by Jack Bragen
George Orwell sent his landmark novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (alternately referred to as 1984), to his publisher on Dec. 4, 1948. Orwell created this insightful “negative utopia” by closely examining the erosion of individual freedom, governmental surveillance and enforced conformity that were already well advanced in his own time.
Orwell’s novel remains a fascinating indictment of a future where human rights and the individual conscience are crushed underfoot by the national security state.
A central component of the plot was the surveillance of the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, whose every waking hour was spied upon by the nameless, faceless bureaucrats of the tyrannical regime.
When Orwell wrote his book in 1948, the transistor was still in the early stages of development, and it was not known if it would replace vacuum tube technology. (The first mass-produced AM transistor radios didn’t appear until about 1954.)
Thus, there was no way that Orwell could have predicted the invention of microprocessors decades later, or the ever more powerful computers that have enormously magnified the surveillance capacity of both governments and corporations.
With modern technology, it has become feasible to conduct round-the-clock surveillance of far greater numbers of people on a more massive scale — and with far less human effort — compared to what Orwell described in 1984.
In the beginning of Orwell’s book, Winston Smith was busy at his job. Tellingly, his position was one of assisting the regime to constantly rewrite history. Orwell’s warning has proven prophetic. In the modern era, Holocaust deniers have attempted to rewrite history; the FBI and CIA smeared political movements with falsely manufactured “evidence” and concealed their own covert actions; and Stalin’s regime rewrote history on a massive scale during the Cold War.
Technology has become increasingly efficient at placing countless people under surveillance and controlling the public. Consumers are enthusiastic participants in this process, voluntarily posting all of their personal information, photos, thoughts and gossip on social media websites. Surveillance cameras are present more often than not, and it is valid to assume they are present in a great number of public and not-so-public places.
The good that might come of this ever-present scrutiny is that crimes are recorded, including those in which police officers abuse their positions of power. For example, on April 4, 2015, a video taken by a bystander was a crucial element that led to a white South Carolina police officer being charged with homicide for shooting and killing Walter Scott, an African American man, after a routine traffic stop. This bit of progress toward equal protection under the law would never have been possible without a video recording by the bystander that showed the unarmed man being shot in the back.
Pressure from citizens is beginning to play a pivotal role in getting us to the point where these injustices will no longer go unanswered. However, someone pointed out to me that there are many times when officer-involved crimes have been recorded in which, nonetheless, nothing happens to the officer.
Limitless Ways to Spy
It can be disconcerting to wonder when and where we are being watched. GPS devices are apparently built into nearly all of our cell phones. Furthermore, electronic technology is so far advanced that one’s dwelling could be wiretapped in such a way that a listening device is not findable.
It could easily be carried out with the microphone built into your cell phone, the microphone in your computer, or with a micro-miniature device built into any wall, piece of furniture, appliance or vehicle. You can be monitored with a device mounted atop a power pole across the street. There are limitless opportunities.
In the past, the assumption that you are being watched might get you categorized as having paranoid delusions. However, given the state of technology today, it could be a reasonable assumption.
Yet, even though we know that it might be easy to spy on us, we should avoid falling prey to excessive fear or paranoia. It is important not to leap to any conclusions about surveillance, in the absence of any direct evidence of this.
On the other hand, if Orwell’s chilling prediction of omnipresent governmental surveillance has already come true, most of us might never be aware of that. The culture of surveillance and control is creeping upward in subtle steps, and most of us are blithely unaware of the change. And, in fact, we are often willing participants.
The atmosphere in today’s society is not exactly the same as in his book. Orwell didn’t predict the role of corporate structures being responsible for a good portion of the brainwashing and surveillance that takes place.
The “war on terror” has furnished our government with a great excuse for violating basic civil rights. In the name of keeping Americans safe, we are losing the essence of what America was supposedly about. The fact that I have the freedom to say all of this doesn’t make it not so.
The public has become numb and jaded to the fact that we are constantly being watched.
Broken Down by the Government
The punishment for deviating from what was considered normal in Orwell’s book included being tortured, imprisoned or disappeared. There was not a single space remaining in this totalitarian society for any sort of freedom, dissent or nonconformity.
In 1984, the surveillance apparatus detects Winston Smith’s small attempts at freedom. He is arrested, thoroughly processed by the government and broken down. He is forced to inform on the person he loves and he betrays his most deeply held values.
Orwell’s book was a work of fiction. Yet, in the years since he wrote 1984, this same fate has happened in real life to countless dissenters and political prisoners.
In the version of Orwell’s surveillance society which has materialized in the United States, punishment for dissent is often economic. Or it may involve being excluded, or the loss of employment, or being intimidated by the government.
It could mean becoming a political prisoner under the definition of Amnesty International. Or it could seem like a baffling amount of inexplicable bad luck.
While the particulars aren’t the same as in 1984, we are headed towards a society controlled by fear, and where our freedom is undermined by constant surveillance.