The road to 1984 might look a lot like this place
If the self-proclaimed Land of the Free can so easily become the Land of the Watched, what hope for those countries already under the yoke of oppression?
We are not all that good at understanding how power works – we usually reduce it to a grossly simplified model whereby certain people are in power and certain others are out of power, confusing real power for the game of politics, or business, or what have you.
It’s this tendency to oversimplify that makes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the most potent novels ever written. How many books have given us so many invaluable metaphors for the autocratic tendencies that can lie dormant in all societies? How many narratives have provided so many chilling insights into the darkness that inevitably accompanies power?
These are questions we have to ask ourselves with depressing regularity, as Orwell’s vision only ever seems to become more and more relevant. It is the pre-eminent dystopian novel precisely because it so convincingly depicts a world without freedom.
But despite some exposition hinting at how Big Brother came to survey every corner of Oceania, it is not quite clear what sort of process turns a free society into an oppressed one. Thanks to Orwell, we will know we’re living in 1984 when we get there, but will we be able to recognise that we’re on the road there before it’s too late to turn around?
Given the revelations of vast, indiscriminate surveillance of electronic and telephone communications by the US National Security Agency (NSA) last week, it seems the road to 1984 might look a lot like this place, now.
But the confluence of actions and events that have put us on the road to Orwell’s dystopia are not all the result of nefarious authoritarian over-reach; some of it comes from pure naive utopianism, and that is all the more tragic.
That much became clear to me as I read the new book by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age. Schmidt is the former Google chief executive who now occupies the position of executive chairman, a kind of high-level ambassador for the technology giant; Cohen is a former adviser at the US State Department who is now Google’s director of ideas, a quasi-Orwellian job title if ever there was one.
The New Digital Age is being held up in some quarters as a totemic state of the technological nation address, a definitive vision of how we will grapple with this new digital world currently unfolding before us. On the whole, the manifold predictions mimic the tone of a 1950s sci-fi comic, painting pictures of how increased connectivity will transform the lives of the world’s poor, while those of us in the developed West will enjoy tech-packed homes and, of course, driverless cars making our lives more efficient, if not exactly easier.