Orwell, Snowden, and Privacy in Light of Ong’s Cultural History

Thomas James Farrell
RINF Alternative News

As everybody knows, George Orwell’s 1948 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was a big success in the United States in the early years of the Cold War.

In the early years of the Cold War, both Republicans and Democrats were fervent anti-communists. In those years self-described communists were not in the ascendant in American culture, to say the least. Even though Orwell was a self-described socialist, his dystopian novel was a critique of Soviet communism — and Big Brother was based on Stalin.

Now, today Tea Party Republicans like to denounce Big Government, with special reference to the federal government. Granted their expression “Big Government” sounds a wee bit less personal than the expression “Big Brother” sounds. But their expression “Big Government” sounds even more ominous because it sounds like an impersonal force that threatens us. (QUESTION: Shouldn’t we expect the federal government to grow in size as the population of the country grows in size? The country is bigger now than it was in the early years of our Republic.)

Of course the recent revelations that Edward Snowden has made suggest that the National Security Agency is an Orwellian name for the National Surveillance Agency. As a result of his revelations about the NSA’s surveillance, many progressives and liberals are concerned about this “big government” intrusion into the private lives of Americans. Ironically, many conservatives have defended this “big government” intrusion into the private lives of Americans.

So the typographic lesson I have drawn here is twofold:

(1) When conservatives denounce supposed intrusions of the federal government, they are denouncing “Big Government.”

(2) When progressives and liberals denounce supposed intrusions of the federal government, they are denouncing “big government.”

Got that?

As you may have surmised by now, my clever typographic distinction does not work when we use these words in oral speech. But, hey, I’m writing written speech. So play along with me for a moment.

And please remember that in the early years of the Cold War both Republicans and Democrats were fervent anti-communists — even though the Republicans kept accusing the Democrats as being soft on communism.

Incidentally, American concern about the rise of communism goes back to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. However, after the Allied Forces, including Stalin’s Soviet Union, emerged victorious in World War II, Americans shifted their attention back to their concern about communism.

But why have Americans been concerned about the rise of communism in other parts of the world? Does the rise of communism in other parts of the world really threaten our American way of life? By definition, our American way of life is characterized by political freedom (also known as our experiment in representative democracy) and economic freedom (also known as capitalism).

In light of this recent historical precedent, perhaps it is not surprising to find that today conservatives denounce “Big Government” for supposed intrusions, on the one hand, and, on the other, progressives and liberals denounce “big government” for supposed intrusions.

But why do so many Americans today criticize the federal government — the crown jewel in our American experiment in representative democracy — for supposed intrusions?

I know, I know, it is a well-established American tradition to criticize the government.

But is something more going on today?

To help us get our cultural bearings about what is going on today, I will use the framework of our Western cultural history that Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) has ably delineated.


For years, I taught Orwell’s famous novel in my course Literacy, Technology, and Society. In this course I used Ong’s account of Western cultural history in his most widely known bookOrality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982) as the basic framework for discussing Literacy, Technology and Society in Western culture — with special attention to American society.

During the years in which I taught Orwell’s novel (I’m retired now), I pointed out in class just how commonplace surveillance cameras of the sort mentioned in the novel had become in recent years in the United States — without arousing protests regarding privacy concerns. But the almost ubiquitous use of surveillance cameras suggests that we are culturally undergoing a shift in our sense of privacy.

Our sense of privacy is culturally conditioned.

In my course I also had the students read Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958). The main character’s name is Okonkwo. He lives in a relatively remote village in Nigeria — around the turn of the century. In his village everybody knows everybody’s business. Those villagers do not have the culturally conditioned sense of privacy that most Americans had who read Orwell’s novel in the early years of the Cold War. In Ong’s terminology, their American sense of privacy was part of their cultural conditioning in print culture.

Ong’s former teacher (around 1939-1941) and life-long friend Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) helped popularize the expression “the global village” in the 1960s and 1970s. In McLuhan’s view, the communication media were making people aware of news from around the globe, thus producing a global village in which everybody knows everybody’s business — or at least everybody who has access to global news media knows everybody’s business in the global village.

For years, though, we Americans were not always sure that we were getting reliable news about the (now former) Soviet Union and certain other countries around the globe. Nevertheless, McLuhan’s expression “the global village” was a handy way to encapsulate our emerging sense that our awareness about events and people around the world was undergoing a shift.

In this respect, our consciousness was undergoing a shift. As a matter of fact, we Americans are still undergoing this shift in consciousness.

However, in addition to the content that news from around the globe feeds into our consciousness (i.e., our conscious awareness), Ong sees the communication media that accentuate sound as bringing about a shift from the highly visualist orientation of our American cultural conditioning in print culture.

Out of considerations of space, I am not going to give a full-blown explanation of Ong’s account of Western cultural history here. Instead, I highlight only certain selected points. For example, I highlight here the aural-to-visual shift. But Ong takes into account a number of other related cultural infrastructures that I do not happen to discuss here.

The Gutenberg printing press emerged in the 1450s. Over subsequent centuries print culture developed in Western culture.

Ong highlights the role of the Gutenberg printing press in advancing the aural-to-visual shift in cognitive processing that Ong sees as emerging in distinctively literate thought in ancient Greek philosophy as exemplified in the work of Plato and Aristotle. But Ong also sees this aural-to-visual shift carried forward in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and in ancient and medieval Catholic theology.

However, according to Ong, the Gutenberg printing press led to a far fuller flowering of the aural-to-visual shift than anything that had happened before the emergence of print culture.

For Ong, the flowering of the aural-to-visual shift represents one of the central psychodynamisms the contributed historically to the development of print culture and the development of modern capitalism, modern science, modern democracy (including our American experiment in democracy), the Industrial Revolution, and the Romantic Movement in literature and the arts.

In addition, our Western and American cultural conditioning produced the sense of privacy that forms the backdrop in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the backdrop for Snowden’s NSA leaks.

But Ong also works with the historical aural-to-visual shift to formulate his account of the contemporary communication media that accentuate sound.

In terms of our Western and American cultural conditioning, the communication media that accentuate sound serve as a countervailing force against the communication media in print culture that accentuate sight.

As a result, Ong suggests that the communication media that accentuate sound are moving contemporary consciousness in deep new ways, bringing about a slow-moving tectonic shift in our contemporary consciousness.


So if Ong is correct in suggesting that we are undergoing such a tectonic shift in contemporary consciousness, then we should expect that this shift will shake up and modify our sense of privacy. This is the cultural backdrop we should take into consideration as we discuss Snowden’s NSA leaks.

It remains for me to situate the concerns many Americans have had about communism, at least from the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. In theory, communism is supposedly an economic system.

In my course I also had the students read Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Arguably, Bellamy is the American equivalent of Karl Marx. In nineteenth-century American literature, Bellamy’s utopian novel ranks second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in terms of sales and influence. So we Americans had a lively bunch of American ancestors who were communists in spirit well before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917.

So why should Americans be concerned about a supposed economic system that happens to differ from our capitalist economic system in certain significant ways? The Cold War is over now. Instead of being concerned about the communist economic systems as a rival to our capitalist economic system, we Americans today should concern ourselves with improving our economic and political systems.

Finally, I see no good reason for Americans to think that all governments in the world should be democratic. Arguably, in an ideal world, perhaps all governments would be democratic. But we do not live in an ideal world.

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944.