Collaborative platform on arts, literature, and thought
By Mika Kasuga
I was a little bemused when I saw that the NSA scandal caused sales of 1984, George Orwell’s masterpiece, to rise more than 3,000 percent. Although it warms my heart to see exponential book sales – for a title that isn’t Fifty Shades, too – the world that Orwell imagined has not come to pass.
In 1984, the figure of Big Brother watches over the citizens of Oceania, enforcing total obedience to the following maxims:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
Antonyms can be synonyms, if Big Brother makes it so: by reconciling opposites, the official language of Big Brother, called Newspeak, aims to diminish the range of thought and make insubordination impossible. Whether Oceania is at war, against whom, and why is irrelevant. Orwell’s dystopic vision is rooted in opposition, in the assumption that only an outside threat can truly unite a group. Fear of the Other is what anchors Ingsoc , and what justifies the total loyalty, obedience and group cohesion that Big Brother demands.
Orwell’s nightmare future originated in his concerns about his present – the title of 1984 came from Orwell flipping the last two digits of 1948, the year he completed the novel. But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the global political order went from the bipolarity of the Cold War to the unipolarity of American primacy. We no longer had an implacable, ruthless Other. And with 9/11 and the War on Terror came a hyper-awareness that the enemy was potentially everywhere and nowhere. The homeland became the battleground; monuments became targets. Containing the Other was no longer necessary, and so US culture shifted away from ideas of the “un-American” and gazed inwards, focusing on “homeland security.” You can see one manifestation of this shift in recent shows like “Homeland” and “The Americans” – despite the very Cold War concept of Russian sleeper cells – which emphasize a war within, a narrative of self-doubt and dueling selves, in an environment of self surveillance.
This shift inwards has been mirrored in our recreational lives; with the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., self-surveillance has become a kind of pastime. We broadcast our activities and our locations, along with who we’re with; often, we provide a tastefully retouched picture too.
As such, it seems appropriate that Dave Eggers’ dystopic novel The Circle is set at a Facebook/Google amalgam that runs search engines, social networks, and seeks to record every moment of every life, everywhere. Eggers is a brilliant, entertaining writer, and his dystopic vision recognizes that changes in technology and politics have rendered the nightmare of 1984 slightly old-fashioned. Still, in an homage to Orwell, the corporation known as the Circle has a three-fold motto:
SHARING IS CARING
SECRETS ARE LIES
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Compare Orwell’s and Eggers’ maxims and you have, in a nutshell, the difference between the 20th century dystopia and the 21st century one. Orwell fears a society where the government controls your thoughts; Eggers mocks one where a corporation requisitions them.
So, what does this shift mean for the future?
Obviously, I don’t have the answer to this. Nobody does: the inherently conjectural aspect of the utopia/dystopia genre is what makes it so exciting. But I do think this shift is the key to how and why the activities of the NSA, the revelations of Edward Snowden and the existence of Wikileaks have effected so little change in how we live our lives. Knowing that the US government houses and stores my personal data hasn’t stopped me from using my iPhone for, well, everything – nor has the knowledge that Google does the same stopped me from using their search engine. To question and change this pattern would require a massive overhaul of my daily personal and business habits – more than just deactivating my Twitter and Facebook accounts, but also using a search engine that didn’t store my searches, and finding a phone that was just a phone. The services are free, and I am lazy: it’s that simple.
On any given day, companies buy and sell the information we yield up to them: the information that is us, in some strange way. Our status as data lodes determines the ads that follow us around online, the offers we get via email, the ‘suggested friends’ we should get in touch with. Our digital selves shadow our IRL activities, but they exist and interact beyond us; they are bought and sold by third parties and they bring our darkest, most twisted secrets into the light of day. (For much, much more on this, I’d highly recommend reading Julia Angwin’s book Dragnet Nation) And yet, the very term for an online presence — a “profile” — suggests that our digital selves are merely one-half of who we truly are: our joys and our sorrows, our memories and our ambitions, our sense of personal identity and free will are greater than the sum total of gigabytes that companies like Facebook and Google mine from us.
To be suspected of being a spy used to mean an allegiance to a larger organization. The great spy novels of the Cold War – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Hunt For Red October – were about individuals caught between two sides. Even 1984 is about Winston’s ultimate failure to carve out a life away from Big Brother and the Brotherhood.
But The Circle is not based on an old-fashioned struggle; instead, it’s a riff on Dante’s Inferno. The central conflict of The Circle is how far the protagonist, Mae, is willing to go to further her career, to guarantee a brave new world where the old social evils no longer exist. The battleground is her morals, her sense of self. The cost – so slight – is her privacy.
We spy on ourselves, now. And so the modern dystopia and the modern spy narrative share the same terrain: self-doubt, self-conflict, self-betrayal. But the question still remains: for who are we spying, and why?