I read George Orwell’s book way before 1984 but found it strange the way everyone last year went to great lengths to point out how modern society bore little relationship to the one portrayed in the novel. I was one of the few people to take the opposing view. If I remember rightly, and it is a long time since I read Orwell (at Primary school — it was slotted in between the Red and Orange Books and Peter and Jane go Ferreting) the book tells of how telescreens impose a highly ritualised life-style on the island’s inhabitants. Statistics were used to show how things were getting better when it was plain things couldn’t get much worse. What of our society?
During the last cold winter the electricity board met with very high demands on electricity, supplying in excess of 45,000 megawatts. Although this demand, brought on by the severe temperatures, was exceptional it was exceeded by the confluence of the end of a final episode of a BBC television series and a commercial break in a film on ITV. What this tells us about society is startling and leads me to think the power wielded by television is out of all proportion to its authority. To give Orwell’s novel renewed topicality, simply substitute the word telescreen with the word television. Or to paraphrase a learned Canadian, if the medium is the message then I’m afraid the news isn’t good.
So what has all this got to do with software? Well let’s first take newspapers as an example. The light-weights of Fleet Street would have little to do with TV during its infancy yet now find it profitable to devote up to two-thirds of their space to the gogglebox and its plethora of soap operas and petit politics. The crucial point with software is not that tie-ins with TV programmes is a bad thing in itself, it’s just that, if TV is not quite Big Brother, it is large enough to intimidate anyone with the idea of buying rights to a TV programme into parting with a considerable amount of money.
The point is, big business, delightfully absent in the early days of software, scares me an awful lot because big business needs a big turnover to realise big profits to get even bigger. It can get to the ridiculous stage where you either buy what they tell you to or you buy nothing at all. (If you don’t think things could ever get that bad try buying a decent pair of shoes in the High Street).
Remember, you can’t beat the imagination of one lone programmer or a small team huddled in deep thought around a project and also, TV seldom comes up with new ideas itself but in almost every case relies on a steady stream from books, stories, newspapers or the good old radio. It would be nice to think that we could choose what we particularly like from books, comics etc, rather than wait for some comfy TV people to decide this for us. And I would hope the same could be true for software.