Still relevant after all these years: Three classic dystopian novels, fit for our time


Many novels become classics because they reveal fundamental truths about human behavior or society.  In the case of dystopian novels, they often highlight warning signs about the direction that our society is headed; or, they may reveal destructive tendencies which, if acted upon, could lead to disastrous consequences. 

In this post we will highlight three dystopian novels, all published around the middle of the 20th century.  Each of these novels has become a classic.  They have sold millions of copies, and the books are widely adopted for high school and college curricula.  At the time they were published, they presented scenarios that were scary and yet, to a certain degree, they were also realistic. 

We will argue that these novels are as relevant today as when they were first published.  In each case, new trends in today’s society, often reinforced by new technologies, echo some of the warnings from these novels.  Thus, these novels still pack a punch and can show us the dangers of some aspects of our social and political landscape. 

Each of these novels has been the subject of many critical analyses.  So, for each book we will begin with a brief review of the life of the novelist.  We will then provide a capsule summary of the plot of the novel.  We will end by highlighting those aspects of world culture and modern technology that are most relevant to the particular book. 

Part I: Nineteen Eighty Four

George Orwell:

Eric Arthur Blair, who would go on to write novels and articles under the pen name George Orwell, was born in June 1903 in Motihari, India.  His father worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service.  When Eric was one year old, his mother took him and an older sister to England.  They lived in Henley-on-Thames for a while and then moved to Shiplake, Oxfordshire.  Even as a boy, Eric dreamt of being a famous writer; his earliest role model was H.G. Wells. 

Figure I.1:  British author and critic Eric Blair, who took the pen name George Orwell, “a good round English name.” 

Eric was considered a promising student.  By age 14, he was writing and publishing poetry, and he earned scholarships to both Wellington and Eton.  He claimed to have hated Wellington but remarked that he was happier at Eton.  For a short time, his French tutor at Eton was Aldous Huxley.  But Blair’s academic achievements were insufficient to earn him a college scholarship, so he applied to and was accepted by the Imperial Police.  Blair was posted to Burma, which at the time was a province of British India.  He continued there for over five years, and he later wrote about his experiences in Burma in a book, Burmese Days. He also published a couple of articles about his experiences in Burma. 

In 1928, Blair returned to Britain where he aspired to be a writer.  He was advised to “write about what you know.”  For several of Blair’s books, he first decided what he would write about, and then immersed himself in a particular culture to obtain an understanding of that group.  For example, Blair was inspired by the writing of Jack London, who had worked as a laborer in a number of menial jobs, and then integrated his experiences into his novels.  Blair decided that he wanted to write about the life of the working poor.  In order to gain first-hand experiences, Eric began to frequent the slums of the East End of London. 

While in the East End and later in the British countryside, Blair went under the pseudonym P.S. Burton.  He dressed as a tramp and lived among the poor.  He spent some time in the workhouses that provided support for the indigent.  On one occasion he deliberately got drunk, in an attempt to get himself arrested and thrown in jail over the Christmas holiday, so that he might write an article about his experience.  However, the police released him without further charges after he spent a couple of days in a cell.  Although Blair was apparently living in dire poverty, he nevertheless had family and friends who could provide him with support.  After a period of time living amongst the poor, Eric would return to bourgeois life with his friends.  Blair assiduously took notes of his experiences among Britain’s lower classes. 

Later in 1928, Blair moved to Paris and repeated his forays into the culture of Parisian slums.  He lived in a working-class neighborhood in the 5th Arrondissement, and once again deliberately chose a number of menial jobs.  One of those was as a dishwasher in a restaurant in a high-class hotel in Paris’ Rue de Rivoli.  However, Blair also had an aunt, Nellie Limouzin, who lived in Paris and provided him with financial support from time to time.  While in Paris, Blair began to write in earnest.  He completed drafts of a novel and also published a few articles in a left-wing Parisian Journal Le Progres Civique.  The subjects of his articles – “the effects of unemployment, a day in a life of a tramp, and the beggars of London” – were the results of his study of the poor during his life in London’s East End. 

Blair would later incorporate his experiences living amongst the poor in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.  It was published in 1933 by Victor Gollancz.  For this book, Blair used a pseudonym, so as not to embarrass his family regarding his life as a tramp and a beggar.  After considering various possibilities, Blair adopted the pen name George Orwell, as it was “a good round English name.”  For the remainder of his career, he would use the name George Orwell for his works (and we will call him “George Orwell” for the remainder of this post). 

For a significant portion of his life, Orwell’s health was precarious.  In 1933 he was riding his motorcycle through the countryside when he was caught in a storm and developed a chill.  It turned into a serious case of pneumonia, that caused him to be hospitalized for a few months.  After that, his respiratory system was significantly weakened.  This was not helped by his habit of chain-smoking.  

Again in 1938, Orwell spent several months in a sanitarium, where it was believed he had contracted tuberculosis.  After he was released from the sanitarium, he suffered periodic bouts of bronchitis, and he lived with a damaged respiratory system for the remainder of his life.  However, he still managed to produce a steady stream of books and critical essays that cemented his reputation as an astute political commentator.  

Orwell was a committed democratic Socialist.  He hated Fascism, and when a civil war erupted in Spain, he volunteered to serve the anti-Fascist cause.  Orwell traveled to Barcelona, where the Republican government was composed of a number of different political groups, all of whom were fighting Franco’s Fascists.   There was the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), an anarcho-syndicalist faction called the Confederacion Nacional del Trabaio (CNT), and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia, which was a Communist group supported by the Soviet Union. 

Orwell took part in some of the fighting against the Fascists, and at one point he was shot through the throat by a sniper and hospitalized.  But Orwell also got caught up in infighting between the various anti-Fascist organizations in Catalonia.  The Spanish Communists accused the POUM, the organization that Orwell was allied with, of being secretly in league with the Fascists.  Eventually, the POUM were outlawed in Catalonia.  Orwell and his wife Eileen were spied upon, and eventually their situation became sufficiently dangerous that they escaped by train and returned to England. 

A year later, Orwell was tried in absentia along with other POUM officials for being “Trotskyites,” and for being agents of the Fascists.  This only served to deepen Orwell’s hatred for Soviet communism, especially when he read the trumped-up charges against him.  In the early 20th century, a number of intellectuals were attracted by the ideals and promise of Communism.  During World War II, Stalin’s Russia was an ally in the fight against Hitler’s Third Reich.  However, after the War leftist sympathizers had to decide whether to continue supporting Stalinist Communism, particularly when it became apparent that Stalin’s Russia was a repressive and murderous regime. 

Orwell had no trouble remaining in staunch opposition to both Fascism and Stalinist Communism.  He very plainly saw the totalitarian aspects of Stalin’s Russia and he wrote eloquently against its excesses.  At the same time, Orwell maintained his strong support for democratic Socialism, which he viewed as a necessary corrective to unbridled free-market capitalism.   Orwell’s attacks on Stalinist Russia put him at odds with many leftists, particularly during World War II when Russia was a member of the Allies fighting Hitler. 

George Orwell was a man who embodied a number of contradictions.  For example, Orwell was an atheist.  Nevertheless, he greatly enjoyed the religious services of the Church of England.  When he attended Anglican services, he would frequently take Communion, despite his atheistic philosophy.  After his death, Orwell was given a Church of England funeral and buried in an English church cemetery, following his wishes. 

Orwell was convinced that he was distinctly unattractive.  Despite this, he had somewhat of a reputation as a womanizer.  He had various affairs even while he was married.  Orwell’s wife Eileen died in March 1945.  She was undergoing a hysterectomy, and she had only mentioned this to George a short time before the operation, in part because she was concerned about the cost of the procedure.  She died on the operating table. 

Orwell was devastated by the unexpected death of his wife.  He desperately wanted a woman who could offer him companionship, and also to help raise the boy whom George and Eileen had adopted.  Over the next 18 months, he proposed marriage to a number of younger women.  Several of the women were shocked at the abrupt and unexpected proposals, and all of them rejected his advances.  However, in 1949 a former co-worker of Orwell, Sonia Brownell, accepted his proposal.  They were married in October 1949; at this time, Orwell was in the hospital being treated for tuberculosis.  George and Sonia were married for only three months when in January 1950, an artery burst in Orwell’s lungs and he died at age 46. 

In addition to Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell also wrote the 1945 book Animal FarmAnimal Farm was a fable concerning a group of farm animals who rebel against their masters, with the aim of creating a Utopian society where all animals are equal and benefits are shared amongst the group.  However, eventually their farm is turned into a dictatorship led by the pig Napoleon.  That novel is a biting satirical portrait of the Russian Revolution, which was followed by the formation of a ruthless autocratic society.  

Nineteen Eighty Four:

George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty Four in 1948, not long after the end of World War II.  As we have mentioned, Orwell had observed the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and had fought against Franco’s Fascists in Catalonia.  In addition, he watched the Soviet state develop under Josef Stalin into a brutal repressive regime.  Orwell was a ruthless foe of totalitarian regimes on either end of the political spectrum; he became a controversial figure over his criticism of the Stalinist dictatorship at a time when the Russians were our allies in World War II. 

Figure I.2: Book jacket of the George Orwell novel NIneteen Eighty Four.

Orwell was also horrified by the incredible destructive power of the atomic bomb.  He believed it quite likely that a third world war would follow in a short period of time, and that such a war could involve the use of nuclear weapons on both sides.  So he began to imagine a world that might exist after wholesale destruction in all the participating nations.  In particular, how might totalitarian societies develop in the coming decades? 

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, most of the world has been divided into three massive multi-state alliances: one of these, Oceania, comprises the Americas, the British Isles, and the south of Africa.  The two other multi-state alliances are Eurasia and Eastasia.  In Orwell’s novel, the three alliances are waging a perpetual war, but almost all the fighting takes place in areas that border the three alliances. 

We never see any description of the political organization of Eurasia or Eastasia, and the action of the novel takes place in what was previously Great Britain but is now called Airstrip One of Oceania.  Orwell unveils a terrifying picture of a thoroughly totalitarian regime.  The citizens of Oceania are divided into three groups.  The smallest is the Inner Party, comprising less than 2% of the total population of Oceania.  The Inner Party is well educated and rather prosperous, and it creates and enforces the societal rules.  The Outer Party makes up 15-20% of the populace, has a rigidly controlled level of education, and is closely watched by the Inner Party.  The remainder of the population, the proletariat or proles, live in poverty and squalor. 

Outer Party members are constantly surveilled by the state, by means of large telescreens that have been erected in public areas, businesses and homes.  The telescreens feature gigantic portraits of Oceania’s leader, Big Brother.  The governmental organization is divided into four Ministries: the Ministry of Peace, which is concerned with waging war; the Ministry of Plenty, which manages the economics of Oceania; the Ministry of Truth, which is in charge of news, education, and entertainment; and the Ministry of Love, which maintains law and order.  It is the Ministry of Love that carries out the constant surveillance of the population. 

The living conditions described in Nineteen Eighty Four are very similar to conditions in Europe immediately following World War II: goods are scarce and shoddy; many buildings have been destroyed or badly rebuilt; and cities are grimy and unhealthy.  The hero of the book, Winston Smith, is employed in the Ministry of Truth.  He is employed in re-writing history: old newspapers and books are edited so that their predictions agree with the outcomes.  Thus, if Oceania suddenly switches political allegiances such that it is now at war with its former ally Eurasia, then old publications are edited to give the impression that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.  After re-editing, the old materials are destroyed. 

Here, Orwell was apparently referring to lessons learned from Stalinist Russia.  When politicians fell out of favor and were imprisoned or executed, the regime would remove that person from photographs and articles that mentioned their accomplishments.  But Orwell’s emphasis on language and totalitarianism took him far beyond the forms of propaganda and revisionism practiced in Communist or Fascist societies. 

In Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell describes a form of language modification that he calls Newspeak.  Newspeak involves a process of methodically restricting the language.  The regime periodically issued revised editions of the Newspeak Dictionary.  The number of words was progressively decreased; as Orwell states in an Appendix to Nineteen Eighty Four, “The special function of certain Newspeak words … was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.”  Thus, Orwell points out that in 1984, “words such as honor, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science and religion had simply ceased to exist.”   Orwell claims that, by purging the language of words that describe positive attributes of democratic societies, the populace will eventually cease to understand or utilize these concepts.  A specific example is that the latest edition of Newspeak had no word for “science,” and as a result the empirical methods of thought that form the basis for science have largely ceased to exist.  The only exception for this is that the search for new weapons remains in the current government. 

An example of the power of words is sexuality in Orwell’s state.  The only legitimate purpose of sexual intercourse is to produce more citizens, which is described by the Newspeak term goodsex. ; Sexual pleasure, particularly on the part of the woman, is forbidden.  All other forms of sexual conduct – including “fornication, adultery, homosexuality and other perversions, and in addition, normal intercourse practiced for its own sake” – were strictly forbidden; all of these situations were covered by the single Newspeak word sexcrime

It had become evident to Winston Smith that the government was deceiving the people – part of this realization arose from his work in the Ministry of Truth, where he was engaged in re-writing history and falsifying the past.  Smith begins to keep a private journal of his thoughts, another highly forbidden activity.  Here, he notes various ways in which the public is being deceived.  He also notices when the government suddenly changes its position from war with the enemy Eurasia to war with (the previous ally) Eastasia. 

Winston then meets a younger woman Julia, and the two begin a sexual affair, another taboo activity, a sexcrime.  They must meet in secret to avoid officials from the Ministry of Truth; thus, Winston rents a room above an old bookstore, where he and Julia can carry on their affair without being observed (the room does not appear to have a telescreen).  Winston and Julia can maintain their affection for one another, a feeling that they are determined to maintain despite the activities of the thought police. 

Winston is interested in making connection with members of a group called The Brotherhood, who are rumored to be conspirators against the tyrannical regime.  He and Julia meet with O’Brien, one of Smith’s superiors, who has implied that he and Smith are kindred spirits.  Winston and Julia announce their affair to O’Brien and their interest in The Brotherhood.  O’Brien gives Smith a manuscript attributed to the leader of the conspiracy. 

But after a short while, Winston and Julia are arrested by the thought police.  It turns out that they have been closely monitoring Winston even before he began his journal; and they know all about the affair between Winston and Julia.  The pair are separated, and while imprisoned in the Ministry of Love, Winston discovers that O’Brien is a member of the thought police.  Winston then undergoes a regime of physical and mental torture.  His anti-government thoughts and beliefs are systematically stripped from him. 

Figure I.3:  Winston Smith is tortured by O’Brien, a member of the thought police.  From a televised stage play of Nineteen Eighty Four.

Winston’s last vestige of individualism is his conviction that he will never betray his love for Julia. However, Winston is eventually taken to Room 101.  In that room, each prisoner is confronted with their greatest fear: in Smith’s case, that is his fear of rats.  When it appears that he is in danger of being eaten alive by rats, Winston asks that the rats be set upon Julia instead of him.  Eventually, Winston is released, and he encounters Julia once again.  They each confess that they betrayed the other.  Their relationship has ended, and Winston’s mind has now been purged of all his seditious thoughts.  The novel ends with the truly frightening line “He loved Big Brother.”   

Figure I.4:  In Room 101, a box containing a rat is attached to Winston Smith’s head.  Smith betrays his lover Julia when he fears that he is in danger of being eaten alive by the rat.   

