Are we living in Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Colin Horgan explains why life is more complicated than even Orwell imagined

Where to draw the line on government surveillance

Fred Lum/The Globe and mail/CP


Over at the New Yorker, Ian Crouch wondered this week whether we really are living in some version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It seems like a perpetual question, but it has renewed relevance now, both in light of the revelations last week from the Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian that the National Security Agency is, apparently, mining internet data from users (whether guilty or not), without their knowledge or consent, and because in the subsequent days, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four skyrocketed.

But, as Crouch asked, are we living in Nineteen Eighty-Four? Not quite. It all looks pretty bad, and the nightmare scenario Orwell depicted is, technically speaking, quite possible but, Crouch noted, “all but the most outré of political thinkers would have to grant that we are far from the crushing, violent, single-party totalitarian regime of Orwell’s imagination.” Surely, though, this is not what was envisioned – even when the Patriot Act was debated back at the turn of the century, few (if any) could have envisioned that the laws might be one day stretched quite as far as they appear to have been under the Obama administration. So, if not Nineteen Eighty-Four then when? What time is this?

Likely, it’s much more complicated than even Orwell imagined, for the surveillance state that has been erected in the United States and, to an apparently lesser degree (though the Privacy Commissioner is looking into it) in Canada, has not been so overtly repressive as something so obvious as Big Brother. Were it, likely the legislation that has allowed the NSA to do what it has would probably never have passed through Congress.

Instead, we appear to be at some crossroads between what Orwell envisioned and what was predicted by his predecessor in the genre, Aldous Huxley. And, really, it’s the Huxleyan vision that’s more worrisome, because it’s really his imagined state of affairs that now feels normal. Big Brother, you can name when you see it. Big Brother is a tangible threat, a hated presence and jackbooted oppressor which, in theory, one might choose to revolt against if given the chance. Huxley’s vision was (and is) altogether different – subversive, friendly and comfortable.

At the New York Times this week, Thomas Friedman told the world that though the NSA surveillance was a Bad Thing, he would be willing to tolerate it in the hopes it might prevent a future terrorist attack that would then really perpetuate an even more complete and voluntary capitulation of privacy in the name of greater safety. Such a hypothetical future for Friedman seems scarier than the present he faces now, where much of the same information is simply taken without knowledge. It’s a surprisingly passive stance, and one that suggests Friedman is wholly more trusting of his government than someone like Orwell might have ever liked.

Huxley, on the other hand, probably would have understood. His vision of the world was of exactly that kind of voluntary acquiescence to the powers-that-be. Friedman’s world is one of Huxleyan nightmares, where the citizen willingly gives over freedom after freedom, unknowing and – most importantly – distracted enough by other things that the question of Why never even comes up.

There are two ways for a culture to die, Neil Postman wrote back in the 1980s: One is Orwellian, “where culture becomes a prison,” and the second is Huxleyan, where “culture becomes a burlesque.” To answer Crouch’s question, we are living the second reality more than the first. Big Brother does not watch us by his choice; rather, as Postman put it, we watch him by ours. “Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance,” Postman wrote.

This is essentially what Friedman is ultimately advocating for – not so much a life without individual privacy or freedoms (but perhaps that, too), but a life of ease and endless distraction from reality where he doesn’t have to worry about worrying about his privacy and freedom. He is asking for a return to normality, which is one in which the internet (the medium really at the heart of this) is not seen as a tool of Big Brother, but is instead the modern equivalent of Huxley’s centrifugal bumble-puppy and orgy porgy. If Friedman is to have an enemy, apparently he wants it to be one with a smiling face.

But fair enough. That is closer, after all, to the real state of affairs – not one with an enemy staring at you from the wall, but one where something that obvious isn’t even necessary. That is, we are so distracted with the trivial and the benign, obsessed with the now, living without narrative or context, and – most importantly – enraptured with the cult of voyeurism, that to learn that we’re being watched by our government feels not scary or creepy, but entirely normal.

To paraphrase Postman, we have not been ruined by what we hate, but instead, as Huxley predicted, by what we love. We are prisoners to our own egoism and passivity, drowning in a sea of irrelevant streaming data, presented not in with any hierarchy or inherent importance, but as equal and unweighted. The Harlem Shake and Nyan Cat are just as relevant as a civil war in Syria or a democratic nation spying on its own citizens, just as being watched by millions of strangers via webcam or TV broadcast feels just the same as being watched by the government. And, as Huxley thought we might, we have convinced ourselves that is freedom. 


