“The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.” – 1984, George Orwell
Much has been written in the last couple of years about the threat of a gradual shift this country is making towards a possible totalitarian state coming off the vitriolic presidential campaign leading into the 2016 election and the current administration in our nation’s capital.
That frightening prospect is not the main topic of this month’s musings, but it does serve as a jumping off point about something equally disconcerting that is taking place in America and on a worldwide basis.
Just to set the stage, I recently dusted off an old copy of the 1949 George Orwell dystopian novel, 1984, which foretold of a society marked by never-ending war and governed by a structure that included official deception, manipulation of recorded history by the authoritarian state, a dumbing down of the official language to be replaced by an alternate language called “Newspeak” – complete thoughts reduced to the simplest of terms in hopes of limiting creative thinking – and “doublethink” which involved a calculated effort by the ruling class “telling carefully constructed lies.” All of this had one goal – to retain the caste system where a minority of the wealthy class controlled everything in society.
The Orwellian prediction would only be complete if the government class had a means to continually monitor the middle class and those in the wealthy class. In his totalitarian state, not much attention was paid to the life of the “Proles,” as they were known, or lower class working people, because they lacked the education and the creative drive to change the world order painted so bleakly in 1984.
But the ruling minority group knew that they had to control the thinking class, which they did with use of technology like Telescreens, or two-way television, and Thought Police. Step out of line and you would be eliminated. It was that simple.
What may have seemed far-fetched when 1984 was first published has now made its way into our daily lives.
I got my first inkling of this a few Christmas holidays in the past while talking with my sons about possible gift items for a family member. Within a matter of hours, the three of us began receiving targeted online advertising about items we had just discussed in our home. Yes, I know that urban legend has held for years that those controlling the bulk of internet traffic had the ability to monitor and commit to the mega data base of our private conversations. All of us, myself included, dismissed such talk as just that – conjecture. And anyone who truly believed activities in their domicile were being recorded had to be part of the tinfoil hat set.
Of course, the couple of leading digital communication companies have denied monitoring our private lives beyond our history on the internet.
So it came as no surprise in the last month that one of those firms – Facebook – actually filed for patent protection for a software program that allows it to monitor “ambient sounds” – conversations and sounds within your home for purposes of tracking what items and topics are of interest to you. It’s like Shazam for your home, although it monitors sounds 24/7.
We were given a preview of this personal privacy invasion as early as 2006, when the FBI was allowed to remotely turn on the microphone in a criminal’s cellphone to monitor conversations.
At the same time, we are learning of recent major advances now being made in facial recognition software, an advanced version of what some countries, like China, use to continually monitor crowds.
Surprisingly, one of the tech industry’s leading chieftains, Microsoft President Brad Smith, has just recently started the necessary public conversation on the possible abuses of facial recognition software and has called for government regulation of this developing field.
Smith has suggested, as a starting point, a bi-partisan commission be appointed and tasked with developing rules before facial recognition gets an unbridled foothold in society. Smith has said that law enforcement regulations must be developed to restrict use of facial recognition. Further, he wants public notification of the use of facial recognition when it comes to gatherings in public spaces.
I remember several years ago conversing with a member of the law enforcement community over concerns about tracking of members of the public and was reminded that the biggest violators of our privacy were the retailers and internet firms who were quickly developing tracking methodologies that would allow others to amass historical data on where we went on the internet, what we viewed, etc. This law enforcement officer expressed dismay that the public was not complaining about this oversight by those who controlled the digital highways who were free to sell that information to others.
I did not think much of the argument then, but my perspective has changed dramatically in the last few years. We have disconnected the Amazon Alexa device in our home. Disallow tracking, whenever possible, when searching for things on the web, be it through a laptop, iPad or cellphone. I have resisted joining the lemming march toward two-way tv technology. I attempted about a year ago to discontinue my seldom-used personal Facebook account, only to be notified by Facebook that I had to maintain it if I wanted to continue with the separate account for the publishing group, but I may well pull the plug on that also.
And I am watching with interest how the European Union is getting tough with the hi tech giants when it comes to invasion of privacy and the gathering information about our personal habits without our permission, hoping that someone picks up the gauntlet in our country to safeguard our personal information here.
What was considered fantastical decades ago is the new reality. 1984 has arrived. We must elevate the conversation on this issue before it is too late.