Not even George Orwell envisaged this

19 Jun 2013

In 1984, George Orwell imagined a world in which surveillance technology was used only by dictators. What he didn't anticipate was society's willing integration of private information with commerce.

News that sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four have spiked following revelations about NSA's PRISM program is unsurprising. George Orwell's dystopian classic is still the way many people are introduced to concerns about intrusive state monitoring.

Big Brother and the Thought Police are seared into the general cultural consciousness, so that even people who have never read it understand the meaning of 'Orwellian' and have a sense of the novel's key themes.

But Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, and as powerful and evocative as its motifs and slogans remain, 21st century surveillance has elements Orwell never imagined, and is accepted in ways that might have astounded him.

CCTV cameras are presented as vital to crime prevention and as an effective means of protecting innocent citizens from attack. Monitoring keeps us safe. And surveillance has become entertainment, most ironically in 'Big Brother' where people compete to be under constant scrutiny. More revealing than their narcissism is the audience's enthusiastic voyeurism, playing at Thought Police from the couch.

Television was relatively new when Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in contemporary surveillance the computer has in many ways surpassed the camera as the vital monitoring tool.

As the NSA scandal shows, digital information can be collected in vast and unprecedented quantities, then analysed and acted upon without our knowing. Laptops and mobile phones that we considered intimate connections to the internet and other people are resources that can be mined by agencies for useful data.

The identity and credit cards that give us access to goods and services work as 'data doubles', surrogate identities that sometimes are accepted as more valid than our physical selves. Anyone who has ever lost a wallet or purse knows the difficulty of proving their identity to bureaucracies and authorities without information from a database. The electronic traces these cards leave can be monitored and assessed.

Not everyone has thought through the implications of these changes, and rapid developments in technology mean that the social, political and ethical questions surrounding them get little extended public debate. The NSA case has changed that, in the United States at least, if only temporarily. How the debate plays out remains to be seen, but Nineteen Eighty-Four clearly provides a starting point for thinking through and discussing those implications.

By 21st century standards the technology employed in Oceania is relatively crude and only employed by the political dictatorship. The NSA leak reminds us - even as Google, Apple and Facebook protest their innocence - that surveillance today is integrated with commerce, something Orwell did not foresee. Again, many of us now know this, and many more are complicit, happily providing personal information in order to purchase over the web or connect to cyber communities.

Our unpaid labour makes billions of dollars for many of these companies, and our credit card purchases supply information for many others, invaluable in planning, advertising and product development. Orwell has nothing specific to say on these matters. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's bluff assertion that privacy is no longer a social norm might usefully be judged against Nineteen Eighty-Four, where party members have no privacy. The novel supplies a means of thinking critically about what privacy means now and how or whether it will survive in the future.

Despite its immense powers, the NSA largely had remained free from intense public scrutiny until last week, its role officially promoted as protecting the nation against external threat, initially within the context of the Cold War (it was formed in 1952), later in relation to the War on Terror.

But the revelation that the agency is monitoring United States citizens immediately transformed the NSA into something Orwellian, an internal Thought Police. Its defenders on both political wings insist that its activities are vital to national security, but in a country where some citizens are almost pathologically suspicious of government, these soothing voices have failed to convince.

One of the reasons for this suspicion of government is Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, a text long taught in United States high schools and often misinterpreted there during the Cold War as only indicting the Soviet Union. Orwell explained that he set the book in Britain to emphasise 'that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere'. In today's United States that broad application is exemplified in libertarian Republican Senator Rand Paul's accusation in the Wall Street Journal that 'Big Brother certainly is watching and it's not hyperbolic or extreme to say so.'

Barack Obama also used the novel as a point of reference, responding to criticism of the PRISM program by claiming that 'while in the abstract you can complain about Big Brother ... when you look at the facts I think we got the balance right'. While the novel is being invoked at this political level by both sides to persuade a sceptical public, sales are likely to stay healthy.

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Image: Flickr / opensourceway


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