What if nothing in our existence can be maintained as private, even our personal thoughts? What if we are all cogs in the government machine, instinctively believing in the propaganda put forth by the party in power? What if humankind still exists, yet it is stripped of humanity?1
George Orwell imagined this world 1949. His novel Nineteen Eighty-Four became the quintessential caricature of what the world could turn into when citizens are stripped of their privacy and always under the watchful eye of the government.
Orwell’s imagined surveillance state is disturbingly recognizable today.2 The novel is set in a deteriorated Britain, now known as Airstrip One as part of Oceania, and the political realities of this future society are bleak. The Thought Police survey people in their public and private lives through the use of telescreens, microphones, and cameras. They have the power to punish those committing thoughtcrimes, or thoughts that oppose the ruling Party. Multiple ministries enforce loyalty and obedience. Big Brother is the totalitarian leader of the Party, whose watchful stare prevails in all parts of society. Whether real or symbolic, Big Brother’s presence is enough to enforce subordination.
Winston, the protagonist of the novel, works at the Ministry of Truth that manufactures reality as it is seen fit by the Party. Indeed, the government disseminated falsities to the point of convincing people that two plus two equals five.3 Doubting the party and its monopoly on truth, Winston is secretly defiant of the Party’s surveillance state and its totalitarian rule.
This dystopian world is increasingly becoming the reality of today.
Take, for example, how those in Oceania do not question the Party’s ability to open mail and letters in transit. How is this different from the government having free reign to intercept e-mails, phone calls, and text messages? Indeed, NSA leaker Edward Snowden claimed that the government “targets the communications of everyone… it ingests them by default.”4 Communications can no longer be trusted as private.
The telescreens of Oceania exist today, yet by different form. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, large and centrally located televisions broadcasted government sponsored propaganda, news, and entertainment. Today, we use Facebook to allow the government to enter our private lives. It is now a perfect tool of mass surveillance, where people voluntarily offer information about themselves. In the public world, surveillance cameras track our every move. In 2013 there was assumed to be one surveillance camera for every 11 people in the UK.5 However, this information is dated, and it is reasonable to assume there are more cameras and tools of surveillance today.
It can also be claimed that Newspeak, the condensed version of the English language the Party used to limit free thought, is evolving today. With the integration of colloquial language in the online Oxford dictionary6 such as awesomesauce, manspreading, bruh, and hangry, there is little doubt that language is being stripped down.
One of the most disturbing parallels between Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and today is the concept of an endless war. In the novel, a global war was being fought against a persistently changing enemy. Winston later realizes that the Party wages this never-ending war to keep the people of Oceania in a constant state of fear, making dissent inconceivable. Can this be our war on terror today? Indeed, we exist in a limbo where there is “no end in sight, a generalized societal fear, suspension of certain civil liberties, and an ill-defined enemy who could be anywhere, and anything.”7
The scary thing is that although people today are being watched, no one seems to care. This indifference cannot be attributed to naïveté. Yet the moral and ethical consequences of living in a surveillance state are met with apathy. Even surveillance commissioner Tony Porter is concerned that the public seems to be so complacent, and he urges public bodies to be more transparent about how they are using monitoring capabilities.8 Though not entirely rejecting the use of surveillance, Porter seeks to cultivate more public awareness of this issue to encourage the adoption of a voluntary code.
However, it is not too late. Freedom of thought is not yet a crime. We do not live in a single-party totalitarian state. Oppression is not the ultimate goal of the government. We do not yet believe that two plus two equals five. Yet we must be wary of this path. Surveillance today is both covert and overt. Monitoring exploits of the government are both omnipresent and opaque. Surely Orwell did not assume his satire would remain in the world of literature and imagination, so instead he issued it as a warning for what could come. Unless we want to spiral into a future dystopia where we are all forced to love Big Brother, we must heed the warnings of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Megan Erickson, Staff Writer