This past weekend I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. The book was published in 1949 and I wanted to read it in the light of what we have learned from NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden.
Orwell describes a surveillance state, and coined the term Big Brother for the mysterious and secretive Party leader. The populace are divided into three classes – the Inner Party (the party elite who have control), the Outer Party (civil servants in the party bureaucracy), and the Proles (everybody else).
In the book, government surveillance is omnipresent. All members of the Inner Party and the Outer Party have “telescreens” in their homes and offices, constantly monitoring their every waking activity. “Telescreens” also monitor the streets and town squares, and in the remote countryside, hidden microphones monitor conversations. Citizens have no privacy whatsoever. The thought police arrest people even if their facial expressions indicate less than complete and unquestioning support for the regime.
Orwell did not foresee advances in technology such as the internet and mobile phones which we have today. If he did, he surely would have written that all activity on the internet and mobile phones would be under government surveillance. The similarities between Orwell’s State surveillance and current government surveillance are so obvious as to require no elaboration. The difference is today’s surveillance is primarily metadata. However today’s surveillance is also large-scale, indiscriminate, and a pervasive threat to our basic freedoms. Most viewers of a debate this past weekend agreed that surveillance has gone too far. Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, believes that current government surveillance goes far beyond that described by Orwell, and warns of the dangers of this capability falling into the wrong hands.
The leading character in the book is Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party working for the Ministry of Truth. His work and that of his Ministry has nothing to do with truth, it is quite the opposite – involving propaganda, lies and the falsification of past events so that they make the government look good. Recorded history is constantly being rewritten by the Ministry of Truth so that the State is never seen to be wrong.
I compare Orwell’s Ministry of Truth with the many government enquiries that exist today. Too often, government enquiries exist to cover-up and exonerate wrongful actions of government employees. Case in point is the Hillsborough Enquiry into the 1989 deaths of 96 spectators at the football stadium in Sheffield, England. My personal experiences with government enquiries is that they are frequently nothing more than cover-ups and an attempt to create false records for history so as to make the government look good.
Australian journalist and film maker John Pilger puts it this way: “What if I told you that the version of history you were taught in school was heavily revised to favour your own nation’s agenda while hiding its crimes. And in doing so fostered an unrealistic sense of false patriotism used to manufacture an allegiance to a corporate entity masquerading as your government”.
Orwell describes how any dissenting citizen who attempts to expose the regime are tracked down, tortured and exterminated by the Ministry of Love. I suspect Edward Snowden may relate to that, with calls for his execution.
In Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell also describes the system of office communication – a vacuum tube network through which written messages are passed. This is remarkable insight considering the preponderance of email in today’s world. I remember as a child seeing vacuum tube communications in some commercial establishments – canisters carrying messages were sent flying between offices through the network of tubes. Orwell’s “telescreens” are equipped with a “speakwrite” – a sort of VOIP and email combo.
In summary, even though we are far from living in a totalitarian State, we are closer to an Orwellian surveillance world than ever before. The parallels are relevant. I recommend the book – it is 65 years since it was written, however the remarkable insights are more pertinent than ever. Sales of Nineteen Eight-Four have rocketed 9,500% since Snowden’s revelations.