Welcome to 1984 (2009)
From Death Ray 20, published August 2009.
Could technological advances be spurring society toward the kind of civilisation depicted in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? On the sixtieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Guy Haley is living in fear.
The posters here, part of a police anti-terrorism campaign, arrived in my inbox a couple of months ago, and they gave me pause for thought. Something about it made the skin on my neck prickle all the same, because it is only the latest in a line of government campaigns telling us that we should report on our neighbours.
It’s probably not going to offend anyone to say that people should pay their taxes, not fraudulently claim benefits and, naturally, not seek to blow us up for holding differing religious beliefs. But such poster campaigns encourage us to be suspicious of one another. Let’s just say, I reckon most people who thought there was some kind of bomb factory next door might just ring the police up anyway, posters or no. It’s the exhortation on the part of the state that’s worrying. It’s an extension of our government’s incessant nannying, and it made me think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In Orwell’s dystopian vision of perverted socialism children are indoctrinated to inform on their parents, and colleagues on one another. There’s nothing new in this, Orwell was inspired by the nightmare worlds of Fascist Germany and Soviet Russia, but there’s something frightfully un-British about posters screaming at us to spy on each other. (Like in Nineteen Eight-Four, we have a nebulous war with a faceless enemy to scare us, too). No-one’s going to cart me off to Room 101f or saying so, but when local councils use emergency laws designed to fight terrorism to check on when people put their bins out does not exactly fill me with confidence that one day they won’t.
This subtle shift in attitude is worrying when you consider modern technology. Vast databases put growing amounts of information about our personal lives into the hands of all manner of organisations. In Britain, we have the largest police DNA database of any nation – 4.5million entries, 800,000 of which come from people with no criminal record. The European government had to step in to declare the holding of such information unlawful, because our national government seemed reticent to give it up.
Our tracks across the internet can be easily followed (indeed, new laws mean such information must be held by internet service providers for years), as can our electronic financial transactions. Even our physical movements can be traced, thanks to the signature each of our mobile phones emits. None of this data is routinely used by the government, not yet anyway, but much of it is available in one form or another to those who can pay, and already companies are building it into their latest marketing campaigns. New software working off keywords we employ in blogs and on social sites enables companies to directly target us with tailored advertising, just like in Minority Report, and we all know what happened to Tom Cruise when he fell foul of the law – he had to get his eyes changed.
The UK has the largest number of CCTV cameras per head of population worldwide, our telephone calls are routinely screened by machines searching for phrases that might mark us out as terrorists. Businesses increasingly use an individual’s activities online to inform choices about them at work. We are being watched all the time. Like the telescreen in the novel, our personal computers are windows into our lives. Of course, we do not have to suffer the likes of the Gestapo or the NKVD. There is no one intelligence behind this endless logging of detail, it is almost incidental. It is not malicious or even planned to any great degree. But it could come to be, and the fact that much of it is routinely gathered is chilling in itself. Such information is not always employed in ways that are beneficial to those from whom it is being harvested. Do I want to have to pay a higher insurance premium because my genetic code predicts my lifespan? Do I want someone to be able to divine my political affiliation by snooping on my net use? Not really.
Orwell’s nightmare of vast socialist blocs has not come to pass, but the book’s message about social manipulation in order to preserve a particular power structure is eternal. Unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four we’re not so controlled by our government, but we are controlled. Advertising and human resources management rely on similar psychological direction as that employed by Orwell’s Party. Supermarket layouts aren’t that way by accident – they are designed to make you spend. Companies employ Jungian-derived personality profiling to create biddable workforces. The British work longer than any other Europeans. Work has once again began to overwhelm our lives, unpaid overtime and compulsory out of hours ‘bonding’ exercises take us away from our families and other interests. Similar, surely, to the way the Outer Party members have their lives dictated to them in Nineteen Eighty-Four, an endless round of activity and engineered deprivation keeps them in check, although it is not coffee and shoes we are being deprived of, but priceless time.
Orwell’s book is terrifying in that it posits a society enslaved by itself, its state exists purely to support itself. It’s hard to look at consumerism and not see Orwell’s nightmare socialism reflected in a crooked grocer’s mirror. The whole point of consumerism seems now to be to support consumerism. The Party says it works to make life better, triumphantly proclaiming the overproduction of shoes. Our own telescreens show us possessions we will never be able to afford. Life has become more and more expensive for the majority of people in the UK under the so-called socialism of New Labour. The overtaxed middle and working classes are our Outer Party Members, our benefit-supported underclass Orwell’s proles, drugged with free money. As the recent credit crash perhaps demonstrates, the consumers, bar those few at the top, can get stuffed, and so can the planet.
Perhaps this is all a little disingenuous. Our ancestors in the 19th century and earlier were tied to field then factory. Life is, in the main, better for us now than it was for them, whereas Orwell’s book shows us a world where life is kept deliberately worse than the past to keep the population cowed. But there is a certain similarity, in that the extreme wealth enjoyed by the postwar generation in the west was a historical aberration. With the world’s population overdrawing on what nature can provide, we cannot and should not look to the future to provide the same level of comfort for us as it did for the baby boomers. On an increasingly crowded planet, true freedom will get further away from the individual. But the really worrying thing is what social upheaval this may produce in the future. With modern technology, should some power group or clique make a determined bid to halt history they would have more tools at their disposal than ever before. Let’s hope that whoever picks them up is too flawed to use them to their most devastating effect; because the good intentions of those who would rule us are no protection at all.