1984 is a book about a totalitarian state where Party (government) and its leader Big Brother have imposed measures to control every aspect of people’s lives. The book’s author, George Orwell, used the themes in his novel to provide a political warning to the dangers of being ruled by a government that has too much control.
Although written more than 60 years ago, the dystopian novel remains one of the most famous ever written. Its lasting appeal and seminal status has been cemented by the perception that the book made a series of ‘predictions’ which turned out to become true in the near future. The most prominent of these is the idea that technology can be used to control and monitor every aspect of people’s lives, a concept that has developed its own shorthand, because of 1984 in the term ‘big brother state’.
The remainder of this post will explore how close we have come to the constant surveillance of 1984 by evaluating technology that best resembles examples found in the science-fiction classic.
The telescreen is an obligatory device that is supposed to be part of all but the poorest citizens’ homes. In form, telescreens have a lot in common with our televisions. However, as well as being used to broadcast party-centric propaganda, the device stays on 24-hours a day and comes attached with a camera so that the Party are able to monitor the behaviour of its citizens at all times.
Has it come true?
Televisions with built-in cameras are a recent development and the fact that they are also internet-enabled has understandably, for some, become a worrying concern. In reality, though, the personal computer (PC) has been doing the job of monitoring people’s behaviour for years.
Fear over how big businesses and the government are using the explosion of the internet to collect huge amounts of data on us is nothing new. However, recent events coming out of America have cast a light on the extent of the problem and catapulted this worrying trend into the forefront of many people’s minds.
Recent revelations from ex-National Security Agency and whistle-blower have detailed how the American government are conducting secret surveillance on its citizens by collecting data from their internet and phone records. This collection of millions of people’s personal data without a warrant or probable cause is being legitimised as an essential part of keeping the public safe from threats such as terrorism. For many, however, it is an act that sails dangerously close to the warnings found in 1984.
Although this is a worrying revelation, unlike the telescreens of 1984, PCs don’t (arguably) broadcast propaganda and have a lot of other positive features that benefit of society too.
Big Brother is watching you
Even for those that have not read the book, the notion that ‘Big Brother is watching’ has become shorthand for the idea of total surveillance – where your every move, no matter where you are, is monitored. In the novel, the next logical step for the Party was to take their telescreens and attached camera into the streets to watch the entire populace at all times.
Has it come true?
Today’s surveillance cameras perform a very similar function to the devices found on the streets of Airstrip One in the novel and are now found in abundance in our public spaces. In fact, the sheer volume of their use would probably take even Orwell by surprise were he still alive.
The UK, according to an audit conducted by Cheshire police community support officers (PSCOs), is now home to a reported 1.85 million CCTV cameras, or one camera for every 32 people in the whole of the country. Also, in an amusing quirk of fate, the London Evening Standard reported in 2007 that 32 surveillance cameras could be found within 200 yards of George Orwell’s former London residence.
The key difference is that the cameras of 1984 were used as yet another method by the Party to control its citizens, whilst today’s surveillance cameras are used to protect people and help prevent crime. Although debate continues to rage over their ethical use, specifically pertaining to rights over privacy, there is no doubt that surveillance cameras like the ones found at Traders Warehouse have contributed to the societal need of crime prevention and the capture of offenders.
Whilst it would be foolish to pitch the work of fiction as absolute reality, it is very interesting to evaluate to what extent George Orwell’s envisaged big brother state has come into fruition.
To this end, the way in which PCs have been used in a similar way to the technology in the novel to monitors people’s behaviour is certainly worthy of concern. However, where the technology of 1984 is relentlessly oppressive, today’s technology also perform positive societal needs. This is certainly true of today’s surveillance cameras, which has helped many people, proving that when technology is used for the right reasons it can perform an essential function.
Therefore, whilst the parallels of contemporary technology and the examples found in the big brother state of 1984 are impossible to ignore, could we really envisage a world where these devices don’t exist?
If you have any comments on the relations between today’s society and Orwell’s novel, please share in the comments section below.
Image by Colin Dunn