Good Essay On Orwell On Technology And Privacy
The world we live in today is so technologically advanced that our ancestors living a few decades ago could not have imagined the transformation the world, society and individual lives have gone through. Technological advances has not only life easier but it also has shrunk the world arising questions about how private our lives are. Search engines, email programs and social media platforms have become invasive in a way that we knowingly and unknowingly give away our details- both private and public. Privacy thus becomes questionable. While questions and discussions about privacy and the invasiveness of technology is common place now, it was not the case when Orwell wrote the novel 1984. Orwell talks about the all-seeing and all-knowing Big brother decades ago and his words have become prophetic. A reading of Orwell’s work revels that the author was not far off in warning that we were entering into a world where technology makes privacy a premium. Orwell is thus right in having predicted a world where technology eliminates privacy.
When talking about information privacy or privacy in general and surveillance the most common metaphor that is used is of the Orwellian ‘Big Brother’, the enigmatic fictional leader of Oceania who sees and knows all. The residents of this fictional city are constantly under surveillance and cannot do or think anything that is subversive or threatening to the government. The residents are constantly told that ‘Big Brother is watching you’. In effect they do not have private lives and every aspect of their lives is constantly monitored. This is true of the world we live in too where our personal data is for sale to the highest bidder and each and every aspect of our life is stored somewhere the more time we spend online. Even if we choose not to be online, the cards that we use, the financial transactions we make and social security numbers are enough to know our history. Wiretapping, email and video surveillance, random drug testing in offices are only some of the instances that erode the privacy of an individual. Advanced technology makes it possible that the surveillance is discreet and the individual is not aware of being monitored. This discrete and stealthy monitoring makes the situation all the more paranoiac.
Just like the government of Oceania in Orwell’s’ novel the government today has too many devices and laws in its favor that make it possible and easy to spy on people. The question of privacy and protests against the protection of what little privacy we have left is drowned out in the argument for national security. When national security is at stake, privacy of the individual takes a backseat and the government is free to use whatever technology is at its disposal to track the movements of people. Orwell’s big brother is the constant all knowing, ever vigilant leader of Oceania, eerily similar to the governments of today. Big Brother uses technology to spy on the citizens of Oceania and also force them to confirm to uniformity. Individual thought is prohibited and solitude is not allowed. Technology has succeeded in making men solitary and connected at the same time. Privacy is gone once a person is in the system, especially online. Since the majority does not care to read the fine print there is no saying what the private data that is being collected could be used for. It is not just the government that uses technology to surveil people, the information giants also relies on technology to market products. The reference of a person is known by data collected through his or her online searches and then is them sold off to other companies which then market specific products based on the person’s tastes. This has seeped in so much into the lives of people that it no longer is scary but seen as having made life easier. Just like the suffocating Orwellian world where the people know they are being monitored and do nothing about it, the invasion of privacy on a large scale goes on unnoticed and unchallenged. The protagonist of the book says, “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized (Orwell, Chap 1).” Just like him, people today live with the knowledge that their privacy has been compromised to a large degree by technology. Not only that, people are implicit in letting that happen. In his book, “The Culture of Surveillance: Discipline and Social Control in the United States”, sociologist William Staples says that “that we have internalized Big Brother—we have created a Big Brother culture, where we all act as agents of surveillance and voyeurism (Staples 57).”
The surveillance tool that is used in Orwell’s book is the ‘telescreen’ that could be found in every house. It serves two purposes. Not only is there constant propaganda of the empire but it also acts as a surveillance device which silently records the actions of the individuals. This goes on even when the telescreen is switched off. This surveillance that is both real and imagined is both Orwellian and Kafkaesque. The present day equivalent of the ‘telescreen’ is the computer. The user is monitored when online and the digital footprints left behind after the machine is switched off is also sieved through. There is no real switching off in the digital world. If computers are an invasion of privacy inside homes, then the surveillance cameras that are positioned on main roads, office buildings, airports, theaters and hotel corridors make sure no one is private anywhere. In 1974, when database usage was still in the infant stages, William Douglas, the US Supreme Court Justice observed that the computer has become “the heart of a surveillance system that will turn society into a transparent world. Another mentioned at the same time that the acres of files assembled was leading the society into an Orwellian world (Solove 31). Orwell’s telescreen can be easily compared to Internet “surveillance” of today. An innocent act of searching for a mobile technology would send out information to a hundred vendors who would then bombard the user with advertisements. The search for knowledge is no longer private; it is more akin to shouting from the rooftop. As Paul Schwartz, a leading expert on privacy law, observes, the “Internet creates digital surveillance with nearly limitless data storage possibilities and efficient search possibilities.” Instead of one Big Brother, today there are a “myriad” of “Big and Little Brothers” collecting personal data (Schwartz 1656). The google street maps is an example where a person really does not have much choice about how private the residence is.
The eventual erosion of privacy and the specter of big brother was always something that was tossed around ever since computers made a huge entrance and impact. Technologists and computers science professionals always saw the possibility that the state would use this new technology to increase its presence. “Computerized personal record-keeping systems, in the hands of police and intelligence agencies, clearly extend the surveillance capabilities of the state (Moshowitz 79).” With the onset of technology and new technology being invented every day, the state did not have to physically plant itself everywhere to keep track of the citizens. Just as in the Orwellian world, the state looks on from its tower, knowing fully well what people do and see. Technology has made it possible for anyone to track people they want to and it isn’t the state alone that does it. Exposure to technology leaves a person vulnerable and takes off the little semblance of privacy he or she is entitled to. In the case of social media platforms users willingly let go of their privacy. Not only do they accept the company’s rules that their data might be used for other purposes, but they also put up pictures and posts of personal nature. Inviting voyeuristic action inside of their homes and lives, people willingly throw away their privacy. Privacy has also become something that is a little overrated in this age of instant gratification and instant stardom. The more one is technologically connected and digitally suave, the more he or she is known to the world. While some people are too lazy to make the necessary settings to keep their information private, a lot many do not even know how much they are losing by not making an effort to hide what they are looking for online. The Orwellian citizen has come of age and has accepted this invasion of privacy as a fact of life, something that happens every single day and something that has to be put up with.
A lot of things that one does today would not be possible without the aid of technology. Booking tickets, arranging to be picked up at the airport, booking a hotel room, searching for restaurants in the new place can all be done without having to move from the desk. It definitely makes life simpler as there are less people to deal with in the whole process. The person also get a multitude of options without really have to make a phone call. But with the ease of doing things comes the possibility that one is also leaving a trail for anyone to follow. The trip that had been planned is no longer private, not only do advertisers know what the person is up to, but anyone hacking into the computer will also know exactly what the itinerary is. Not only is the privacy of an individual at stake here, but also the safety. Writing so many decades ago, Orwell would have definitely not imagined a world where his words would become a fact of life. Although the novel is a little disturbing, Orwell was spot on when he said that technology eliminates privacy. The more technologically active a person is, the more privacy he or she loses and the more information the state and the big corporations have on them.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classic. 1950.
Mowshowitz, Abbe. “Social Control and the Network Marketplace.” In Computers, Surveillance and Privacy. David Lyon and Elia Zureik. Eds. 1996.
Staples. G. William. The Culture of Surveillance: Discipline and Social Control in the United States. New York: St. Martin’s press. 1997.
Solove.J.Daniel. The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age. New York: New York University Press. 2004.
Schwartz. M. Paul. “Privacy and Democracy in Cyberspace.” Vanderbilt Law Review. Vol 52(1609), p. 1609-1701.