||This article may contain original research. (August 2010)|
Telescreens are most prominently featured in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as all film adoptions of the novel, although notably they have an earlier appearance in the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times. They are television and security camera-like devices used by the ruling Party in Oceania to keep its subjects under constant surveillance, thus eliminating the chance of secret conspiracies against Oceania. All members of the Inner Party (upper-class) and Outer Party (middle-class) have telescreens in their homes, but the proles (lower-class) are not typically monitored as they are unimportant to the Party. In Winston Smith's conversation with the shop keeper Charrington, it is mentioned that "[telescreens] are too expensive" and proles cannot afford them (presumably, Party Members have to buy them, though this is not explicitly stated).
O'Brien claims that he, as a member of the Inner Party, can turn off his telescreen (although etiquette dictates only for half an hour at a time). It is possible that this claim was false and the screen still functioned as a listening surveillance device, as after Winston and Julia are taken into the Ministry of Love, their recorded audio conversation with the telescreen "off" is played back to Winston. The screens are monitored by the Thought Police. However, it is never made explicitly clear how many screens are monitored at once, or what the precise criteria (if any) for monitoring a given screen are (although we do see that during an exercise program that Winston takes part in every morning, the instructor can see him, meaning telescreens are possibly an early variant of videophones). Telescreens do not have night vision technology, thus, they cannot surveil in the dark. This is compensated by the fact that telescreens are incredibly sensitive, and they are said to pick up a heartbeat. As Winston describes, "...even a back can be revealing..."
Telescreens, in addition to being surveillance devices, are also the equivalent of televisions (hence the name), regularly broadcasting false news reports about Oceania's military victories, economic production figures, spirited renditions of the national anthem to heighten patriotism, and Two Minutes Hate, which is a two-minute film of Emmanuel Goldstein's wishes for freedom of speech and press, which the citizens have been trained to disagree with. Much of the telescreen programs are given in Newspeak.
The word "Telescreen" also appears in Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet, written at the same time as Orwell's book - where it simply refers to an instrument similar to a big television, with none of Orwell's sinister connotations.