Are we living in Nineteen Eighty-Four?

  1. There is no ‘we’ when it comes to society – you are talking about yourself and your small circle of like minded friends.

    Some people don’t mind government snooping, think it is entirely normal, but others of us are quite bothered by invasion of privacy by The State.

    “That is, we are so distracted with the trivial and the benign, obsessed with the now, living without narrative or context, and – most importantly – enraptured with the cult of voyeurism …. ”

    George Orwell – Politics And English Language:

    “…. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

  2. The biggest issue over the next few years will not be that new app, that new operating system or that new smart phone. It will be privacy – of which there is very little left. Until it affects a person directly – the typical Canucklehead gives it no thought.

  3. It is a fact that the Security State is an oxymoron; people are no more secure now than 2001, and in fact mass violence and global terrorism are escalating both in numbers of events and casualties. What this article fails to recognize is the vast and increasing number of “knocks on the door,” new investigations based on intelligence “tips,” derogatory and unverified information added to mountains of CSIS-RCMP/Homeland Security files, and seemingly random stops that deprive millions of people of their Charter §7-14 (Canada) and Fourth Amendment (US) rights. This new mountain of security intelligence files and Star Chamber investigations are no less pernicious–and far more broad reaching–than those of Hitler’s SS. And are they not already being used to stifle dissent and target political opponents?

    Oh, have to go answer my doorbell. Signing off…forever.

  4. You nailed it. That is exactly where we are living. Mesmerized by one spectacle after another. The soma of the 21st century. A constant state of distraction. Our current version of fiddling while Rome burns but in this case it is our planet that is burning.

  5. At least Winston’s home surveillance system was installed by the state. We buy ours with our own money, and line up for the chance to upgrade to the newest versions.

  6. “whether guilty or not”.

    If everyone is “guilty” (or suspect) then no one is safe. Surveillance of all does not improve the security of no one. That’s what totalitarian system is all about – everybody is suspect.

  7. The surveillance state already existed. It was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There are plenty of imitators – Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela, and also in heavily socialist countries to a lesser degree, places like France and Italy where they regulate how much you work, they take most of your earnings, and they makes laws that dictate the maximum size of soda beverages and rules specifying the maximum curvature of bananas.

    There’s really not much that is different. The same technology today that allows them to improved their surveillance, it also allows you to evade it more easily. It’s really no different if it’s 1900 or 2013, whether there is an internet or not. It’s the same in any society where the citizens allow the government to assert its supremacy in everything. We have supposedly free countries in which 50% of GDP is spent by the government, so the government already controls half of everything that is produced.

    There will always be people willing to hand over their freedoms voluntarily. In Canada, we call them NDP voters. Once you’ve handed over your freedoms, you may never be able to get them back, and you can never be sure what the government might do with them. Whether you may be granted a spot in a university, whether you may be alloted treatment when you walk into a hospital, those freedoms have been handed over to government in Canada, and you can never be sure what you will receive when you no longer have any control.

    In the US, those who handed over their freedoms voted for Obama, and they have spent the last 5 years ignoring or encouraging the abuses that have resulted. They hand over their freedoms voluntarily, and once handed over, they react in bizarre fashion to the reality they have created for themselves. The thing is, when freedoms are handed over, you can no longer control the result – that is the nature of freedom.

    Heck, in Venezuela you will now be beholden to the government whether you can use a baby bottle or not.
    Here in Canada, hordes of people have been expressing their support and admiration for the government of Venezuela. So there you have it. People love the surveillance state. Until they don’t.

    • Canada is one of those countries whose GDP is nearly 50% government spending. And last time I checked, we’ve never had an NDP government. And it’s almost like your beloved Conservatives (or Liberals — same thing, really) — those bastions of freedom — have no desire to change it.

    • You’re trolling if you’re arguing that other parties don’t introduce policies that infringe on freedom. Which parties were pushing for Patriot Act-escque laws to be introduced in Canada after 9/11?

  8. Ending is better than mending. Oh excuse me, my i-phone is 23 months old, I must get a new one…

  9. S c f.
    A government that is formed and controlled by an active citizenry (democracy) is not at all the same thing as a government that sees citizens as the the enemy. An active democtatic socialist government is not totalitarian. (As Faranji says) the totalitarian govt sees every individual as a suspect, and has goals other than the welfare of citizens.
    This increasingly applies to our own government as we allow it to be taken over by interests other than that of the general public.

Sign in to comment.