Let me be your Big Brother. Freedom in the time of Edward Snowden – part 2

(Part 2)

Big Brother is watching you!

People usually say that reality is scarier than fiction, but the global surveillance affair seems to be written by Orwell’s pen. Surveillance, storage and analysis of private data definitely calls to mind the image of the big brother who is watching our “ownlife”[1].

Obviously, there is a technological gap between NSA agents and Orwell’s thought police. Microphones and video cameras that watch us are nothing compared to the internet, smartphones and social network. “We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go. Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person”[2]. In the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four, if the sinister thought police had had the current equipment, it would have been even more dangerous and terrifying.

The novel takes place in a decayed London, the most important city of Airstrip One, a province of Oceania, where the atmosphere always is heavy and citizens bear an apparently never-ending austerity. The main-character, Winston Smith, lives in an flat that stinks as “boiled cabbage” and works in the Ministry of Truth, which spreads public falsehoods. His task is rewrite documents of the past, altering or censor any kind of information, according to the line given by the Party’s platform which daily changes. Posters, all over the city, show the image of the Big Brother, the totalitarian figurehead, and party screens, located even in “private” place, broadcast a continuous stream of infotainment. The Party also makes use of monitors and cameras to observe people who take for granted to be watched every moment. They seem to accept that but not Winston, who writes his own diary in secrecy, breaking the law.

At the beginning, the narrator already describes some features of the real current society. “It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows”. Police patrol snooping maybe is less subtle as activity than wiretapping but the principle is the same. Today, The NSA “ingests” the communication of everyone, according to Snowden’s disclosures. In some passages of his interviews, the American whistleblower could be an Orwellian character. “You don’t have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they could use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer”[3].

The assumption that personal communications or messages remain inviolably private is probably naïf but the right to privacy includes material part of us, such as the body, and intangible ones, thoughts and secrets which form one’s identity. The right to privacy enables us to choose which parts can be accessed by others.

Both Orwell’s dystopia and current western, mainly US, society share a relevant feature, a condition of perpetual war. According to the infotainment, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are in a continuous state of war. Therefore, the Party “is compelled” to increase control over people for “assuring security” and smoking out “traitors”, that is political enemies. To strengthen its influence on people, the INGSOC[4] introduced a mind program called doublethink, which defines the act of admitting two reciprocally clashing ideas as correct. The slogan “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” is a good example of double thinking because even though Oceania is fighting in a cruel war against Eurasia or Eastasia, people are living as if there is peace as well, so the Party can manipulate their emotions depending on the context and its plans.

Taking a look at the present society, one can argue that recent western conflicts against the Middle East, especially after the 9/11 attack, have been part of a sort of perpetual war. A situation of ongoing tension, which distract people from domestic problems and policies, can be useful for a government. Indeed, The Patriot act, that is the alleged legal basis of NSA surveillance operations, is the fruit fallen from the terror tree. Furthermore, the double-think slogan could arguably be adopted to our society as well, because even though “war is peace” would appear a sentence that does not make sense, it does. The concept “war is peace” has been used by NATO and the US when they dealt with the so called preemptive wars. Instinctively, this expression is a paradox. If you start a war to prevent another one, the result will be a war. In a sense, peacekeeping operations are paradoxes as well. War has become a peace mission. Perhaps this way of thinking is oversimplified or too naïf but it seems logical.

Then, the potential extent of the surveillance system by means of the new generations is a further similarity. Indeed, according to Snowden, “the next generation” may “extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression”[5] because of the increasingly spread of technological and personal devices, such as smartphones and social networks through which one spontaneously gives personal data, which are becoming essential goods, mostly among young people. In a sense, this situation is comparable to what happened in Oceania. In Orwell’s dystopian world, the Party constantly brainwashes people. Above all children, who are members of the Party Youth League and represent the new generation of Oceanian citizens, are moulded by the ideology and propaganda of the Party. In this way, the INGSOC gets them on its side and turns them into obedient little party members and spies, creating a widespread Thinkpol network, as Orwell would say[6]. Without memory of life before Big Brother, when they have been taught to believe in the Party, they are no longer loyal to anyone but them. As a result, without family ties, children readily denounce their family members to the Party. Orwell purposely describes this situation when Tom Parsons, Winston’s neighbour, as a prisoner, reveals to Winston to be there because his daughter had reported him to the patrols after overhearing him speaking against the Party while he was sleeping. Obviously, in Orwell’s dystopia the spreading of the surveillance system is more insidious and terrifying, even in the results, than in 2014 western society, but the principle and the key-role of the new generations are the same.

Another point of convergence (and divergence at the same time, as it is explained below) might be the manipulation and use of the language. In the novel, New Speak is a controlled language created by the Party as a tool to limit freedom of thought. It results in connections of words with confused and ambiguous meanings. And actually, in the earliest phase of the NSA scandal, White House official and Congressmen tried to manipulated words, even by using the flag of terrorism and the Patriot Act, to make what appears illegal, legal[7] [8]. Then, Obama’s first reaction calls to mind dim big-brotherian characteristics. He held a press conference during which he instilled a sense of tranquility and security in the audience by his calm manner, and asked the people to have confidence in the system.

