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- Andrew West
Q: George Orwell’s novel 1984 describes a dystopian future in which the government controls its citizens through the use of constant surveillance. What parallels can be drawn from this novel and the use of surveillance with our culture today?
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A: George Orwell’s “1984” which was first published in 1949 is a fictional novel that shows what the world would be like if the government overextended its powers and controlled every facet of its citizen’s lives through manipulation of language and constant surveillance. Even in its own day the novel was considered visionary and futuristic for its predictions about the future of surveillance. Even though “1984” is science fiction novel that was written over 60 years ago, it still contains a lot of significance for people and society as a whole today. Science fiction as a genre has always been about the future and what might happen if events and practices at the time the novel was written were allowed to continue and become more prevalent. One of 1984s main themes is that of perpetual war and how it can be used to control people through fear of the “Other” and the concept of taking away freedoms under the guise of keeping its citizens safe. As the book was written only 5 years after the end of war world two the fear of another war, let alone a perpetual one would have prevalent in the minds of the people at the time. George Orwell used this fear to create a sort of end game conclusion to where these practices might lead. His writings lead to the creation of the term “Orwellian” which is a word used to describe a totalitarian society. Many of Orwell’s ideas, particularly in regards to totalitarianism and the tendency of modern governments to want to watch and control its people, ideas that were once considered the stuff of science fiction have now in this modern age become so much more than that. While it would be an exaggeration to say that our world has turned into the totalitarian state outlined in the book, we can draw many parallels between surveillance practices used in the novel and ones that are used today.
‘9/11 brought to the surface and accelerated a number of surveillance trends that had been developing quietly and largely unnoticed for previous decades’
(Lyon, D, (2003) Surveillance after 9/11)
After the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the world trade centre, Americas surveillance practices changed dramatically. With the general populace fearing another terrorist attack, the American government was able to use the peoples fear to pass a large number of draconian laws that increased spying on American citizens under the illusion of keeping them safe. The most damaging of these laws was the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act was a law passed by the United States Congress on October 26, 2001, at the request of then President George Bush in response to the terrorist acts of September 11. The law gave controversial new powers to the Justice Department in terms of domestic and international surveillance of American citizens and anyone else within its jurisdiction (Its jurisdiction would grow and change over the years). According to the main sponsors of the law, the Patriot Act was necessary to address the growing problem of terrorism within the US borders and the need to apprehend and prosecute them before they acted. Many Opponents of the Act, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, say that the Act was far too broad and would unnecessarily endanger privacy, civil liberties and discourage free speech. Among the powers that the Act grants are the ability of the government to legally tap telephone lines and the ability to intercept any Internet date including emails and private messages that they wanted. Theoretically this meant that the government had the ability to intercept any data that they considered “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation” which was a much lower standard than the previous legal guidelines which stated that a crime had to have been committed before data mining is allowed to take place. The very broad guidelines of the Act allowed the government to apply surveillance to the metadata of all American citizens and not just the data of suspected terrorists. In 2007 the NSA (National Security Agency) launched the “PRISM” program which was a clandestine anti-terrorism mass electronic surveillance data mining program. This program allowed the NSA to
These events are strikingly similar to events contained in “1984”. In the book the government of Oceania uses the threat of war to pass restrictive laws and abolish freedoms so that the people are easier to control. One of the key elements of “1984” is the term “doublethink” which is defined as “the power to hold two completely contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accept both of them. If we look at the use of language used in the name of the law, The Patriot Act, we can see a perfect example of this. The use of the word “Patriot” meaning that this law is expressing patriotism and values that are good for America and if you don’t agree with everything the government is doing then you hate America and want the terrorists to win. But this law does not express the values that America was founded upon (which are freedom and liberty for all), in fact the opposite is true as it greatly restricts them. Using these laws the government of Oceania slowly began to invade the privacy of its citizens more and more until they began to control every facet of their lives. Constant surveillance and thought crimes became the normalcy, with the government monitoring its citizens through the use of tele-screens within the person’s home so as to quash any rebellious thoughts.
So in conclusion what parallels can be draw between the book “1984” and the surveillance practices of today. As I previously stated our world is much different than the oppressive totalitarian state described in the book but only because the government hasn’t been given the opportunity. Is the government collecting your Metadata and then using it to quash any rebellion or speech against them any different than how the government controls its citizens in “1984”. What about allowing corporations to use our data to track what we are doing online so they can sell it to the government or us it to sell us stuff, is this any different than “Big brother is watching you”. Looking at past and current surveillance practices by the government we can conclude that if given the chance the government would turn the world into that of “1984” but the reason that hasn’t quite come to pass is because we have fought against the suppressive acts of the government to try to curtail our freedoms but this is not enough. We cannot stand ideally by while they slowly take away every last freedom we have, our indifference is what the governments wants. They want us to slowly give away our privacy ever so gradually, sometimes willingly like with social media sites like Facebook and other times forcible without out knowledge like with the NSA spying program. Governments and corporations want to make no reasonable expectation of privacy the new norm because it makes it easier to control and manipulate. We have to draw a line in the sand and say that we don’t want to be spied upon when we are on line because if we continue to remain indifferent to what is going on with regards current surveillance practices then we will have only ourselves to blame.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
(Niemöller, M, (1950), Poem about the Holocaust)
Joe Austin, 2010. Youth Culture
[Accessed November 10th 2013]
Fornas, J., 1995. Youth Culture in Late Modernity.
London: Sage Publication Ltd.
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