In the real 1984, a good time was had by all. Transformers was just airing on TV. The NES was out in Japan. Arnie and Stallone were making some of the best films ever put on celluloid.
But when people refer to 1984, they often aren’t talking about the ‘actual’ year at all. Instead, they’re probably talking about the fictional 1984, as it was depicted by George Orwell in the novel of the same name. But given the times in which we now live, fact has become stranger than fiction.
Orwell’s 1984 presents a dystopian future, a totalitarian state ruled by a party called INGSOC, where the public are controlled and spied upon to an extreme degree. Privacy and individualism are things of the past, as is free speech and even free thought. In Orwell’s fictional universe, this has partly been possible through the use of technology, which allows the party to constantly surveil its people and pervade every aspect of their lives.
Privacy and individualism are things of the past, as is free speech and even free thought.
But while the fictional 1984 may bear little resemblance to the real one, it’s got a little more in common with 2017. Or at least, it’s easy to argue that the book is more relevant today than ever before. Let’s take a look at some of the more striking similarities.
One of the most pervasive ideas from 1984 to stick in the mind is the concept of the ‘telescreen’. This was a television that effectively watches the user back (like when you stare long enough into an abyss.) These ‘monitors’ provide a way for the Party and ‘Big Brother’ to keep a close eye on the private activities of any of its citizens, thereby completely eliminating any semblance of privacy or personal space.
Fortunately, your average television does not have this capability (yet). That webcam on your computer though? Not quite so safe! Reports are rife describing just how easily government agents and hackers alike can take control of your webcam to have a peep at what you’re doing. Fortunately, we do have the option to just place a little tape over them when not in use. Your laptop’s microphones are a different story.
But how many other devices in your home record and watch you? We recently wrote about how an Echo device may become instrumental in an upcoming court case for instance. In that situation, a defendant may well be tattled on to the state by a device sitting in their home. A digital assistant is much harder to ‘switch off’ without losing its basic functionality. While Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant don’t listen in on everything you say, they certainly could.
This is now an omnipresent threat. Our homes are now packed with devices that can watch us, listen to us, and log our behavior. The strangest part is that most of those sinister-sounding abilities are the very same reasons we bought them in the first place. We like location tracking, always-ready voice assistants and security cameras. Until we don’t.
Big Brother is always watching.
In Orwell’s vision of the future, telescreens weren’t just in homes but also in public spaces where they could watch over the people going about their business. Indeed, CCTV is absolutely everywhere these days and it’s only getting scarier. Facial recognition software, for example, now enables CCTV to notify store owners when one of their visitors matches a person on a watch list, and we’re already well versed in how easy it is to track individuals across entire cities via co-operating CCTV networks.
Big Brother is always watching.
The hope of modern facial recognition software is that a pre-emptive ‘can I help you sir’ could prevent a crime before it happens. This bears some resemblance to the ‘pre-crime’ unit in another science fiction story, Minority Report. The technology can send footage directly to the police and the same software might soon be used to provide us with shopping recommendations based on our tracked physical shopping history. Just think about that for a moment.
This poses obvious privacy concerns. It could lead to blacklisting, cases of mistaken identity, and people being treated as guilty before they’ve done anything wrong. The organization campaigning against this? Privacy campaign group ‘Big Brother Watch’. The fact that we even need a Big Brother Watch should tell you something!
But the reality is scarier than even Orwell could have predicted. Modern surveillance goes well beyond simply watching what we do and where we go, and extends to reading our emails and watching our activity on social media. Ever since Edward Snowden revealed the extensive shenanigans of the NSA (collecting emails, instant messages, phone calls and more), this has become all too clear. And there’s very little we can do about it! We live in a time where our communications – and thoughts by extension – are constantly being monitored.
We live in a time where our communications – and thoughts by extension – are constantly being monitored.
The government isn’t the only culprit here though. Companies like Google and Facebook are notorious for collecting user data. Facebook has the legal right to use any of the images you upload to its site in any way it sees fit. Google, until recently, made common practice of snooping through emails and using the data therein to come up with product recommendations.
Today, Google still has almost all our emails on its servers (even if you don’t use Google, your recipients probably do!), along with our search histories and much more. Our Android phones know precisely where we are at any given time. It still feels a little creepy when Google asks, unprompted, if you’d like to leave a review of the café you’re currently in (even if location awareness is also very useful).
Machine learning is used to identify specific facts from gigantic amounts of obtuse data. These companies know where we go, who we meet, and what we like. Tagged photos, GPS data, Google searches, friend lists, call logs, social media check-ins and more all contribute to a massive database about you.
The device in your pocket collects huge amounts of data about you, which is then sifted through by advanced AI. The government regularly makes (successful) requests to obtain that information. The personal devices in our pockets could end up being our greatest betrayers.
Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier recently described Google, Facebook and Verizon as being ‘Little Brothers’ (as opposed to Big Brother) in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. In that same interview, he also said that ‘surveillance is the business model of the internet’.
INGSOC may ‘despise capitalism’ in the novel, but its policies actually have a fair bit in common with capitalism and its implementation of socialism is contradictory.
Reality is what the Party says it is, as is history
Perhaps INGSOC’s most dangerous weapons then, are propaganda and misinformation. In the story, the party and Big Brother have completely rewritten history and regularly distort facts in order to serve their political agenda (which is nothing more than self-preservation). Reality is what the Party says it is, as is history; to the point that it can even hold two contradictory views at once and the people will swallow it. This is what’s known as ‘doublethink’ – the people have become so subjugated that they will believe Party lines that they know to be false.
Now you might think that this bears little resemblance to modern life, but propaganda and historical revisionism have been used in exactly this way for centuries. Stalin famously doctored images to erase political opponents and dissenters from the history books, as did Hitler (erasing individuals is another common practice of Orwell’s Party). Hitler was also partial to burning books. Whoever controls the information it seems, controls the people. Democracy relies on accurate information and freedom of speech. Take that away and you take away our objective reality.
We live in an ‘information age’, and that leaves us fairly vulnerable. Facts are incredibly easy to alter. ‘Fake news’ is a big deal right now and there are arguably more than a few modern political leaders with a penchant for bending the truth.
It’s not all doom and gloom
Of course, I’m hamming it up a little here. Fortunately, the internet and technology are more than Trojan horses and tools for manipulation. In fact, they might be among the biggest forces for democracy the world has ever seen – as the Arab Spring demonstrated. There is no malevolent Big Brother watching over us. Even if you think your government is misguided, you still probably live in a democracy if you are reading this and they are still servants of the people (at least most of the time).
The internet might in fact be the biggest force for democracy the world has ever seen
Technology and information have the potential to be used for control and surveillance. All the tools are there to enable that dystopian present. It is up to us then to be critical of what we read, to check the small print and to take measures to protect our privacy. We all likely must make concessions in the name of security and convenience, but we need to be conscious of those micro-decisions so that we can tell when the line has been crossed.
So, what do you think about all this? Is 2017 worryingly similar to 1984, or are any existing breaches of our privacy harmless or in the public interest? Let us know your stance in the comments!