“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience”[9], the president noted, suggesting the people that government was acting in good faith to prevent terroristic attacks and they could trust. And perhaps, most people trusted him, as most people in Oceania trusted Big Brother who keeps them safe from enemies and starvation.

Nonetheless, there is a substantial difference between these two ways of using the language. In Oceania, New Speak and Party ideology deal with mind control. It regards the internal aspect of human behaviour, as O’Brien, a member of the Party, makes clear, “the Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about”[10]. On the contrary, The NSA is presumably interested in overt acts, and hopefully less so in thoughts. The secrecy behind the spying operations suggests that the aim was not to create a threatening mental atmosphere in order to influence human behaviour.

Actually, each point of convergence hides a divergence. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, the Party tries to shape an hopeless dehumanized society in order to retain power over people. “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life”, O’Brien says, “all competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever”[11]. An image of unrestrained political power pervades Orwell’s dystopia: the more the people comply with the rules imposed by the Party the more they lose their humanity, their feelings and emotions. “The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act…All marriages between Party members had to be approved by a committee appointed for the purpose, and, though the principle was never clearly stated, permission was always refused if the couple concerned gave the impression of being physically attracted to one another. The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema”. That’s what the Party wants and it seems far from the global surveillance operations. They deal with the external aspect of human behaviour, they monitor people but don’t enter in their mind, they don’t want to change social and emotional life of people. However, there are two main aspects that sharply separate actual global surveillance system from the Big Brother.

Firstly, according to Snowden’s statements, people are living “unfreely” but “comfortably”. In Orwell’s Oceania, people live “unfreely” and uncomfortably, because the regime exercises its power despotically in order to annihilate human will and nature. Frankly, the widespread data collection system is upsetting and surely criminal but not nihilistic. Secondly, unlike Oceanians, who were obliged to listen to and watch the infotainment, in western society, people are informed by various media about a lot of news. There is information overload. Today, an increasing number of people are connecting to the Internet to conduct their own research. They are able to produce as well as consume data available on an increasing number of websites. The risk behind this unbelievable flow of information is to lose the capability to distinct between what is important and what is trivial.

By analysing these two aspects, another possible basis for comparison emerges, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. According to Neil Postman, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance”[12]. As a result, putting aside Big Brother’s sinister telescreens, Postman conceives television broadcasts as a contemporary Soma[13]. He argues that inclusion of theme music and the interruption of commercials attest that televised news cannot be taken seriously.However if Postman was critical about television entertainment thirty years ago, it is possible to foresee how he could react to the present-day communication media. Now people have in their pockets, little devices that permit to share on the social network news, video, pictures, selfies[14], which show the place where they are, and the people who they are with. It is possible to share likes and preferences, even commercial ones, and wittingly include a list of friends in virtual personal profiles.

Accordingly, this state of affairs seems to be in the middle, to some extent, between two dystopian fiction novels. On the one hand, people spontaneously pave the way to the Big Brother who can easily gather information about their lives, on the other hand they are swimming in a sea of distractions which prevent them from focusing on what matters: not only facebook and twitter but also news websites overfill our lives with frivolities. Standing side-by-side with this kind of news, the substance loses relevance causing an “information levelling”. The swiftness through which the news follow one another also contribute to the effectiveness of the process.


[1] “In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed…to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: OWNLIFE, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity”, in Orwell, George (1949), Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. London: Secker & Warburg.

[2] Griff Witte, “Snowden says spying worse than Orwellian” in the Washington Post, 25/12/2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/snowden-says-spying-worse-than-orwellian/2013/12/25/e9c806aa-6d90-11e3-a5d0-6f31cd74f760_story.

[3] Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras, “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations” in the Guardian, 9/06/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance.

[4] English Socialist Party of Oceania.

[5] Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras, “Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations” in the Guardian, 9/06/2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance

[6] In New Speak, Thinkpol means the thought police.

[7] Nakashima Ellen, Markon Jerry and Ed O’Keefe, “Administration, lawmakers defend NSA program to collect phone records” in the Washington Post, 6/06/2013,www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/administration-lawmakers-defend-nsa-program-to-collect-phone-records/2013/06/06/2a56d966-ceb9-11e2-8f6b-67f40e176f03_story.

[8] Eilperin Juliet, “White House spokesman defends collection of phone records” in the Washington Post, 06/06/2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2013/06/06/white-house-spokesman-defends-wiretapping-program.

[9] Obama Addresses NSA Uproar: ‘Nobody Is Listening To Your Phone Calls,’ ‘You Can’t Have 100% Privacy’, 7/06/2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L6J4Jyrxws

[10] G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

[11] Ibidem.

[12] Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

[13] Soma is an hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable state of mind in Brave New World.

[14] Selfie is a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone.