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.