Memory Holes in Dystopian Societies
A dystopia (from Ancient Greek: δυσ-, “bad, hard”, and Ancient Greek: τόπος, “place, landscape”; alternatively cacotopia, or anti-utopia) is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian, as characterized in books like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more recently, The Hunger Games. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity’s spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.
A memory hole is any mechanism for the alteration or disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records, such as from a web site or other archive, particularly as part of an attempt to give the impression that something never happened. The concept was first popularized by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In the novel, the memory hole is a slot into which government officials deposit politically inconvenient documents and records to be destroyed. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth, is routinely assigned the task of revising old newspaper articles in order to serve the propaganda interests of the government.
For example, if the government had pledged that the chocolate ration would not fall below the current 30 grams per week, but in fact the ration is reduced to 20 grams per week, the historical record (for example, an article from a back issue of the Times newspaper) is revised to contain an announcement that a reduction to 20 grams might soon prove necessary, or that the ration, then 15 grams, would soon be increased to that number. The original copies of the historical record are deposited into the memory hole.
A document placed in the memory hole is supposedly transported to an incinerator from which “not even the ash remains“. However, as with almost all claims made by the Party in this novel, the truth is left ambiguous and the reader is not told whether the documents are truly destroyed. For example, a photograph which Winston throws into one early in the novel is produced later during his torture session by O’Brien, who then throws it back, moments later denying having any memory that the event had even occurred. This draws a direct parallel with the Party’s general philosophy of doublethink, of which the memory hole is in a sense the physical embodiment; as the novel describes it, “to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again“.