Debasing Orwell

An "Orwellian" US-based company, which generates editorial content "without human authoring", highlights the difference between lazy journalism and sinister civil restriction

David Barrett

Narrative Science is a US-based company that uses technology to generate news stories, industry reports and headlines. According to its website, the company “transforms data into high-quality editorial content […] without human authoring or editing.” The company recently produced college basketball reports that were published by a division of News Corporation.

Sixty-five years have passed since George Orwell diagnosed several illnesses afflicting the use of the English language. One was the use of ready-made phrases, which are used by a writer who wants to avoid the work of choosing the right words to express his meaning. In avoiding the work, he lets the words choose his meaning for him. Narrative Science, by building entire stories from ready-made phrases, has saved this type of writer the effort of even showing up to work.

Orwell predicted the use of machines to write books in his 1946 essay, “The Prevention of Literature,” and pursued the idea further in Nineteen Eighty-Four. While the production of sports reports “without human authoring” could be accurately described as “Orwellian”, the purpose of a report produced by Narrative Science is to describe a real event cheaply and quickly, not deliberately to fabricate or falsify an event. 

It is sometimes said nowadays that various limits to our freedom in the West are Orwellian. In January the Trades Union Congress described a Fenland District Council plan as Orwellian. The plan proposed that council employees who share more than just coffee breaks or polite conversation in the lunch room should declare their “close personal relationship” to the boss “in writing”. This was a silly idea, yet was it Orwellian? Do we     really live in a version of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare?

The word Orwellian now suffers from the same type of misuse that Orwell identified in “dying metaphors”, such as “Achilles heel”. It is generally used to describe any measure which might threaten the freedom of the individual. But the word suggests more than this.

Orwell’s dystopian nightmare was, among other things, a society where sexual repression was used to whip the populace into frenzies of aggression and hate, where the rules were set by inerrant authorities, and where not even thoughts were beyond the reach of Big Brother. It was also a society that demanded absolute conformity in action and belief, and where the punishment for dissent was death. 

This is not how we live, but it is very similar to how some people want us to live. Some yearn for this kind of  society so much that they bespatter themselves and others on trains, buses or planes. 

It is right to criticise measures which threaten our liberties. But the criticisms must be made with respect for the language — not by slapping together ready-made phrases like a Narrative Science basketball report.

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