With Edward Snowden leaking secrets of mass surveillance in the US and beyond, it seems that Orwell’s dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four is coming true. But can we be accused of over-reacting? In one camp, popular social media sites like Reddit have rallied behind Snowden, revering him for revealing the governments’ betrayal of the peoples’ privacy and spying on its own citizens. Memes declaring ‘Save Snowden, Save Freedom’, and pop culture references such as ‘Team Edward’ have ignited political fervour in many online users. In the broadcasting world, news providers such as the Beeb have explored the wider international implications, with the potential breakdown of trust between nations such as the US and China and the side effects of those security breaches. The US understandably wants to reclaim their NSA whistleblower before he damages their credibility further, but he continues to evade them with his goose-chase escapades that even plucked the Bolivian president out of the sky. The US has responded to his allegations of ‘persecution’ with the argument that it is necessary to protect ‘the greater good’.
“The Government of the United States of America has built the world’s largest system of surveillance. This global system affects every human life touched by technology; recording, analysing, and passing secret judgment over each member of the international public. It is a grave violation of our universal human rights when a political system perpetuates automatic, pervasive, and unwarranted spying against innocent people.”
There is more than a smack of Nineteen Eighty Four’s ever-omniscient ‘Big Brother’ to this quote, and Snowden sees technology as facilitating the US government’s ‘grave violation’ of the rights of the people on a global scale. Snowden appeals directly to our paranoia of technology here. Does the presence of so many surveillance systems change the way that we behave? Those that have watched The Truman Show and feared that they were the centre of another actual experiment, or those that stare into surveillance cameras and wonder if anyone is watching, will know the power of suggestive policing*. A similar concept maintains online content in China, with users self regulating the posts of others. And it works – the Chinese government continues to strictly censor content in forums, and blocks online petitions, to prevent anything that may be deemed politically ‘unharmonious’. There are rumoured to be more than 40,000 secret police in Beijing alone dedicated to policing the Internet and upholding the so-called ‘Firewall of Shame.’
Orwell predicted this exaggerated form of censorship in Nineteen Eighty Four, with the four Ministry sectors working together to enforce propaganda, and ensuring that all citizens conformed to their own singular way of thinking by spying on them within their own homes. To control the nation, the Party and Big Brother (the government featured in the novel) maintained its order by punishing individuals who questioned its facts, or spoke out in protest against work, rations or leadership. The protagonist Winston Smith becomes disillusioned as he finds Oceania’s cyclical wars with Eurasia and Eastasia nonsensical and his ‘doublethink’ life devoid of meaning. His doubts and potentially slanderous thoughts are silenced by torture and jail, and then eventually the state kills him. Amnesty International recognises that China ‘has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.’
Orwell reacted against totalitarianism and his writing fights the invisible powers of autocracy. Like Winston Smith, Snowden writes of protecting the innocent and eludes to preserving the sanctity of free will and free speech. But is it Orwell’s world synonymous with today’s reality in the Western world which Snowden speaks of? Have we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable to being reported, and are we not conscious of our data trail as we explore the web and connect with each other? How many people leave their privacy settings off, and document unencrypted personal details of their lives in daily posts on Facebook or Twitter?
Snowden has highlighted the dangers of our relationship with technology, but admittedly I’m not as outraged as I expected to be that our governments have been tracking us. To me, the Internet is a pool of shared conversations, images and connections that are designed to be seen, or at least logged in the rapidly growing archives of Internet history. In contrast, Orwell’s character notes his personal views in a diary that he keeps hidden, although he does arguably write with the purpose (or hope) that it will someday be viewed by the future generation. The discovery of his diary and his subsequent punishment seems much more of a violation than if he had willingly shared his thoughts online. He writes:
‘From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink-greetings!”
Overall, the aspect I find most frightening in Snowden’s address is the robotic language he employs to describe the method of surveillance, with ‘analysing,’ ‘recording,’ ‘pervasive’ and ‘automatic’. He explicitly plays on our human fear of technology advancing so far that we lose our purpose, or worse still, our humanity. A well-versed argument today is that technology is disconnecting us from reality – and paradoxically, each other – despite never before being so digitally social.
In light of this, those of us who have the liberty to post our thoughts without persecution from our governments, and are not raging extremists, should use the Internet effectively and not squander the opportunities that the web provides. We now have the tools to share experiences across cultures and forge new connections in our modern global community, learn about the world and see the dark corners we may never visit in person, and most of all, improve ourselves with the knowledge that is accessible at the end of our fingertips.
*See Foucault’s concept of the Panopticon, or self-policing. Angela Carter explores this in her female prison in Nights at the Circus
‘US disappointed with China,’ BBC World News, 11th July 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23282379
‘Edward Snowden’s Letters in Full’ by Kevin Rawlinson, The Independent,http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/the-edward-snowden-letters-in-full-nsa-whistleblower-accuses-us-government-of-persecution-8683156.html
‘George Orwell back in fashion as Prism stokes paranoia about Big Brother’ by Stephen Moss, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/jun/11/george-orwell-prism-big-brother-1984
‘Firewall of Shame’, Internet Freedomhttp://www.internetfreedom.org/Background
‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, TV Tropes, http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/NineteenEightyFour?from=Main.NineteenEightyFour