1984: Berzinski & Laccetti-040523Document Transcript
It’s taken 20 years, but ‘1984’ is finally hereSILVIO R. LACCETTI and PATRICK A. BERZINSKIPublished 05:30 a.m., Sunday, May 23, 2004OpinionDespite the longtime Western fascination with George Orwells work, the year 1984 was a non-event. But 20 years later, with technology achieving feats never before dreamed of, perhaps weshould look again and ask: Is Orwells bleak vision of total government control now moreimaginable than ever?Orwells two brilliant books, Animal Farm and 1984, dissect and satirize a nation-state that nolonger exists, Josef Stalins Soviet Russia — the "future" that supposedly "worked."Of course, the heralded future was a mirage. The U.S.S.R. was a brutal, authoritarian power withdreams of empire. It died, exhausted, in 1991.But part of Orwells vision for 1984 does seem alive today.In his book, three superstates (Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia) were forever at war.Technological advances were put toward three purposes: promoting the war effort; maintainingrelentless surveillance of the populace; and perfecting mass brainwashing techniques to induceslavish loyalty to the state.And so, in 2004 — there are three major power blocs: the United States, the European Union,and, more loosely, the Pacific Rim, corresponding roughly to Orwells vision. Each competeswith the other — so far largely on an economic basis. However, technology R&D is increasinglydriven by security and military needs.Moreover, thanks to a miracle that Orwell could not envision — the microchip — we are at astage in which not only privacy rights but other basic freedoms will be tested.The war on terror has eroded (to some degree necessarily) some of the barriers against invasionof privacy in the Western democracies. The big question is, will a prolonged struggle enshrinethese losses forever and increase them; or will we again, when terrorism is defeated, return to aworld in which ID thieves and credit agencies are the principal offenders against privacy?More important, will anybody know the difference?
Consider these phenomena: Personal habits are routinely tracked — eating, shopping, dating andrecreating — through credit cards and supermarket cards. Also: Surveillance is ubiquitous, withvideo and Web cameras, Lo-jack for humans, and wireless photo phones. We remain, for themost part, oblivious.In 1984, individuals are observed daily by a two-way telescreen on a wall in their homes. Now,with video phones and GPS devices, its possible to check up on someone anywhere at any time.Furthermore, there is a host of highly advanced "watching" devices that now exists, including"biometric" technologies designed to pick an individual out of a crowd based on lightninganalysis of facial structure. Thumb-print reading devices are here to stay.Worth noting is the happy family from Florida who several years ago had themselves implantedwith the VeriChip, a device originally meant to keep track of your cat or dog. This family wantedvery badly to keep track of each other, at all times, especially after the 9/11 attacks. A hugeethical controversy erupted over the familys actions. Translate this familys panic into a mass-media alarm to the general public, and the underpinnings of freedom could be mightily stressed.Strikingly, 20 years after 1984, the perfection of integrated micro- and nano-circuitry is such thatmuch of the hardware for mass oppression described in 1984 can be realized. Simply feed anincredibly fast server with the information from a chip that is implanted in a fold of skin — orembedded in millions of smart cards. With a properly sophisticated database and retrievalsystem, replete with bottomless data storage and data mining, youve got the makings of a feastover which Big Brother would drool.In a time of crisis, the temptation is great to treat all citizens as suspects. But George Orwell wasright: A society where half of the citizenry spies on the other half is a dead end. May our dulyelected leaders have the foresight to legislate in favor of freedom, and to see the lords of terrorfor what they are: ideological dead-enders who will be added to the ash heap of history, alongwith Stalin, Hitler, Saddam and countless other champions of oppression.For our part, let us resolve to pay the price of freedom, which is eternal vigilance. If you thinkyouve heard that before, you have — from a Virginian named Thomas Jefferson.Berzinski is associate director of media relations and Laccetti is a professor of humanities atStevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.