A Brave New 1984

July 10, 2013

The term “Orwellian” is being used a lot in the current discussions concerning the global surveillance programs carried out by the NSA and other British and American government agencies. The term relates, of course, to George Orwell’s famous novel (written in 1949), set in a futuristic dystopia of perpetual war, omnipresent surveillance, broad censorship, and mind control. This novel is also the origin of the term “Big Brother”.

In the world Orwell (i.e. Eric Blair) describes, books are banned and burned, newspapers are controlled and censored, information is monopolized and restricted, and the truth is drowned by propaganda. Resistance and dissent are met with brutal political cleansing; arrest and detention for the lucky, torture and death for the rest. Everyone is under constant surveillance. Every television is a spy-machine that monitors its viewers. Telephones are wire-tapped and correspondence is intercepted, checked, and censored before delivery.

Sales of the novel have recently skyrocketed on Amazon suggesting that the future Orwell imagined long ago rings true for many. But was Orwell right?

Almost 20 years before Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, which also involved a pessimistic perspective on the future, but with a twist. In Huxley’s dystopian future, the “Orwellian” measures of surveillance and censorship were unnecessary because endless amusement and entertainment renders everyone oblivious and apathetic. For Huxley, there would be no need to ban books since no one reads and no need to suppress citizens when they are too passive to protest. 

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman described the difference between Huxley’s and Orwell’s visions of the future as follows:

In Nineteen Eighty-Four people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. […] Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Postman, who thought that Huxley’s vision of the future would prove to be correct, wrote as if these two imaginary futures are mutually exclusive. But are they? Or is he indulging in a false dilemma? Why wouldn’t governments control their citizens through pain and pleasure? Why can’t Orwell and Huxley both be right? On their own they both seem inaccurate, but the combination of these two views appear to describe precisely the world we are living in today.

Huxley was certainly right about a lot of things: people really are consumers first, and citizens second. Many people really are addicted to entertainment and politically apathetic. However, as the recent NSA surveillance scandal has revealed, Orwell too was right. “Big Brother” really is watching, public dissent really is being crushed, and whistle-blowers are being persecuted.

The communication technologies that have been described as tools of liberation–consider this iconic TV advertisement by Apple–have in fact nurtured a generation of apathetic consumers (Huxley’s great fear); at the same time, they have enabled global mass surveillance programs (Orwell’s great fear). As Robert McChesney writes in his new book Digital Disconnect:

The domination of the Internet by a handful of monopolists, as well as the emerging cloud structure of the Internet, is perfect for the government. It need deal with only a handful of giants to effectively control the Internet. …

Surely the internet companies implicated in the recent NSA scandal did not intend for their technologies to be used by governments against their citizens — and there are some who have shown remorse — but they certainly didn’t put up much of a fight when they had to choose between submission (and continued profit) versus resistance (at significant cost).

It will be worth paying attention to the “United Stasi of America” in the next few weeks. Until recently, most of the illegal and oppressive actions by the US government were limited to foreign nations and a limited number of domestic groups. Now everyone is affected. Public reaction in the coming weeks and months to the NSA surveillance programs will determine the extent to which Huxley’s vision of the future was correct.

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