The Relevance of

George Orwell's 1984

Though the title of Reg Whitaker's new book is The End of Privacy: How Total Surveillance is Becoming a Reality (New Press, NY, 1999), the book itself is not really concerned with either privacy or with the "reality" of the society of total surveillance.

It's true that Professor Whitakers's book is filled with genuinely alarming anecdotes about all the sophisticated devices -- all the nannycams, closed-circuit televisions systems, face recognition programs, electromagnetic cameras that see through clothing, satellites, cyberinsects (literal flies on the wall), wiretaps, eavesdropping lasers, smart ID cards, Clipper Chips and the rest -- by which privacy is being uttered destroyed by surveillance technologies. It's also true that Whitaker's book is clear on exactly what kinds of information are no longer private (personal, financial, insurance, social services, utility services, real estate, entertainment/leisure, consumer, employment, education, and legal information).

But ultimately The End of Privacy is primarily concerned with what Whitaker (a political scientist at York University) disingenuously calls "new information technologies" (a very neutral phrase) and with the effects that these technologies are having on political power (especially as "power" was conceived by the French philosopher Michel Foucault). Phrased another way, The End of Privacy is intended to reassure Leftist intellectuals that, despite the "reality" of "total" surveillance, the "new information technologies" are not (literally) "Orwellian." Indeed, Whitaker wants to reassure his readers that, on the one hand, the new information technologies are actually democratic and anti-authoritarian in nature and effects, and that, on the other hand, "Big Brother" really isn't such a bad guy after all (he has his uses).

The new information technologies [Whitaker writes to conclude the chapter entitled "Dark Towers: Data Bases and Alienation," scary music in the background] have promised a great deal, and have even opened up a new parallel universe -- cyberspace. This parallel universe is exciting, but it can also be a threatening terrain, where dark towers of data brood on the horizon, haunted by shadow distortions of our selves that menace or ridicule us in our daily lives. It is an alienated world where the products of our own invention come back to torment us.

To accomplish this gothic work of scholarly propaganda, Professor Whitaker must dispense with the lingering, ominous presence of George Orwell's 1984, which turned 50 years old this year (a fact overlooked by Whitaker). Again and again, almost obsessively, Whitaker comes back to the topic of Big Brother with the intention of reassuring us that we have nothing to worry about from him. But Orwell's monster won't go away, and Whitaker is clear on the reasons why: on the one hand, 1984 is an uncanny "image of the 'ideal' totalitarian state," and, on the other hand, it is a representation of "the architectural skeleton of [actual] modern power." (Whitaker notes that even the "liberal democratic states have aped some of the features of this totalitarian vision.") The New World Order depicted in 1984 -- a "perfect" one-party police state symbolized, ruled and embodied in a single authoritarian figure -- is both the dream of [all] power and a nightmare that has never and will never "see the light of day" in its pure form.

Confusing the function of the novelist with that of the political scientist, Whitaker flatly declares that "the nightmarish presentation of power [that] has haunted the twentieth century" is "certainly mistaken" and "radically misleading": Orwell's 1984 "no longer fits the realities of the world at the end of the twentieth century."

A question that Whitaker totally avoids is how and why 1984 fit the "realities" of the late 1940s. Despite the fact that he is a professor of political science, Whitaker's comments on the "real-life totalitarian states" of Orwell's era are superficial, inaccurate and (ahem!) radically misleading. For Whitaker, Hitler and Stalin were "mere clumsy butchers," "rather than devilishly clever engineers of consent." (These are not the only choices, but they are the only ones that Whitaker can formulate). The Professor ignores the facts that Hitler and Stalin, despite failing to take over the world, were all too adept at both butchery and the engineering of consent. Both leaders -- upon whom Orwell modeled Big Brother -- in fact succeeded all too well in convincing the masses of their respective countries, and even some others, to mass murder their fellow human beings and to accept and even celebrate these crimes against humanity as "racially" or "historically" necessary acts of honor, courage and bravery. Orwell's dream-like 1984 fit the realities of its era -- and the realities of our era, as well -- because it foregrounds the irrationality of not just Hitler and Stalin, but of the masses of people who adored, followed and obeyed them as well.

