It's taken 20 years, but '1984' is finally here
2004 05 24
By Silvio R. Laccetti and Patrick A. Berzinski
Despite the longtime Western fascination with George Orwell's work, the year 1984 was a non-event. But 20 years later, with technology achieving feats never before dreamed of, perhaps we should look again and ask: Is Orwell's bleak vision of total government control now more imaginable than ever?
Orwell's two brilliant books, Animal Farm and 1984, dissect and satirize a nation-state that no longer exists, Josef Stalin's Soviet Russia — the "future" that supposedly "worked."
Of course, the heralded future was a mirage. The U.S.S.R. was a brutal, authoritarian power with dreams of empire. It died, exhausted, in 1991.
But part of Orwell's vision for 1984 does seem alive today.
In his book, three superstates (Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia) were forever at war. Technological advances were put toward three purposes: promoting the war effort; maintaining relentless surveillance of the populace; and perfecting mass brainwashing techniques to induce slavish loyalty to the state.
And so, in 2004 — there are three major power blocs: the United States, the European Union, and, more loosely, the Pacific Rim, corresponding roughly to Orwell's vision. Each competes with the other — so far largely on an economic basis. However, technology R&D is increasingly driven by security and military needs.
Moreover, thanks to a miracle that Orwell could not envision — the microchip — we are at a stage in which not only privacy rights but other basic freedoms will be tested.
The war on terror has eroded (to some degree necessarily) some of the barriers against invasion of privacy in the Western democracies. The big question is, will a prolonged struggle enshrine these losses forever and increase them; or will we again, when terrorism is defeated, return to a world in which ID thieves and credit agencies are the principal offenders against privacy?
More important, will anybody know the difference?
Consider these phenomena: Personal habits are routinely tracked — eating, shopping, dating and recreating — through credit cards and supermarket cards. Also: Surveillance is ubiquitous, with video and Web cameras, Lo-jack for humans, and wireless photo phones. We remain, for the most part, oblivious.
In 1984, individuals are observed daily by a two-way telescreen on a wall in their homes. Now, with video phones and GPS devices, it's possible to check up on someone anywhere at any time. Furthermore, there is a host of highly advanced "watching" devices that now exists, including "biometric" technologies designed to pick an individual out of a crowd based on lightning analysis of facial structure. Thumb-print reading devices are here to stay.
Worth noting is the happy family from Florida who several years ago had themselves implanted with the VeriChip, a device originally meant to keep track of your cat or dog. This family wanted very badly to keep track of each other, at all times, especially after the 9/11 attacks. A huge ethical controversy erupted over the family's actions. Translate this family's panic into a mass-media alarm to the general public, and the underpinnings of freedom could be mightily stressed.
Strikingly, 20 years after 1984, the perfection of integrated micro- and nano-circuitry is such that much of the hardware for mass oppression described in 1984 can be realized. Simply feed an incredibly fast server with the information from a chip that is implanted in a fold of skin — or embedded in millions of smart cards. With a properly sophisticated database and retrieval system, replete with bottomless data storage and data mining, you've got the makings of a feast over which Big Brother would drool.
In a time of crisis, the temptation is great to treat all citizens as suspects. But George Orwell was right: A society where half of the citizenry spies on the other half is a dead end. May our duly elected leaders have the foresight to legislate in favor of freedom, and to see the lords of terror for what they are: ideological dead-enders who will be added to the ash heap of history, along with Stalin, Hitler, Saddam and countless other champions of oppression.
For our part, let us resolve to pay the price of freedom, which is eternal vigilance. If you think you've heard that before, you have — from a Virginian named Thomas Jefferson.
Berzinski is associate director of media relations and Laccetti is a professor of humanities at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article From: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/editorial/outlook/2585463