Big Brother Meets Big Data: What Orwell’s 1984 Couldn’t Predict About 2017

Sixty-eight years after the publication of George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian masterpiece has never seemed more uncannily relevant, and Orwell, who died in 1950, has never seemed so prescient. Hardly a day goes by when the unmuzzled media reminds us that a book, which seemed almost quaint in the year 1984, (remember Apple’s rousing Super Bowl ad?) has become required reading for anyone who wonders if Orwell’s unblinkingly dire post-WWII vision has finally and permanently come to pass.

The opening chapter of 1984 wastes no time in conjuring a dreary police state where foreigners are despised and “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” As Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, trudges to his shabby flat, the eyes of Big Brother stare down from giant posters and the population prepares for Hate Week. Against a macro backdrop of an endless, grinding war against a faceless, irredeemable enemy, freedom of speech and critical thought are anathema and every dwelling contains a two-way TV screen that can never be switched off.

“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” Orwell wrote. “How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time, every movement scrutinized.”

Orwell, who inverted the year 1948 for the title of his seminal novel, wanted to make the point that his haunting tale of a hope-starved future was based on the scary world he saw around him. A former journalist, he had witnessed the rise and fall of Nazism in Hitler’s Germany and was well-aware of the totalitarian tendencies of communist ideology in Stalin’s Russia. He also worried that the still smoldering coals of World War II could be fanned by populist demagogues who promised to make their country great again at the expense of common cause and socially tolerant democratic institutions.

In 1944, five years before publishing 1984, Orwell wrote about “the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer.” Orwell pondered that if the slide away from verifiable facts by government-controlled media or other sources ever took root and prevailed, history could be rewritten or erased and “two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it.” Not that such a thing could ever happen in a developed democratic nation, as many people argued at the time—and do now. Yet it’s impossible not to notice the similarities between the fact-averse populism of Donald Trump and the hyper-nationalist “reality control” that the novel’s absolutist leaders use to squelch dissent and maintain unquestioned fealty from the masses.

So it’s no accident 1984 is back in vogue in 2017, zooming to the top of Amazon’s best seller list and prompting Penguin to order a record reprint to meet the sudden spike in demand. Even the movie version of the novel has gotten a second life, as movie theaters across the country began screening the film to protest Trumps plan to cut funding for arts organizations. The all-knowing triumph of technology over privacy, the poisonous distain for tolerance and civilized disagreement, the strategic intentional blurring of fact and fiction, the denigration of the media as “the enemy of the people,” and the willfully contradictory dictates of Newspeak-ish utterances by the obfuscator-in-chief, all invoke a bone-chilling sense of Deja vu.

Technology is omnipresent in 1984, and the unnerving depiction of persistent two-way surveillance rings a disconcertingly modern bell. After all, just hook up “Alexa” to your TV and give her a sex change and –voila! – you’ve got the Thought Police in your living room. Not to mention the always-on mobile tracking device in our pocket that hardly gets used for phone calls anymore. But in other more significant ways, the dark future that 1984 warned about has been surpassed by Tech-Think and the unforeseeable rise of the Internet and social media. Big Brother has become Big Data, which some believe was married to FaceBook profiles and psychometric voter analysis to give the GOP a predictive  leg up in the 2016 presidential race. Privacy has been whittled away, not by a totalitarian surveillance state, but by the voracious information appetite of social media and online marketing strategies that track and devour our every move in cyber and real space, 24/7. The minute details of our personal lives – who we know, what we think, where we go and why, has not been stolen from us; we have voluntarily served it up to opportunistic apps promising convenience and effortless connection to anything or anyone for any reason at any time. We have become slaves, not of an oppressive uber-ruler, but to our own unquenchable desires.

Yet more worrisome is the arrival of products and software that use electro-magnetic signals to enter – and alter – the human brain. The benefits of these mind-bending gizmos range from better sleep and relaxation to increased stamina and intensified concentration for games or work. The consumer market for such devices is just getting started, but the science behind them isn’t new. The history of brain-hacking experiments dates to Nicola Tesla, and research into microwave neural enhancement is currently being pursued for both military and commercial applications. Like the Internet itself, new technologies hatched in labs and bunkers have a habit of eventually reaching our offices and bedrooms, and as we all know, once permission and access are granted, it’s hard to get them back. As a society, we haven’t even begun to address the moral and social implications of tech-boosted brain implants, but in our brazen age of politically-motivated cyber-attacks and Fake News samizdat, the mind, well, reels at what could happen if such technology got into the wrong hands.

But, then again, maybe Orwell was only half right when in 1984 he wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Maybe the indelible ability to transcend our fears and frailties – the bio-social quest for transcendence and reinvention that’s baked into our DNA – will catalyze the turmoil of our time into a reinvigorated civic consensus. Maybe, unlike the bleak finale of Winston Smith’s brief and doomed emancipation into love and freedom, there’s a warm, gratifying light at the end of the Trumpian tunnel. Maybe, just when it seemed almost inevitable that self-serving servers and selfies would induce a SOMA-like slumber (see Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), the body politic has been jolted into the nascent contractions of an evolutionary awakening. As Nietzsche pointed out: “Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful with it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, though his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten.” Maybe lurching backward today is the only way to propel us forward into a brighter, saner tomorrow.

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