Technology is a wonderful thing, but in the words of Spider-Man's Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility." If we are not careful, the technology we know and love could be used against us, even subtly. In the year 1984, Apple thought IBM was the bringer of "Big Brother." In reality, the technology of today better resembles George Orwell's dystopian vision than a 1980s era PC.
Every day we are in the process of becoming a more connected society. With social networks, cloud computing and even more specific, less-thought-about tech such as Internet-connected home surveillance systems, we may find ourselves in a delicate balance of trust and paranoia.
1. The Telescreen Evolved
In 1984's Future: The resemblance between the flat panels of today and the telescreens of Orwell's story are obvious. The telescreens in 1984 were bi-directional, meaning they sent and received images, pushing propaganda while acting as a security camera in every living room. They also couldn't be shut off, so the telescreen might bear a closer resemblance to a home PC, which many people always leave on.
In Today's Reality: Today's televisions aren't actively spying on us (at least, we don't think so), but every laptop and most computer monitors have built-in webcams, and future 3D televisions may even keep track of where your eyes are looking to deliver the best picture possible. That data would also be useful to advertisers, who would then be able to calculate what areas of the screen are more valuable than others, and what ads were most engaging. There's also Microsoft's Kinect, which could go so far as to read your body language to gauge how you're feeling.
2. Big Brother Is Still Watching You
In 1984's Future: From every square and alley, the signs and propaganda for Big Brother bombard you in much the same way advertising does today. Two-way telescreens exist in every room. They're at work, at home and on the streets.
In Today's Reality: We live in a world that is almost completely under surveillance of one kind or another. Whether we speak about the CCTV system on every corner in the U.K., or the cameras in the Target parking lot, we have accepted these cameras for our protection. Remember that the protection comes at the interpretation of whoever is viewing these images. Ideally, trading privacy for security doesn't come at the cost of freedom.
Of course, having a human interpret and look through all of this video data would be a time consuming at best and impossible at worst. If you were trying to find a specific person, or track and record movements for review, it would take some doing. That's where some advanced facial recognition software comes in, and it could be used to keep a database of an individual's movements without a manual effort.
Consider: Where are you not under some type of surveillance? You're out of sight in some rooms of your home, right? Do you have your cellphone on your hip? If so, then someone knows where you are. Can they hear you? No? Are you sure? That's okay. You already tweeted and updated your Facebook status as to where you are. It's easy to dismiss the idea that someone is watching, but maybe they are.
Remember, our 2012 "Big Brother" doesn't have to be the government. It can just as often be corporations.
3. The Dream Police
In 1984's Future: In Orwell's world, anyone could be a member of the Thought Police. A friendly old store-keeper, a neighbor's child or a co-worker could be a member of this network that examines your behavior. Since the network could be literally anyone, you suspect everyone — and everyone suspects you.
In Today's Reality: Researchers have been refining a recent discovery that enables them to extract images from a subject's mind. The latest news on that front is a procedure which allows us to "hear" a person's internal monologue.
The positive medical implications for this technology are enormous. People with diseases that impede motor coordination or any other disorder that affects speech may finally have a coherent voice.
Yet in a world with cameras everywhere, a person's thoughts may be the last refuge for privacy. We need to ensure this kind of technology is used responsibly.
Consider: If you think the above technology seems far in the future or too removed to be implemented in a threatening way any time soon, consider that we have technology that can follow your eye movements and reactions to media. On the one hand it'd provide you with a new way to interface with technology; on the other, the data mined from your eye movements would be very valuable to advertisers.go
4. New Newspeak (Or, Sprain Your Thumb for Freedom)
In 1984's Future: In Orwell's world, the government was whittling down English to a more "efficient" version called Newspeak. Words such as "wonderful" and "splendid" were replaced with "plus good" or "double plus good." Newspeak was used in 1984 to control history.
In Today's Reality: While texting as a language clearly came about to save our thumbs work, we need to be careful that our communication doesn't lose its richness (or accuracy). In 1984, Orwell demonstrated that you can eliminate whole concepts (such as freedom) by not having a word for it.
While the language of texting isn't quite as nefarious as that, it does remove some of the humanity from communication. When writing documentation on technology, for instance, it's important to be precise and to the point. What makes a site like DVICE fun is a bit of whimsy and geek-culture humor. How interesting would it be if everything read like a UNIX manual or worse, no pronouns or vowels?
5. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."
In 1984's Future: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past," is one of the mottos of the party "Ingsoc" (English Socialism) in 1984. Some of the characters spent their days modifying public records, historical documents and old newspapers to make the world of the past seem favorable to the party, thus changing history.
In Today's Reality: Most of our general historical knowledge these days comes from a few trusted sources online. If these were purposely changed, wouldn't we be changing history? If you don't think so, ask yourself when you last looked at a real encyclopedia (which are no longer being printed) versus Google or Wikipedia. Once upon a time, we trusted our historical facts to people who got paid to be professional "fact-checkers." Now we put our trust in volunteers and good will, and the power of the crowd sourced information to check and balance itself the more eyes are on it.
6. Following The Money
In 1984's Future: There is no privacy for your purchases in 1984 unless you bought things on the black market. All food was in specific rations per person in specific weights. Not only did this help track purchases, but it also limited personal possessions.
In Today's Reality: There are people in our society on a fixed income who are in a similar situation, but the real loss here is the privacy. Whether this is done with a tracking cookie from an online purchase (or even search) or one of those store "discount" cards, we are constantly losing anonymity and some freedom for the price of a few cents on a half-gallon of milk.
How often do you see a cash register that isn't a computer anymore? Unless you buy something for cash at a yard sale or flea market there is always some traceable record of what you bought and when you bought it. Even beyond that, with NFC and similar technologies looking like they'll be baked-in to the next generation of phone hardware, all of your money transactions will be digitally stored.
7. Public Telescreens
In 1984's Future: Orwell's world featured telescreens on every street, programming the public with pro-party propaganda. I know you're thinking this is the same as item #1 on this list, but it's not. This is a constant bombardment of information that is both programming and "mind numbing," rather than a device meant primarily for surveillance.
In Today's Reality: If you've ever walked through Times Square in New York City, Piccadilly Circus in London or some similar area in a packed city, you'll undoubtedly be bombarded with moving images from every corner. We're programmed with what soda has only one calorie and which maxi-pad has wings. But this is only part of it.
Orwell's world was mostly filled with propaganda and war statistics. In my cable package I have at least five different all-news, 24-hours-a-day networks. We are the first generation in history to have the constant flow of information hitting us in a never-ending stream.
While we are grateful that we don't live in a world as bleak as Orwell's Oceana, it's clear that the technology now exists to make his world possible if we let it. Keeping our paranoia in check, we should all be mindful of our technology and how it's used. Security is a good thing and so is saving money, but consider how much of each your personal freedom is worth.
Actually, we wanted to do an article about how we are living like its the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but since the Earth hasn't been blown up to make way for a new hyperspace bypass, we went with 1984.
Note: Putting a towel over a home surveillance camera may be your best option. Always know where your towel is.
Hal Rappaport is the author of Hath No Fury, a paranormal thriller that draws from real-world events, which you can learn more about here.