50 days after former NSA employee Edward Snowden introduced the general public to a secretly flourishing surveillance culture, some Facebook accounts may have been cancelled or email providers changed, but a vast majority seems busy getting used to the omnipresence of global surveillance. Apparently, we don’t realise that by putting up with it, we pave the way for dystopian scenarios resembling the ones fiction confronted us with throughout the last 50 years.
The recently increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 suggest that Snowden’s disclosures indeed remind us of similar scenarios from cinema or literature: The fact that the NSA not only records our external actions but also our thoughts and moods which we typed into Google or shared with friends on Facebook quickly invokes the spectre of Orwell’s thought-controlling “Big Brother”. The hackneyed phrase “Big Brother is watching you!” might accompany our everyday online activities to a greater extent than we would wish for, since the screens of our fancy devices not only provide a window into a digital netherworld but have come to resemble Orwell’s two-way-Telescreen with an amorphous observer returning our gaze. Similar to Big Brother the algorithms tracking our every move don’t speak a word; they don’t exist like we do but are nonetheless ubiquitous.
Of course these eerie parallels are rather superficial and most people would agree that states like North Korea would still defeat the Western hemisphere in every 1984-look-alike contest (if there ever was such a thing), but the newly gained awareness that our much praised western freedom is literally recorded and therefore constricted nonetheless leaves us with an uneasy feeling that Orwell’s bleak vision might bear the qualities of a roadmap.
In order to take a sufficiently educated guess where our surveillance problem is headed one has to add other stories to the equation, given that 1984 features relatively little technology, while digital machines constitute the kernel of the NSA’s surveillance apparatus. The vast and invisible power exerted by these super computers has sparked shallow movies like Enemy of the State, which tap into our most obvious fear in the context of surveillance: The fear of being persecuted without knowing why, of facing a faceless organisation that uses high technology to hunt us down for no apparent reason. In a way, we are afraid to be subjected to the same terror as Kafka’s Josef K. when, ironically, the official purpose of the all-seeing, all-saving machine is to prevent terror (admittedly of a different kind): Software like “Boundless Informant” is supposed to anticipate where and when terrorists are going to attack and to keep them from doing so—crime prevention is the catch word, an idea which fiction took up a long time ago.
In Isaac Asimov’s short story All the Troubles of the World for example, a super computer named Multivac saves every bit of existing information on a daily basis, in order to calculate the course of the following day. Among other things the clairvoyant computer seeks out the individuals who are likely to commit a crime. A single thought is enough to increase the probability of criminal behaviour and cause officers to incarcerate citizens for a crime they did not commit.
Quite similar things happen in Philip K. Dicks 1958 story The Minority Report, which was famously made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2002: The task of the Precrime Department is to prevent crimes predicted by the prescient Precogs before they happen. Dehumanised by heavy brain damage, the existence of the Precogs consists solely of “seeing” imminent incidents, not unlike Multivac or the NSA’s algorithms.
Indeed the “precrime” concept is used beyond the NSA’s terror prevention program: Since 2010 the FBI uses statistics and algorithms to calculate where crimes are most likely to be committed, so that police officers can be at the crime scene before the perpetrators. This approach is called “predictive policing” (a name conspicuously reminiscent of “precrime”) and is working well enough so that British police, too, recently introduced it. Even if this particular method is predicated only on local crime statistics: Think for a moment about the possibility that the tons of data saved by the NSA could be injected into this system – who could guarantee us, then, that crime prevention in the shape of Multivac, and with it the concept of Orwell’s thought crime is never going to become a cold fact?
You sense that the line between prototype and paranoia, between possible reality and angst-ridden delusion is thin and blurred, not at least because we know relatively little about the structure of global surveillance, about what is really done and what is only an Orwellian dream. At any rate, dystopian narratives seem to prefer the more pessimistic angle—not only to thrill or to exploit—but to explore what it means to be human under inhumane circumstances, with the unambiguous intention to warn us about the inherent potential for escalation. Expressed in the words of the Roman poet Ovid, the underlying message of these stories could be summarised as: “Principiis Obsta!” Resist the beginnings!
Today we find ourselves in the luxurious situation to be able to rely on these cautionary tales, they enable us to recognize alarming tendencies and to anticipate, as H.G. Wells once put it, “the shape of things to come” – and yet, we don’t act accordingly: Comfortably accommodated we stand back and watch as our reality morphs into an amalgamation of these well known nightmares; but rather than escaping into the realm of fiction in search of consolation and reassurance we should take these hellish fantasies as an incentive to ask ourselves: Do we really want to live in a world like this?
Written by Alexander Lohninger
Alexander Lohninger is a freelance journalist working in Vienna