“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”
― George Orwell, 1984
― George Orwell, 1984
By Sam Gerrans
Media is doling out in bite-sized bits what we already knew: we are being tracked and traced, recorded and stored.
The Guardian recently told us that – shock – Google is storing lots of information about us; meanwhile, the wildly different Independent gently awakens us to the fact that Facebook is doing something almost identical. Both articles contain instructions on how to appear to thwart these intrusions.
Oh well, click, click, yawn. Safe again.
An Orwellian present
Most people who read my column will have read Orwell’s 1984. And most who haven’t will have seen the film (the one with John Hurt, I hope). If you haven’t done either, go and do one of them right now.
Orwell’s famous dystopian vision describes a world in which the State knows everything about you. He had entitled his book The Last Man – meaning by that: The last true man left on earth. It was changed – perhaps fortuitously – by the publisher.
The book fed a slew of references into the culture, seemingly understood even by those who had never read it: Big Brother, Doublespeak, Sex Crime, Winston Smith.
The world Winston inhabits is physically viler and more obviously brutal that ours – at least if you live outside the perimeters of the wars the US is waging directly or indirectly. Its architecture and ambiance are, likewise, orders of magnitude darker and more depressing than ours – parts of inner cities excepted.
Orwell’s Doublespeak is more directly relevant to our experience today. With things now routinely called by something other than their proper names – men ‘identifying’ as women, women ‘identifying’ as men, men ‘identifying’ as dogs, and forty-six-year-old fathers ‘identifying’ as six-year-old girls – our world is littered with an increasing number of obvious truths which must be resolutely ignored on the grounds of political necessity.
Doublespeak has hamstrung academia – rendering whole swathes of it inoperative, and much of the rest of it either irrelevant, farcical or pernicious.
In our day-to-day exchanges it has resulted in smile-fronted loneliness and lurking suspicion as necessary features of a life wherein those of us who comment openly upon the Spandex-coated bars of our prison are treated as pariahs and lepers.
As in Orwell’s world, our language is undergoing a thinning process and morphing into a ghettoized Newspeak and Twitteresque literary shorthand. Our grandparents knew what it was to speak and write well because they acknowledged an objective standard. Those who attained it were regarded as exemplars, and those who had not could see what remained to be done. Now, as in so much else, mediocrity and approximation are defended as acceptable standards; simply noticing one’s own shortcomings is elitist – and, therefore, contemptible – while commenting on another’s is an outright sin.
Facebook and Google don’t feel like that. They are shiny, convenient heavens generated by serried ranks of earnest, enthusiastic angels in love with what they do. They love you, too. They don’t love you individually, but they love you mathematically; they love you when enough of you say the same thing to them for it to be incrementally advantageous to do something about your prayers. The world they produce feels professional and safe, something like a cross between a business park, a shopping mall where everything is free, and a children’s nursery.
This does not feel like a place where boots stamp on faces forever.
A common misconception about this ergonomic, customer-service Big Brother decked out in primary colors is that he couldn’t possibly watch everyone at the time.
But it doesn’t work like that. Mostly, he doesn’t care what you are doing on a day-to-day basis.
When databases were created in the 1970s, storing stuff was very expensive. That’s why they used the relational data model: it could cram more stuff into less space.
Now storing stuff costs nothing. I bought a 16 GB USB memory stick for the price of two cups of coffee last week. So they are not watching you. They are storing what you do.
Firstly, in case they need it. As morals, mores and norms are re-engineered and hemorrhage and coalesce in new configurations and are downloaded as normative updates by a population unable to concentrate or remember, everyone eventually will be a criminal – at least retrospectively. There is no future-proofing compliance with this new system of control. No matter how quickly you take the upgrades in Newthink, proof of your Oldthink will be accessible and visible to those who care to use it against you.
Secondly, they are building profiles. They want to know who the troublemakers are.
Those at the helm couldn’t care less what you think currently. If you are intelligent and happen to have spent your time online researching rather than looking at compilations of top goal-scoring moments, pornography, or highly pixelated editions of the Simpsons’ back catalog, that is likely to have rendered you a social outcast sheltering under the bridge of your own Cassandra complex yelling at random passing cars. So they don’t care about you – at least, not yet.
What they are on the lookout for in the current phase is a rogue idea. They are afraid that some bright individual will find the solar plexus of the psychological control grid and start jumping up and down on it. And they are also making sure existing powerful entities don’t go off the reservation of what is agreed by the guiding think tanks and conclaves of the mighty.
“To die hating them, that was freedom.”
― George Orwell,