Lessons On Surveillance From “1984″

Obama Big BrotherDC Clotheline – by Patrick Ord

With the recent revelations centered on government surveillance, interest has surged in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Orwell’s prescient work explores how a futuristic totalitarian state tracks every citizen’s move.

Orwell’s main character Winston was old enough to remember a time when privacy existed-albeit vaguely. In my favorite passage of the novel, Orwell says the following:  

“The thing that now suddenly struck Winston was that his mother’s death, nearly thirty years ago, had been tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. His mother’s memory tore at his heart because she had died loving him, when he was too young and selfish to love her in return, and because somehow, he did not remember how, she had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today. Today there were fear, hatred and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows. All this he seemed to see in the large eyes of his mother and his sister, looking up at him through the green water, hundreds of fathoms down and still sinking.”

In these few sentences, Orwell has perfected the art to which every author aspires. Instead of telling the reader what she should think, he displays, in moving imagery the consequences of a course of action.

Government surveillance, in 1984 and in the present, certainly leads to a lack of privacy but why would this be a problem if a person has nothing to hide? In this context, lack of privacy certainly is creepy but is it tragic?

The true sorrow, as pointed out by Orwell’s passage, is in how being monitored affects our interactions with each other. In an effort to please Big Brother, people’s behavior becomes contrived. As insincere interactions replace genuine affection and honest discussion, relationships and communities suffer.

Just the very presence of a listening ear manipulates our behavior. So much for interactions that are “private and unalterable.”

In another passage, Orwell describes a typical interaction that would occur in the setting of a constantly monitored state:

“As he watched the eyeless face with the jaw moving rapidly up and down, Winston had a curious feeling that this was not a real human being but some kind of dummy. It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff that was coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense: it was a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”

Orwell’s point is that the right of free speech (1st Amendment of “The Bill of Rights”) cannot truly exist without the right of privacy (4th Amendment of “The Bill of Rights”). This is precisely why it is so difficult for the Obama administration to explain away the recent NSA monitoring disclosures by Edward Snowden as a national security story-because it comes in the shadows of the only weeks’ old news revealing the IRS’s targeting of conservative political groups.

Discussions that aim to balance citizen privacy with security are useful but ultimately incomplete. We cannot overlook the impact that surveillance has on free speech. Otherwise, we all need to start practicing how to quack like a duck.

Patrick Ord is an author who writes on themes of Big Data, privacy, market manipulations, ethics, and culture. His recent novel, THE CURTAIN was just published in March. You can visit his author blog at henrymaddox.com.

Patrick Ord’s new, thought-provoking novel, THE CURTAIN has readers as diverse as grandmothers to Chief Technology Officers raving. THE CURTAIN is available in print, ebook, and audio formats at amazon.com.


12 thoughts on “Lessons On Surveillance From “1984″

  1. So, was Orwell laying out the map and drawing up the plan, or was he truly trying to warn us? Take from it what you will.

    Aside from the gleaning point in this article, I have my own way of demonstrating to the stupid, ignorant and unwashed morons that say, “If you have nothing to hide, then why worry about being watched?”.

    For these dimwitted fools I simply paint my own picture. It is brief and directly to the point, so that any sub-90 IQ bearer can grasp it.

    To them I say, “We all have confidential conversations. Let’s say you’re at work and you and a close friend co-worker are having a confidential conversation in the break room during lunch, just the two of you. Another co-worker walks into the room. This other co-worker is someone you hardly know, but you have nothing against this person, you just don’t know them that well. Which of the following do you do?

    a) Keep talking
    b) Change the subject
    c) Stop talking for a moment until they leave

    Nobody ever picks option A.”

    The above clearly demonstrates the point of privacy in a way even the most dimly lit can comprehend. You choose options B or C because it’s none of that stranger’s business. We all do this, many times with people we do know, even when the conversation has nothing to do with them. Privacy is a Universal and fundamental right. The bottom line is, if you don’t want someone you’re at least a little familiar with listening to your confidential conversations, why in hell would you want some government scumbag peeping Tom doing it?

    These psychopathic control freaks can eat sh!t and bark at the moon for all I care. I’ll use every subversive tactic I can to urinate in their ever watchful eyes and deliver flatulence into their forever listening ears. Watch snow and hear static, you pathetic worms.

    1. “So, was Orwell laying out the map and drawing up the plan, or was he truly trying to warn us? Take from it what you will.”

      He was one of them, so take a wild guess.

      1. You’re right. My question was posed more as a rhetorical one. I guess I should’ve made that clear. Orwell was clearly involved in the predictive programming operation.

    2. “If you have nothing to hide, then why worry about being watched?”

      1. Because you don’t know what’s going to be illegal a week from now.
      2. You’re absolutely right, pretty girl, and since you have nothing to hide, I’ll be over to watch you strip before your next shower.
      3. Being watched assumes that I need to be watched, and it’s insulting.
      4. We’re supposed to be living under the presumption of innocence.
      5. I have a right to privacy, and invasive surveillance destroys my freedom and quality of life.
      6. surveillance curtails our ability to overthrow our government if the need arises.
      7. Because all these stupid, and unnecessary cameras are being installed at my expense.

      1. you are correct, except #2: for the peeping Tom, the thrill is in watching without it being known that he is watching, without the pretty girl knowing. It is way more fun if he can watch anonymously, without her knowing.

        I think voyeurism is what it is all about — so what I’ve been wondering is if the government is angry because Snowden ruined their peeping Tom voyeurism fun, or if there is a larger, more sinister purpose (my tinfoil hat is showing) in revealing to the people at this time, that we not only are being watched, but it is now too late because we have been watched for quite some time now without realizing.

        In 1984, “Big Brother Is Watching You” is clearly out in the open, so… why not have it out in the open here, now? Maybe it is just one step further along in the plan.

        It is clearly laid out in 1984 that one of the benefits to having so much intel on everyone is that torture can be personalized… they know your inner thoughts, desires, fears.

        Also, from a spiritual standpoint, we who believe ourselves innocent, with nothing to hide, will find ourselves naked, blinded by the spotlights trained on us, so we cannot see who the watchers are, who are judging and sentencing us (for our thoughts and associations, perhaps).

        If your accuser is impersonal, hidden, there is a great power imbalance.

        The watchers are the swine, and our inner selves/souls are the pearls. Privacy is what protects us, and the fourth amendment is there for that reason.

  2. Under totalitarian regimes you also have to hide your innocence. My brother is one of those ‘Nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ dupes, but I told him that as his elder brother criticizes the US and UK governments he does have something to fear, even though none of it is his doing. It’s the old Kith and Kin laws.

    Another example is the martyred saints. They were better people than most, even if some of their ideas were a bit batty.

  3. They want to watch us all but they do not want us all to watch them. They got something big to hide. The sayin` goes, “point your finger at someone else and you have your other three fingers pointing back at you” – the govterment and police are always pointing their fingers.

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