Nineteen Eighty Four paints an extremely grim picture of a successful authoritarian regime.  The state surveillance is so successful that resistance is essentially futile.  Surveillance is accomplished not only by the ubiquitous telescreens, but children are also recruited to spy on their parents and relatives.  Orwell maintained that “By comparison with that existing today [in 1984], all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient.”   

When O’Brien is torturing Smith, he tells Smith that the bureaucracy is creating “The exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined … The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice.  Ours is founded upon hatred.  In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement.  Everything else we shall destroy.”  Furthermore, O’Brien maintains that although this new society will be completely stable, “The espionage, the betrayals, the tortures, the executions, the disappearances will never cease.  It will be a world of terror as much as a world of triumph.” 

In Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell creates a dystopian totalitarian world that is extremely shocking.  Orwell’s loathing for autocratic societies is revealed through his portrayal of a world order that was created following a series of devastating battles.  One of the hallmarks of Orwell’s totalitarian regime is the central role of language in creating the culture.  For example, each of the four Ministries of Oceania has a name that is the exact opposite of its function.  The Ministry of Love is in charge of surveillance and torture, while the function of the Ministry of Truth is not only to hide the truth by constantly revising history, but also by destroying original papers and books that might reveal the truth about the past. 

Nineteen Eighty Four in Popular Culture:

Various terms from Nineteen Eighty Four have become embedded in our current popular culture.  One particular notion is Orwell’s shadowy character Big Brother.  He embodies the surveillance of the citizens (Big Brother’s giant visage appears on most telescreens), and also the propaganda spread by the regime.  The idea of Big Brother has appeared in a couple of different cultural phenomena in the past decades. 

Figure I. 5:  The 60s American rock group Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Lead singer Janis Joplin is in the center. 

Janis Joplin was one of the incandescent, doomed musicians whose light shined so brightly in the late 60s, and then was extinguished by their death at the age of 27.  Joplin’s first breakthrough came when she was the lead singer for the 60s R&B band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.  Of course, the name “Big Brother” was taken from the omnipresent leader Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four.  So here is a clip of Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company performing the song Piece of My Heart.  

A second appearance of “Big Brother” in popular culture was a television commercial that announced Apple’s rollout of their Macintosh computer.  The advertisement was shown only once – in the third quarter of Superbowl XVIII on January 24, 1984.  The commercial was directed by Ridley Scott.  It showed a large audience of men, all dressed in the same drab costume, looking like Maoist Chinese.  They are watching an enormous TV screen dominated by a giant talking head.  But a young woman runs into the auditorium, being chased by police, and she hurls a sledgehammer that demolishes the screen.  The ad ends with the statement “On January 24, 1984, Apple will introduce the Macintosh computer.  And you will see why 1984 won’t be like `1984.`”  Here is the one-minute commercial. 

It was assumed that “Big Brother” referred to IBM, the dominant manufacturer of personal computers at that time.  By the way, the estate of George Orwell sent a “cease and desist” letter to Apple complaining that the ‘1984’ commercial amounted to copyright infringement. This may explain why the commercial was only aired one time.  Despite this, the commercial is hailed as one of the greatest TV advertisements of all time. 

More recent examples of ‘Newspeak’ were used by the Trump Administration.  For example, during his term in office Donald Trump frequently used the term ‘fake news;’ in these cases he was referring to accurate reporting that he disliked.  Trump and his supporters also refer to the 2020 Presidential election, which was demonstrably free of any systematic irregularities, as ‘the Steal,’ claiming with no evidence that massive numbers of votes for Donald Trump were either not counted or were switched to votes for Biden.

Big Brother, 2021:

One of the main features of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is the extent to which the government spies on its citizens.  The ubiquitous telescreens are keeping constant watch on the inhabitants of Oceania.  We have many examples of surveillance today or in recent memory.  For example, during the days when East Germany was a part of the Soviet Union, they had a vast network of citizens who were recruited or blackmailed into spying on their colleagues, even their own families.  Another example would be North Korea.  That country goes to great lengths to prevent their citizens from obtaining news about the outside world.  In addition, it is alleged that their citizens are bombarded daily with announcements from loudspeakers, extolling the accomplishments and virtues of their Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. 

