Where Orwell got it wrong

War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

In his novel 1984, George Orwell forecasted a dystopian society 36 years in the future, in which an all-powerful state uses advanced technology to exert totalitarian control over the thoughts, words and actions of its citizens. Ubiquitous two-way “telescreens” watch the individual’s every move and emit an endless stream of sinister propaganda. Big Brother is watching you. The Ministry of Truth is the only source of information. The Thought Police control what you think. As citizen Winston Smith learns to his cost, resistance is futile.

The allegations that the NSA has apparently been collecting the cellphone and Internet records of everyone in the United States (if not the world) has catalyzed fears that Orwell’s terrifying future may finally be materializing twenty-nine years late. Sales of 1984 are up 9,500%. Was Orwell right? Is technology in the hands of the state enabling our subjugation as he predicted?

In one key aspect, Orwell was absolutely right. Like Orwell’s telescreens, security cameras increasingly monitor us from every street-corner, but we also carry smartphones that log our every physical movement, and meanwhile a host of tracking technologies record our virtual movements across the Web. As a recent WSJ OpEd by Sen. Rand Paul proclaims, “Big Brother Really Is Watching Us” — and he’s using technologies far more powerful than Orwell could have imagined back in 1948. The implications of this surveillance are profoundly disturbing. While we may trust the current administration’s assertions that they’re only watching us in order to protect us, who can be confident that future administrations or less benign overseas governments will not use these tools to track and persecute whomever they deem to be an enemy of the state?

In another fundamental aspect, however, Orwell was dead wrong. In a paradox worthy of 1984 itself, the same technologies that enable Big Brother to watch us are rendering it ever more impossible for him to control what we know and think. Far from ending up in control of all knowledge through the Ministry of Truth, today’s governments have effectively lost the ability to control our access to information. In Orwell’s time, the state only needed to censor a few newspapers and a handful of broadcasters to effect total information control. Today, we carry access to hundreds of global news sources and tens of thousands of bloggers around in our pockets, most of them beyond our national government’s reach. If the New York Times won’t publish it due to a secret FISA court order, the Guardian will. If we don’t trust the Turkish government’s account of events in the streets of Istanbul, we can turn for the truth to thousands of cellphone videos or tweets from the people themselves. SMS, Twitter and Facebook have become the means for citizens to organize resistance to abusive government power, and for the rest of the world to witness it. No wonder Prime Minister Erdogan recently declared Twitter and its ilk “the worst menace to society.”

Moreover, technology is exposing the state itself to scrutiny in ways that Orwell never foresaw. Even in China, these days it only seems to take a flurry of critical comments on Sina Weibo for the government to change its policy on luxury cars for officials or to give in to villagers demanding the removal of a corrupt mayor. In what’s become a recurring nightmare for Western governments, leaks spread instantly and uncontrollably in the world of smartphones and Twitter. Whether you agree or disagree with their tactics, it only takes one “whistleblower” to shine the blinding spotlight of the global Internet on controversial top-secret government programs. And just as our personal use of technology lays a trail the government can follow, so too does government’s use of technology create a record that can be used to scrutinize the actions of the officials involved and hold them to account. If there is a “smoking gun” associated with the IRS Tea Party affair, it’s likely to be found somewhere in a trove of internal email. Like Nixon with his tapes, the day will inevitably come when a national government is brought down by its emails.

So, Orwell was partly right. The state uses ever more advanced surveillance technology to watch us, and our own ever-greater use of personal technology makes it possible. On the other hand, technology has fundamentally destroyed the state’s ability to control our access to information, and exposed its bureaucracy to unprecedented scrutiny. This may be the death of privacy, but perhaps it’s also the death of secrecy and impunity. In that respect, fortunately, Orwell was wrong. Thanks to technology, Big Brother may be watching us, but we’re watching him too.

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