According to Whitaker, "reality" is, today, a much happier place than it was 50 years ago: "Real-life Hitlers and Stalins have passed into history"; the worst we have today are "regional dictators" such as "the Saddam Husseins and Slobodan Milosevics." There's obviously several things wrong with this idea (outside of the fact that it ignores the question of the irrationality of the masses who follow irrational leaders): for one thing, the George Bushes and Bill Clintons of this world have found it necessary and expedient, right before they bomb the shit out of a third-world nation, to compare "the Saddam Husseins and Slobodan Milosevics" to (of all people!) Adolph Hitler; and, for another thing, Hitler or Stalin's "engineering of consent" back in the 1940s was child's play compared to way Bush and Clinton manufactured consent for the Persian Gulf and anti-Milosevic wars.

The lesser of two evils, Saddam and Slobo rather than Adolph and Joe: what is it that has brought about this happy state of affairs, or, if you will, these happy affairs of state? According to Whitaker, the Hitlers and Stalins (the Big Brothers) have been busted down to the Saddams and Slobos (the "Little" Brothers) by "deep changes, technological, economic, cultural (some, but by no means all of which can be assembled under the umbrella of the so-called Information Revolution)." It's those new information technologies that have kept us in Saddams and Slobos instead of Adolphs and Poppa Joes. More than that: these wonderful "new information technologies" have also brought us such new media democrats as the Zapatistas (?!), who used the Internet to get their message of "resistance" out.

As in Michel Foucault's work in the 1970s, especially Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Vol. I, the society of total surveillance envisioned by Whitaker is a "globally networked world" in "power" and "resistance" are locked into a battle for control, which neither force wins decisively or permanently. And, again as in Foucault's 1970s work, Whitaker argues that the nature of "power" (and thus "resistance") has fundamentally changed since Orwell's time.

In the broadest brush strokes [Whitaker writes at the end of his first chapter], what I am describing is the transition from the surveillance state to the surveillance society. This distinction is no mere formality. The surveillance society represents a very different complex of power, impacting in very different ways on authority, culture, society and politics, than did the state-centered surveillance power of the immediate past.

In the Orwellian model of power, the lines of communication were tightly controlled: from the top of his hierarchical society, Big Brother sees everyone at all times and constantly sends down to each and all his commands; from all levels of the hierarchy, Big Brother receives information on everything that goes on, information that is exclusively his possession. Though Orwell doesn't mention computers in his novel, Whitaker is correct to surmise that "the state [ruled by Big Brother] held a massive centralized data base that contained everything that needed to be known about each subject." Whitaker is also correct in noting that "states today have a far greater technological capacity for surveillance and data linkage and retrieval than Orwell imagined at their disposal, and some of the elements of the Big Brother state do exist [today]" (my emphasis).

According to Whitaker, the "new information technologies" -- contrary to the Orwellian model, of which, nevertheless, some elements "do exist" today -- are two-way ("interactive") rather than one-way, and polycentric rather than centralized. As a result, Big Brother sees all, but he is also seen; information flows both down from and up to the top of the hierarchy; there are many data bases, not just one. "[W]ith the new information technologies," Whitaker says, "even the degree of control actually exercised in the past [by the Hitlers and the Stalins] is rapidly slipping out of anyone's hands" (emphasis added). By "anyone's hands" Whitaker means any one person's hands. Thus, we are no longer ruled by [the one] Big Brother, but by a group of "Little Brothers."

Though it is clear that the term Little Brother is best applied to such "regional dictators" -- that is, political leaders -- as "the Saddam Husseins and the Slobodan Milosevics," Whitaker uses it to refer to the leaders of Big Business. Without explaining or even acknowledging that he's jumped from the terrain of political power (the nation-state) to that of economic power (the transnational corporation), Whitaker declares that:

[I]t is the Little Brothers of the private sector [hic] who are collecting data about the lives of individuals -- who know, for instance, what brand of soap an Ohio woman uses in her shower. What is more, the information that goes into these data bases is either given voluntarily (as in the case of the Ohio woman) or acquired silently and invisibly, without the subject's awareness. Big Brother commands information, as in tax reporting or census questions, and tends thereby to rouse resentment and even occasional resistance. Little Brothers, on the other hand, impact very little on people at the data-collection stage. There is no recognizable name to put to the dispersed but linked data bases of the private sector, while the state is personified in a leader, and, in a democracy, is believed to be accountable to the public, at least in theory. Ironically [sic], the one-way transparency sought by the Orwellian state has been realized much more effectively in the private than in the public sector, where transparency, to a degree at least, goes both ways.