But perhaps the most technologically advanced and widespread surveillance of citizens today takes place in China.   We reported on this in a blog post on Cyberweapons of Mass Destruction, and our material here is taken from that post. 

The Chinese state has initiated a number of programs that keep watch on its citizens and their activities.  These efforts have intensified in recent years, as technology has allowed the implementation of many forms of surveillance.  This has become a big business in China; it is estimated that in 2016, Chinese expenditures on domestic security exceeded the figures for national defense by 13%.  In 2017 the total Chinese expenditure on domestic security was estimated at $197 billion, and they accounted for half of the world’s expenditures on security cameras.  For example, Fig. I.6 shows a security camera setup in Tienanmen Square.   

Figure I.6:  A Chinese security camera set up in Tienanmen Square.

A major Chinese effort is via surveillance cameras.  As of 2019, it was estimated that the Chinese had installed 770 million surveillance cameras across the mainland.  This is by far the largest number of such cameras anywhere in the world.  This began in 2005 with the formation of the computer system Skynet.  In addition to a constant presence of surveillance cameras in public areas in China, cameras have also been stationed in areas such as mosques in the Xinjiang region, temples in Tibet, and the homes of dissidents.  Recently, the Skynet system has been upgraded, incorporating facial recognition software and data mining techniques.  In recent years, the Chinese government has also instituted cellphone apps, which are used for the purposes of national security, but the apps also allow citizens to report any suspicious activity.  The reporting of unusual behavior to authorities has been a staple of the Communist system in China ever since the time of Mao Tse Tung. 

In 2019, Comparitech reported that the top three cities in the world for computer surveillance are in China (Chongqing, Shenzhen and Shanghai, respectively), as are eight of the top ten cities in the world.   The government claims that the surveillance cameras have enabled authorities to solve a number of crimes; however, critics claim that “one of the most important purposes of such a smart surveillance system is to crack down on social unrest triggered by petitioners and dissidents.”  The Chinese have been using the latest advances in computer technology to enhance these surveillance techniques.  For example, in 2016 China introduced a law that required Internet companies to store all personal data and network logs for a period of at least six months. 

The use of surveillance cameras by the authorities follows very closely Orwell’s use of “telescreens” in Nineteen Eighty Four.  Furthermore, the use of citizens to spy on one another is quite similar to the systems set up in East Germany and in any autocratic country that maintains a vast central intelligence system.  However, Orwell could not have foreseen the development of cell phones and social media.  Each of these platforms provides undreamt-of connections between individuals and groups.  At the same time, they allow a determined government to utilize these systems to more accurately keep track of citizens and their actions.  Some of these techniques are also available to individual citizens; thus, we have seen a sharp rise in surveillance techniques used to spy on, say, one’s romantic partner or business rival. 

For example, China has been a world leader in developing and utilizing facial recognition software and artificial intelligence information to assist them in surveillance of their citizens.  In 2018, law enforcement officials were equipped with Smartglasses that contain facial recognition software.  The Chinese claim that this technology has allowed them to identify and apprehend drug smugglers and fugitives; however, the same technology also allows the Chinese to keep tabs on millions of their own citizens.  China has also introduced software that tracks the location and behavior of users of video games. Although the stated purpose is to battle addiction to such games, it also allows the authorities to track the location of the gamers.  The latest generation of Chinese Resident Identity cards also tracks the location of its holders. 

The most popular messaging app in China is WeChat.  Any message that is sent through WeChat is monitored by the company that operates the app, TenCent.  All conversations on this app are stored for a period of six months.  In addition, TenCent has recently admitted that it has the ability to recover deleted WeChat messages.  There has even been speculation that WeChat users outside of China may be having their messages surveilled.  One of the reasons that WeChat dominates Chinese messaging is that competing apps such as WhatsApp and Messenger have either been blocked by Chinese authorities, or they have even been forced out of the Chinese market. 

