Is Orwell's Big Brother On The Internet?

Dec. 21, 2004
2000 might be 1984.

It was roughly half a century ago that George Orwell penned the classic novel, 1984. I remember that year's dawning, and passing. The Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco. No matter, for Ronald Reagan was a shoe-in for a second term as President. On the technology front, personal computers were popular. The Macintosh, introduced by Apple, was a hit. Bank of America launched its Homebanking service, which was a dud since few people had any interest in banking by PC. If anything, though, the year was remarkable for its inability to deliver on the dark promise that Orwell had envisioned for mankind. The world of its main character, Winston Smith, was one in which continents waged war with one another, then shifted alliances and waged war with their former allies. It was a world in which an all-knowing, technologically empowered "Big Brother" watched and listened from telescreens in every home. Most of that vision didn't come true in 1984 and, for the most part, hasn't come true now. Except for the part about cozying up to your former enemies--witness the U.S. and Russia. Or the U.S and Germany. Or Japan. It seems Orwell had the political stuff cold. But Big Brother? Hasn't happened yet. But what about tomorrow? Why would today's outlook for the future be any different from the reality of the 1984 of 14 years ago? I can think of one BIG reason--the Internet. With set-top boxes, cable modems, and TVs that access the Internet, a brave new world opens up that both beckons and, yes, even threatens. Think about the possibilities. We already have the nightly news. Over the 'Net, you could download daily messages from anyone, including the government. Sound far-fetched? Bear with me a moment. The advent of the network that we will one day link up with for all our information and entertainment makes it possible for governments to communicate with their citizens via a central broadcast. Nothing new there, right? I mean, Orwell's world of 1984 had television, too. What's different, though, is the message. Now it CAN be tailored to suit exactly the individual recipient in his or her home. In other words, if you are Winston Smith, and someone in the federal bureaucracy--IRS, FBI, or maybe just Nixon's boys--wants to communicate with you and you alone, the 'Net is the perfect medium. And remember, the future of the Internet is likely to be greater, not less, interactivity. I talk to you, you talk to me. All done through a machine. Get the picture? Okay, how about listening? Could that be next? Of course, the individual nature of that communication makes the Internet an ideal method of communicating with consumers for marketing purposes. And the likelihood that anyone would try to use the Internet for devious ends is hard to imagine, right? I mean, there are pornographic materials, the seduction of children, and all manner of sex scams out there on the Web, but nobody would ever attempt to abrogate our freedoms this way. After all, the 'Net is acclaimed almost daily for its ability to let individuals communicate with one another, surely a seditious capability that could only serve to strengthen a free people, right? But bear with me a little further. Companies already communicate with employees over the 'Net. Why not governments? Sure, Winston Smith's screen didn't offer him interactivity. He couldn't use it to send messages to other people. But if the Nixon administration could wiretap its enemies, what's to prevent another such abuse of power in the form of eavesdropping on members of unpopular political groups communicating via the Internet? Most technological advances offer mankind beneficial uses, else why would we want them (excluding implements of war)? Unfortunately, humans usually find ways to abuse technology. The 'Net, through its immediacy, capability of communicating with particular individuals, and pending ubiquity, is no different. Do I think Orwell's 1984 is right around the corner? No. But ask me if I think it's a scenario that one day could play itself out, and I'd have to answer yes. Believe me, we have yet to fully understand the powers inherent in this new medium.

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