Here Whitaker undermines every reason he's given for being reassured that "the new information technologies" are not in fact bringing Big Brother (back) to power. Our political scientist has informed us that, unlike Big Brother, who constantly reminded his subjects that he was watching them, [the] Little Brother[s] get their information "silently and invisibly, without the subject's awareness." Yet, unlike Big Brother, [the] Little Brother[s] do not "rouse resentment and even occasional resistance," precisely because their total surveillance is totally undetected. And even if resentment and "resistance" are aroused, [the] Little Brother[s] are not known by name and, in any event, can not be held accountable to the public for their actions, thus making [the] Little Brother[s] clearly anti-democratic. And if it is true that "the one-way transparency sought by the Orwellian state has been realized much more effectively in the private than in the public sector" -- this is not an "irony" of history but a social catastrophe in it -- then Whitaker should know better than to prattle on for pages about "the positive benefits most people perceive from handing over personal information to corporations and marketers" and the "benefits of inclusion in the consumer economy."

But Professor Whitaker doesn't know better, and so ends up unintentionally revealing the Orwellian content and function of the very things in the "private sector" (international corporate capitalism) that he thinks are "empowering" and "democratic": "the consumer Panopticon," which "rewards participation" even as it controls its prisoners; "new micro- or niche-marketing strategies" that target previously excluded minorities; and hyper-precise consumer profiles. "What if one's purchases are carefully recorded to construct a profile of consumption preferences for the use of various marketers?" Whitaker asks. "Not everyone will object to this if they see their needs and desires being better served as a result." Not everyone?! What is important here is what the majority thinks about being profiled. In a creepy follow-up to this hollow question-and-answer bit, Whitaker writes, monotone, robot-like: "Think of it as a Christmas card wish list that enables Santa to serve you better. The consumer Panopticon rewards participation."

When he isn't making very unfunny, dead-pan "jokes" about infantilism and consumer conformism in "democratic" societies, Whitaker is clear on the fact that, if left unchecked, the commercial Little Brothers will team up to form a single Big Brother, one who will be a deadly threat to individual freedom and liberty on both the economic and political terrains.

There are eerie parallels between criminal activities and the global economy [Whitaker writes]. Mafias are organized in networks that ignore borders and national jurisdictions, just as transnational corporations tend to operate. They not only utilize the new information technologies to do business, they have restructured [and intermeshed?] their own organizational forms to take advantage of the opportunities of the new technologies. . . . Finally, they have shown considerable capacity to exploit the new technologies for their own purposes through inventive forms of "cyber-crime."

Because he stopped thinking about political power when he started babbling about "the private sector," Whitaker believes that what "we" need to protect "us" against the transnational criminal-commercial conspiracy is precisely political power, i.e, the State, the global State. "Even if directly threatened" by [the] Little Brother[s], "states are made even more necessary than ever, precisely because of the threat," Whitaker informs us; "In the face of pervasive transborder threats, which we might call the dark side of globalization, 'legitimate' private interests are relatively helpless without the assistance of states and their extensive policing, security and intelligence apparatuses, expertise, and enforcement powers." We must remember that, despite all evidence to the contrary, "the state not only constrains but protects and enables." And, despite the fact that individual states "will constantly be forming and reforming transnational networks and alliances with other states, with corporations and other private-sectors actors, and with non-governmental groups and movements," Whitaker doesn't want to hear any "paranoid Right-wing" bullshit about the dangers of the global state: according to our professor of political scientist, "there is no dictatorial World Government under Communist, Zionist, international banker or any other auspices looming on the horizon." The "decentered" state is the bright side of globalization, and crime is the dark side. Got that? It's simple enough: crime is bad, and the global State is good.

But the specter of Orwell still hasn't gone away, even for Reg Whitaker, who concludes his book with remarks more suited to someone who loves rather than resists Big Brother. "One area in which states do have a comparative advantage over corporations is in the exercise of coercion," Whitaker writes in his book's weird last chapter. "The technologies of surveillance and repression may be developed and exercised more by states, and by state networks. Here is where Big Brother comes back as an outsourced consultant. [...] Big Brother is needed once again, but -- and this point must be underlined emphatically -- only as a functionally specialized consultant, not to run the show itself." Got that? A good Big Brother, one who knows his proper place and function (to murder "criminals" and "terrorists" only); a Big Brother who doesn't get too greedy and blow it all for everyone else, like last time.

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