For a while, Chinese Internet users were able to shield their communications by using virtual private networks (VPNs), but the government has cracked down on this as well.  Beginning in 2017, the Chinese forbade the use of VPNs that were not approved by state regulators.  Remaining VPN companies are required to use the state’s networks, which ensures that authorities can monitor their use. 

Occasionally, the strict government control and surveillance of citizens has some benefits.  For example, during the current COVID pandemic, the Chinese were able to determine the health of its citizens because the state also required that health information be stored on cellphones monitored by the government.  They were also able to enforce quarantines because they could follow the location of everyone with a cellphone.  But the rigid centralization of information and the restrictions on speech and movement can also be used to control the population.  This has had significant ramifications for regions where the state is concerned about control of minority populations.  In China’s case this has been seen in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and seems to be occurring now in Hong Kong.  For example, in Hong Kong since early 2021, it appears that nearly every Hong Kong pro-democracy activist is either currently in prison or has left the territory.   Newspapers have been closed down and China has dramatically cracked down on individual freedoms that had been promised to Hong Kong citizens. 

Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond have pointed out that recent developments in big data, artificial intelligence and facial-recognition software have finally enabled the Chinese government to collect and store “records on each citizen’s political persuasions, comments, associations, and even consumer habits.”  The Chinese government has developed a “personal credit score,” that keeps track of a citizen’s behavior, politics, and other attributes.  Mitchell and Diamond argue that “What China is doing here [with the personal credit score] is selectively breeding its population to select against the trait of critical, independent thinking.”  They argue that China’s use of technology for repressive purposes will probably migrate to authoritarian regimes around the globe.  Bringing us back to Nineteen Eighty Four, Mitchell and Diamond call for democracies to “monitor and denounce this sinister creep toward an Orwellian world.” 

China expert Kai Strittmayer has commented on the use of technology by the Chinese to increase their control over the behavior of their citizens.  “We have been told for so many years and decades by these tech prophets that every kind of new technology would actually serve the cause of freedom and would undermine and subvert authoritarian rule. Well, the Chinese … think that actually these new technologies give them new instruments that will perfect their rule.”

In our discussion of citizen surveillance and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, we have focused so far on the situation in China.  Americans have a tendency to contrast the repressive measures and tracking of citizen activity in China with our own “freedoms.”  But Americans might do well to study the information released by Edward Snowden.   Snowden had been a communications consultant with the National Security Agency (NSA), and in May 2013 he released a trove of classified documents that showed extensive spying by the NSA.  U.S. officials have stated that Snowden may have released as many as 1.7 million files.  A number of these included thousands of confidential files from Australia and Great Britain. 

We reviewed the case of Edward Snowden and the materials that he released in an earlier blog post.  In that post, we detail several of the secret NSA programs revealed by Snowden’s data files.  One of those programs, PRISM, allowed the NSA to obtain court orders to spy on the Google and Yahoo accounts of Americans.  The NSA also maintained a clandestine call-base that used a secret court order enabling them to obtain daily call records of millions of phone calls from Americans with Verizon accounts.  The bottom line is that citizens all over the world are being subjected to surreptitious monitoring.  Unless governments decide that they will forgo keeping tabs on the behavior of their citizens, it is hard to see that this practice will decrease in the near future. Indeed, such monitoring is abetted by the willing submission of billions of people worldwide to social media algorithms that continually track, archive and reinforce their interests, likes, prejudices, and group affiliations.

Figure I.7:  A slide detailing the secret NSA program PRISM.  Through a secret court order, the NSA was given permission to monitor daily call records of millions of Americans with Verizon mobile phone accounts.

The internet is also a powerful tool, when controlled by government organizations, for the wide and rapid dissemination of revisionist history and propaganda that was managed in Nineteen Eighty Four by the Ministry of Truth.  Even when governments don’t control the internet, they can encourage the spread of misinformation that threatens to make history and factual information completely subjective. Much of this misinformation poses a direct threat to democracies and advances the cause of authoritarianism worldwide.

Continue to Part II