In George Orwell’s 1984 there is no privacy. Every apartment has a two way television that pumps out state propaganda and also allows the state to view people in their own homes.Lack of privacy and state surveillance are two of the key themes of the novel. Orwell wrote the novel at the end of the Second World War with one eye on the Soviet Union and its growing control over Eastern Europe.
Orwell acknowledged the influence of an earlier work. We – a novel written in post revolution Russia by Yevgeny Zamyatin, detailed a future world where people no long had names but instead had numbers. The World State was an urban landscape where people’s individual lives were planned by the state and run along scientific principles including the assignment of lovers and leisure activities.
The concern with a lack of privacy in both these novels is crucial as it forces conformity out of fear of being exposed. We and 1984 were written in 1921 and 1948 respectively, but still seemed to describe the real world of Eastern Europe through to the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the Prague Spring of 1968 and the period of “normalisation” that followed, dissidents had their homes and workplaces wire tapped and subsequently had their personal as well as political conversations used against them.
So what are we to make of today’s world where the modern state is constantly increasing its surveillance power? Civil liberty groups, libertarians, technology companies and conspiracy theorists protest the dangers of the Big Brother society, yet it hasn’t really caught the general public’s imagination. There are no mass demonstrations around data gathering powers. Why don’t we care?
Perhaps it’s because we have voluntarily given up privacy. Switching on our location services on our smart phones and using social media to record our movements, thoughts, and lunch choices through terrible food photography, we don’t really need the state to spy on what we are doing since we are already recording everything and putting it out on public platforms. It’s fun to share and have people like and comment. It’s one never ending conversation where everyone can join in and talk about themselves without being interrupted. Everyone can become a celebrity when they act as their own paparazzi.
This is why many now tout Brave New World as being the true dystopian vision over 1984. In Brave New World, pleasure and trivialities are abundant and it is these that create a subdued and docile population. A population that is not suppressed by force because it doesn’t need to be. It is a world in which books don’t need to be banned because no one wants to read them. For those times when all that is on offer is still not enough they have ready access to Soma, A powerful anti depressant and hallucinogenic drug.
So are we living in a Brave New World? Only if you believe that our embracing of social media is part of a centralized plot to control the world. In Huxley’s novel there was a World State and those that rejected the world of pleasure and Soma were rejected by society and exiled to remote islands.
There is often a confusion around cause and effect for both the left and right of politics around freedom. The line of thought is roughly this, totalitarian regimes don’t allow privacy therefore a lack of privacy leads to totalitarianism.
Privacy and a lack of freedom are two different things. A totalitarian regime will reject the right of privacy because it needs to know who doesn’t agree with it. A free for all social media world full of people disagreeing and sharing cat photographs won’t automatically lead to a world state.
In many ways it is now the powers of authoritarianism that fear a lack of privacy. Sure, monitor my Bento box lunch deal photographs and I’ll monitor the latest security leaks that expose state activity. Lack of privacy in today’s technological landscape is very definitely cutting both ways.