic Evidence Society, Freethinkers, vegetarians, Mormons, the Salvation Army, and any number of plain lunatics: All will be able to speak out over the network, all will receive a good-humored hearing from anyone who chooses to listen. The network will be Alsatia, where no opinions are outlawed. There has never been any place like it before in the physical world.

The network will supply room enough for every sight and sound, every thought and expression that any human mind would ever wish to communicate. It will make possible a wildness of spirit, where young minds can wander in adventurous, responsible, ungenteel ways. It will contain not innocence but a sort of native gaiety, a buoyant, carefree feeling, filled with confidence in the future and an unquenchable sense of freedom and opportunity. It will be capitalist civilization at its best. It will be the new frontier, and also the last frontier, for it extends as far as any human mind may wish to range. People will assemble in any numbers, at any distance, in groups that are infinitely variable. People will be able to cry "fire" whenever they wish: The theater will no longer be crowded.

Peter Huber is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a columnist at Forbes. This article is adapted from his book 1994 and After, which will be published this fall by The Free Press. It draws extensively from the works of George Orwell, though usually to articulate the opposite of what Orwell believed. Readers interested in pursuing the sources and allusions should consult the book's endnotes.