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?

Mon, Jun 10, 2013, 01:00

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.

But there is a worrying, and glaring, vacuum in those sections of the book dealing with the future of privacy, identity and statehood – the complicity of companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple in compromising our privacy and potentially enabling unimaginably vast abuses of our civil rights.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in a predictably scathing but astute review in the New York Times, felt the book confirms the way in which the current giants of Silicon Valley have become virtual emissaries of US imperialism. “Google, which started out as an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture – a decent, humane and playful culture – has, as it encountered the big, bad world, thrown its lot in with traditional Washington power elements, from the State Department to the National Security Agency,” Assange writes.

There is a lot of talk of how empowered, informed citizens will keep their governments honest – “Governments, too, will find it more difficult to manoeuvre as their citizens become more connected” they write with a seemingly straight face. But with the revelation that Google was among the earliest tech companies to comply with the NSA’s PRISM digital surveillance programme, all such predictions seem downright mendacious.

Despite the occasional caveat and qualification, Schmidt and Cohen consistently depict connectivity as a panacea, and only rarely as a menace. But 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 repression?

You’d need to be a particularly indolent student of history and human nature to believe that even the most benign motives of a young idealist will necessarily and forever continue. Quite the contrary – the only sensible position is to assume that this vast power over all the world’s information will by its very nature encourage malign actions, if not by the leaders at these companies then by other forces they are subservient to. Power has a habit of doing that, eventually.

The tragedy is that to reach Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, we must realise that utopianists can be just as dangerous as dictators. I hope it’s not too late to turn back, but I fear the new digital age is already upon us, and we are ill-prepared to cope with the sort of power it enables.

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