Press "Enter" to skip to content

So you think that Orwell’s ‘1984’ could only happen under a political dictatorship? Think again!

Many people — especially those who still read novels — will know George Orwell’s 1984, with its depiction of the brainwashing society of Big Brother, of Newspeak (the language designed to inhibit critical thinking), the Thought Police, and constant surveillance of every citizen, monitoring their behaviour (lest they should exhibit signs of discontent, or worse, rebellion). They will also possibly remember that the reign of the Party in ‘1984’ signified the political dictatorship that Orwell wanted to identify and warn against with this novel, published on 8 June 1949, and for the publication of which he probably paid with his life by postponing the medical care he urgently needed at the time to finish writing the novel.

Looking at the global political landscape one might conclude that Orwell’s fears of a totalitarian future were unfounded – after all, how many political dictatorships can one identify today? North Korea, and perhaps Iran? But what if totalitarianism has today assumed a completely different, unexpected, shape — one that Bernard Stiegler unmasked in his book, Automatic Society 1 (Polity Press, 2016), on which I wrote about here.

To add to the accuracy of Stiegler’s diagnosis, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff recently published a forceful indictment (‘The Age of Surveillance CapitalismThe Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power‘, Public Affairs, Hachette, 2019) of the agencies responsible for the new totalitarianism, which the vast majority of people fail to recognise as such — in fact, they willingly embrace the way that these powerful agencies rule their lives in a virtually ‘total’ manner. She calls this new totalitarianism ‘surveillance capitalism’, and defines it in a very telling way right at the beginning of her book:

‘Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n.
1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for
hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales;
2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to
a new global architecture of behavioral modification;
3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power
unprecedented in human history;
4. The foundational framework of a
surveillance economy;
5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first
century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth
and twentieth;
6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts
dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy;
7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total
8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a
coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.’

If this does not send shivers of shock and recognition down your spine you need to ask yourself if you are awake. Because what she is talking about are the very agencies that rule (or at least fundamentally influence) most of your lives today: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram…

How is this possible, you may ask, and why does the functioning of these hugely popular, internet-based sites amount to a kind of totalitarianism? In the recent edition of TIME magazine dated June 17, with the hilarious cover, showing a red London bus sinking, with the cover story, ‘How Britain Went Bonkers’ (and ‘The Brexit Fiasco’), there is a short article by Zuboff (p. 15-16) in the Technology section, titled ‘The Threat of Big Other’ (with its play on Big Brother). In this brief masterpiece of political (yes, ‘political’ because it deals with the exercise of power) writing, Zuboff succinctly addresses the main issues of her book, linking it to Orwell’s 1984.

She reminds readers that Orwell’s aim with 1984 was to alert British and American societies that democracy is not immune to totalitarianism, and that ‘Totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere’ (Orwell, quoted by Zuboff, p. 16). People were seriously wrong in their assumption that totalitarian control of people’s actions through mass surveillance (as depicted in ‘1984’; recall ‘Big Brother is watching you’) could only issue from the state, however, and she makes no bones about the source of this threat today (p. 16):

‘For 19 years, private companies practicing an unprecedented economic logic that I call surveillance capitalism have hijacked the Internet and its digital technologies. Invented at Google in 2000, this new economics covertly claims private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Some data are used to improve services, but the rest are turned into computational products that predict your behaviour. These predictions are traded in a new futures market, where surveillance capitalists sell certainty to businesses determined to know what we will do next. This logic was first applied to finding out which ads online will attract our interest, but similar practices now reside in nearly every sector — insurance, retail, health, education, finance and more – where personal experience is secretly captured and computed.’

There is more, however. Zuboff further informs one that predictive data do not only come from monitoring online behaviour, but from actually directing it, the way Facebook used ‘subliminal [online] cues’ to influence users’ behaviour and emotional states. This formed the basis for analyses of people’s feelings which, in turn, enabled marketing agents to elicit certain predictable behaviour when users are most receptive to cues. The worst aspect of this insight is that these ‘inventions were celebrated for being both effective and undetectable’ (p. 16). To add insult to injury, Cambridge Analytica showed that these techniques could be implemented to determine political choice. Hence Zuboff’s dire warning (p. 16):

Democracy slept while surveillance capitalism flourished. As a result, surveillance capitalists now wield a uniquely 21st century quality of power, as unprecedented as totalitarianism was nearly a century ago. I call it instrumentarian power, because it works its will through the ubiquitous architecture of digital instrumentation. Rather than an intimate Big Brother that uses murder and terror to possess each soul from the inside out, these digital networks are a Big Other: impersonal systems trained to monitor and shape our actions remotely, unimpeded by law.

The last point is significant — there are (as yet) no laws that govern, and can hence preclude this stealthy, surreptitious control of people’s behaviour, which is far more insidious than overt political totalitarian rule, which one can resist. Hence the question: how does one resist this insidious rule of ‘surveillance capitalism’, and is it at all possible? Zuboff thinks that it is (p. 16):

Surveillance capitalists falsely claim their methods are inevitable consequences of digital technologies. But Orwell despised “the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment.” Courage, he insisted, demands that we assert our morals even against forces that appear invincible.

Seven decades later, we can honor Orwell’s death by refusing to cede the digital future. Like Orwell, think critically and criticise. Do not take freedom for granted. Fight for the one idea in the long human story that asserts the people’s right to rule themselves. Orwell reckoned it was worth dying for.

I can only echo Zuboff’s exhortation, that we ‘think critically and criticise’. Since at least the ancient Greeks, this has been the vocation of philosophers, personified in the uncompromising figure of Socrates, to encourage people to think and act critically, lest they forfeit their right and the ability to govern themselves to tyrannical forces of different stripes. Socrates taught us NOT to honour the gods of the polis (city), for those are the politically correct, and therefore false, gods.

Listen instead to your conscience, the way Shoshana Zuboff has listened to hers; despite the fact that she is a tenured professor at one of America’s (and the world’s) most respected universities, and could therefore be expected to ‘honour the (digital) gods of the city’, she has unmasked them as being false. She is a worthy thinker to pay heed to.