Big Brother

He’s as famous as Frankenstein.  He talks with the forked-tongue of Newspeak, reads your mind through his Thought Police.  His realm is Room 101.

The very name of Big Brother still stands out in opposition to a free and open society.  Indeed, few novels have been as prophetic as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s haunting spectre of big government gone mad with lust for power.

Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) had imagined the technology of titillation.  Orwell’s nightmare book of 1948 had predicted the technology of control.  The insidious nature of Big Brother’s culture of surveillance stems from the telescreens and Thought Police.  In Orwell’s wonderful words, “The Beehive State is upon us, the individual will be stamped out of existence; the future is with the holiday camp, the doodlebug and the secret police”.

And in many ways we now live in an Orwellian world.  Consider Newspeak.   This language of political spin and euphemism is everywhere. War is ‘conflict’.  Civilian casualties are described as ‘collateral damage’.  Firing employees has become ‘right-sizing’.  Fixing a software problem is a ‘reliability enhancement’.  These are the days of Big Brother.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, science’s mastery of the machine is absolute.  Utopia is a possibility.  But inequality is preserved as a means of control.   The monitoring medium of the two-way telescreen is a brilliant mutation of the idea of the all-seeing eye.  But this eye is technological, not divine.  In Orwell’s book, Big Brother and big government replace God.  Religion is replaced by science and politicised into a nightmare.  As Winston Smith dutifully follows the daily exercises on the telescreen, he is at the same time observed by it.

The technology of surveillance in Orwell’s fiction swiftly became fact.  Nineteen Eighty-Four became the standard text for describing the militarisation of life.  In 1954 American science historian, Lewis Mumford, declared the world of Big Brother to be ‘already uncomfortably clear’.  And US social scientist, William H Whyte, cited Orwell’s influence in his 1956 The Organisation Man, a best-selling study of corporate dictatorships such as General Electric and Ford.

Orwell was troubled by the oppressive potential of science and technology.  Today in the UK (‘Airstrip One’ in Orwell’s book), there are fears that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society.  Actions of citizens are becoming increasingly monitored through the use of credit card and mobile phone information, and closed-circuit television (CCTV).  Government monitoring of work, travel and telecommunications is also rising.

The first CCTV system was installed at Test Stand VII in Peenemünde Germany in 1942, for observing the launch of V2-ROCKETS.  It has been estimated that there are up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK, around one for every 14 people.  In one CCTV system, pioneered in Wiltshire, England, operators can communicate directly with offenders on the spot.  Orwellian indeed.

As envisaged in Steven Spielberg’s The Minority Report (2002), within the next decade it will also be possible to scan shoppers as they enter stores.  And as suggested in Enemy of the State (1998), we seem to have a society based both on state secrecy and a reluctance to give up the supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as possible.

So far there is no Thought Police.  But even that’s about to change.

An American company, Oceanit, are now using sense-through-the-wall technology that can detect breathing and heart rates from outside a building. Each individual has a characteristic profile.  Ten years from now, they predict the technology will be even smarter. By that time they’ll be able to tell what we’re actually thinking.  Interestingly, the public don’t seem to mind. Opinion polls, both in the US and Britain, suggest around 75% people want more, not less, surveillance.

We’ve won the victory over ourselves.  We love Big Brother.

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