Monday, June 22, 2009

Watching the Watchers

25 years after 1984, Orwell's ghost still haunts us  ...

Way back in 1947, with the scars of World War II surrounding him, George Orwell spent one of the final years of his life laboriously retyping the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the archetypal dystopian fantasy of a world gone wrong. This book was prophetic of so much that it no longer matters if its future is now in our past.

It might have been possible for others to imagine the looming Cold War, but how uncanny was Orwell's vision of a three-way balance of terror maintained between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia? One of the telling moments is during a Hate Week speech when the orator is interrupted by the delivery of a small piece of note paper, after which his speech continues as before, but with the names of friend and foe reversed. Just plug in the names of America, Russia, and China, then contemplate how Richard Nixon's peace overtures  to Chairman Mao may have tilted the balance of power to put more pressure on the Soviet Union.

Or consider how the wacky linguistics of Newspeak, an attempt to make it impossible to formulate a critical thought against the government, was magnificently surpassed by the Nixon White House with its "inoperative statements" (lies) and deleted expletives. Or the Bush White House with its "extraordinary rendition" (kidnapping) and "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture). At least now both of them are unpersons, which has to be doubleplusgood.

Also fascinating is the role played by the media, especially television, in the nightmare world of 1984. At first glance it would seem as if Orwell got it wrong, because Big Brother used video strictly for propaganda and surveillance--the video screen was two-way and the government used it to keep a watchful eye on the citizenry. In reality, Joe McCarthy was able to use TV in the 1950's to further his Communist witch hunt, but we all know the real propaganda was commercial advertisements that sold us the American Dream of consumerism.

Long before 1984, television as an entertainment medium had grown to a scale that dwarfed the ability of governments to put out press releases. And in America at least, with its tradition of a free press, the media seemed to be doing a much better job of keeping an eye on government excesses. Thus Nixon was brought down first by a newspaper, then by televised hearings. And without the TV coverage, would the public really have cared enough to force the President's abdication?

But the implications of long-range and widespread viewing are still playing out. Over the last ten years online video has put the power to broadcast into the hands of anyone with a cell phone or cheap digital camera, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have provided the means for rapid dissemination of anything that sparks an interest. This past week in Iran these potent new tools were used by an aroused population to bypass the censorship of its government and organize a demonstration just one note shy of open rebellion.

So, does this mean Orwell had it backwards, and that the watchful eyes of the public will be enough to keep our governments in line? As much as I'd like to think so, there are other possibilities to beware of. First of all, social networks are two-edged swords. You can certainly use them for protests and social change, but just by signing up and identifying our friends we have created a perfect database that could be abused in order to shut that protest down. It is far too easy to imagine a national emergency that provoked enough fear that the government could demand access to such information in order to round up "conspirators" and all their associates.

Consider how the Iranians turned those networks into weapons to attack government websites. Any doubt how our own government might react to an attack like that? Under the Patriot Act, which still holds sway over the Land of the Free, all you have to do is raise the specter of terrorism and any defensive measure becomes permissible.

And if you think we are not being watched, think again. Miniaturization and falling costs are making it possible to put cameras anywhere and record anything. Cameras are capturing the license numbers of cars committing traffic violations. Banks, airports, stores, warehouses, workplaces, even public streets are under constant surveillance in the name of public safety. Soon the military will be employing miniature robots the size of flying insects with the ability to see and hear, to literally be a "fly on the wall."

It remains to be seen which way the balance will tip, and if our watching the watchers as they watch us will be enough to keep them under control.

Several film versions of Orwell's 1984 have been made -- most recently in the famous year itself, in the real London, or at least part of it that was scuzzy enough to stand in for the one in the book. John Hurt played Winston Smith, with a benignly malevolent Richard Burton as his government tormentor. Interesting casting. You could easily imagine them with the roles reversed, the way Burton and Peter O'Toole were known to switch parts when they were playing Becket on Broadway. Music was nominally by the Eurythmics, but someone forgot to tell anyone to use their work in the film (except the closing credits), so if you want to hear it you need to get their album of the same name.
My favorite, though, is the 1956 version starring Edmond O'Brien. (It's not on Netflix, but you can buy it from Amazon and other vendors.) The stark noir character of the black-and-white, along with the fevered background of Cold War nuclear hysteria, makes you feel you are really there in that alternate reality. Long Live Big Brother!

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