Search This Blog

Sunday, 23 June 2013

George Orwell and the end of anonymity: we are guilty, without a chance for parole, for the crime of ‘being around’.

Can I take this for granted, with your eyes over me?
In this place, this wintery home, I know there's always someone in

Someone is innocent, until proven
guilty in the court of law…

In 1949, a few years after the second World War ended, the Englishman George Orwell published a book. The book, called ‘nineteen eighty-four, a novel’, was set in a fictious country in a totalitarian future, in the year 1984.

It was clearly a book of its time, as it was written in the uncertain and frightening time of the mounting cold war between the western world and the – in those days – very totalitarian Soviet Union, with its ruthless, ultra-violent and paranoid leader Josif Stalin.

The book dealt with what perhaps were Orwell’s biggest fears at the time: a socialist domination, an omnipresent government and a time of not having any privacy whatsoever, in a society in which individualism and independency of mind were considered to be illegal ‘thoughtcrimes’.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ became a book with a reputation that was undoubtedly bigger than the book itself. Even without having read it, many people could imagine the dismal feelings that ‘a totalitarian society with total thought control’, as described in this book, offered.

When I lived in the real year 1984, it was a time in which the Cold War was very much alive and kicking. The last old-school General Secretary of the Communist Party Konstantin Chernenko ruled the Soviet Union and President Ronald Reagan of the United States made bad jokes and bold remarks about ‘pushing the red button to blast away the evil empire’. It was – in other words – not exactly a time of worldwide peace and quiet. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself, but thinking in those days that ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ must have been the biggest pile of b*llshit that had ever been written.

The year 1984 was a time of true sexual and religious freedom in the Western World, outrageous clothing, ‘big hair’ and make-up. It was also a time of fantastic British and Irish, alternative music from groups, like U2, Duran Duran, the Simple Minds, The Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and countless other bands. For me personally, it was the time of the ultimate freedom for me and my soul-mates in those days: riding on our mopeds, hanging round in bars and discotheques, taking holidays abroad without our parents and looking for girls. A time of great personal freedom and happiness.

However, in the years after 1984, when the large computer networks, identification cards, as well as closed circuit camera’s slowly became part of our daily lives, I started to think more often about Orwell’s visionary book and its discomforting content. This was mainly due to a mixture of technological development, expanding ICT coverage and growing government paranoia.

(Semi-) government, public and private organizations all started to collect more, and more extensive data about their citizens and customers. Besides that, these data became increasingly intertwined, due to government policy and regulation.

Large file collections from government databases, the Dutch internal revenue service, the social security management organization SVB, unemployment agencies, financial institutions and local communities became interconnected and acted as fine-darned fishing nets, from which no human could escape anymore.

The risk that one cent of tax money was unjustifiably spent on criminals, ‘moonlighters’ and ‘persons on the dole’ had to be mitigated everywhere within the (semi-)government and financial industry, even when it came at the expense of vast, billion euro computer systems and almost total control of mostly innocent people. People, who didn’t want to be part of these systems were suspicious in advance, as they had obviously ‘something to hide’.

In the meantime, the secrets of DNA had been slowly unraveled and its usability as a means of proof in the court of justice improved strongly. Although this was initially a very positive development, it had negative side-effects too.

Old-fashioned detective work and ‘looking for clues’ were increasingly replaced with hi-tech methods to collect human evidence and scan for perpetrators through DNA databases. Government officials everywhere became more and more “lazy” over the years and started to use large-scale DNA collections from whole populations in certain areas as a means to find criminals. If DNA evidence had been found, the rest of the evidence was just a matter of time, patience and a little bit of pressure on the defendant…

At the same time, these government officials became increasingly reluctant to destroy DNA that had been collected as ‘collateral’ in this process of crimefighting: ‘why should we throw away something, which could be useful after all in the near future’. Since then, growing numbers of Dutch, British and United States officials have been advocating storage of DNA and other personal trademarks, like fingerprints, retina scans, face proportion scans etc. from all their citizens. Personal trademarks should not only be present on personal identification papers, like passports and ID’s, but also in central databases. Just in case…

And so, we slowly, but surely started to grow something that comes darn close to a totalitarian regime. Strangely enough in hindsight, the danger for a totalitarian regime had clearly not come from the disintegrating Soviet Union or China, which one might have expected in the fifties or seventies of last century.

To the contrary, it came from within our own, free societies, under pressure of what we should call ‘the total security doctrine’. This doctrine states that security for the leaders, the VIP’s and (to a lesser degree) the masses in one country must be omnipresent and that every individual person’s rights, privileges and freedoms can be and eventually should be sacrificed, when this demand for omnipresent security requires this.

This doctrine, which already started to develop in the nineties of last century, became of course really fired up after the ‘9-11’ attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon in the United States and the attacks on Madrid and London in Europe. At the same time, the emergence of the internet made it much easier for government official of the various secret services to read the opinions, emotions, proceedings and even thoughts of individuals from all over the globe.

From an innocent person, until proven otherwise, the global citizen (EVERY citizen) became ‘possibly guilty, without a chance for parole, for the crime of being around’.

And now, thanks to one of the bravest and boldest persons on this earth, Edward Snowden, we know that the American NSA scans all our telephone calls, emails and internet proceedings. And that the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) logs almost the total global internet and telephone network for 30 days.

And we know by heart that this is probably only the tip of iceberg, as it always is. And that everything is allowed by every government, because of the ‘total security doctrine’. But that’s not bad, isn’t it? Because we do not have anything to hide, do we?!

The following description about the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell comes from Wikipedia:

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel by George Orwell published in 1949. The Oceanian province of Airstrip One is a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public mind control, dictated by a political system euphemistically named English Socialism (Ingsoc) under the control of a privileged Inner Party elite that persecutes all individualism and independent thinking as thoughtcrimes. Their tyranny is headed by Big Brother, the quasi-divine Party leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality, but who may not even exist. Big Brother and the Party justify their rule in the name of a supposed greater good.

Isn’t it scary, how close this description comes to the world that we are currently living in? Especially, when you replace ‘perpetual war’ with ‘the war on terrorism’ and think about the NSA and GCHQ, when you read ‘omnipresent government surveillance’.

And in your mind, you get from the American Patriot Act to ‘public mind control’ in the blink of an eye; only in the name of the surposed greater good that we lovingly call the ‘totally security doctrine’. 

Considering this, it is not hard to understand why George Orwell’s masterpiece has turned into an absolute best-seller lately. 

No comments:

Post a Comment