We’ve evolved from using VCR players and floppy disks to using DVD players and Blu-ray discs. Our concept of video games has gone from controlling an unsettlingly hungry yellow pixelated blob that resembles a pizza pie with one slice missing to creating dynamic, pseudo-realistic football players with the same facial features and skin tone as ourselves. That annoying dial tone and screeching noise we heard when signing onto AOL–while simultaneously hearing our mother yell that she was on the phone–are now obscure memories. With the advent of cheaper Internet access and wireless activity, we are signed on and “connected” 24/7. In fact, over-connectivity has been one of the staple signals owing to our lack of privacy.
Ever since Edward Snowden made airwaves by releasing classified federal documents, attention has been directed toward the NSA and its furtive surveillance program, PRISM. There’s been plenty of discussion–confirmation and critique–surrounding the idea of if George Orwell’s 1984 predicted the onslaught of feigned freedom cloaked with government restriction, which happens to be what PRISM represents. With all the talk surrounding Orwell’s possibly half-true prediction, there has been little talk of Aldous Huxley and French social-theorist, Michael Foucault when it comes to understanding and predicting our surveillance techniques. Let’s see where each ties in.
Orwell: In 1984, Orwell’s principal concern is to warn of the dangerous possibilities that arise from a Totalitarian regime. “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself,” Orwell wrote–alluding to the constant swarm of stored information that arises from shared thoughts. Orwell suggested that communication would be limited between people to prevent conspiring against the government. This can be seen firsthand from the uprising in Egypt in 2011. The protests and revolution were sparked by a slew of Facebook, Twitter, and several other social-media outlets that allowed citizens that opposed the Mubarak regime to come together–in a specific location, at a specific time, and with certain commonalities in agenda and motive. Soon after the Egyptian government heard about the social-media impact of these protests, the five major Internet providers which supplied over 93 percent of the country’s Internet access, mysteriously shut down.
Huxley: In Huxley’s version of dystopia (or as he called a “negative-utopia”), Brave New World, he warned of a future where floods of trivial and irrelevant information distracted people from taking initiative toward important issues. “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly–they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced,” Huxley posited–alluding to the human-mind conditioning itself on just about anything it read or watched. Huxley considered governments a tool to encourage mass distribution of entertainment as it would pacify people and divert attention away from serious political issues. This can be seen first-hand by looking at the media landscape in our own country. In 2011, the FCC (commissioned by Republican Meredith Baker–who is now VP of government affairs over at NBC-Comcast) merged with NBC (USA’s largest broadcasting company) and Comcast (largest cable provider) by a 4:1 vote, which was criticized heavily by media reform groups and many democrats. Huxley’s vision also augments itself with the fact that TMZ (22.9 million globally) has almost as many monthly visitors and a similar Alexa rank (website rank by global popularity) as the reputable Time.com (31.4 million).
Foucault: While Orwell and Huxley have tied in the tug-and-pull between citizens and governments, Michael Foucault, author of Discipline and Punish, ties in how both work together while distancing themselves in parity by way of fixed social order (NSA). Call centers throughout the world use a form of “electronic panopticon,” where a single manager or group of managers gather data of call-time, conversation logs, hang-up frequency and performance while never being in the presence of their employees. A panopticon is defined and conceptualized as a design to allow a watchman to observe inmates in prison without their understanding of if they are being watched or not. To draw the picture–imagine a circular prison structure (similar to the Coliseum) where all cells can be equally seen from a shielded central tower so that the guards can see out but the prisoners cannot see in. The prisoners could never tell if they were being observed or not, which conditioned them to assume that they were always being watched–leading to obedient behavior whether there was a guard present or not. Foucault used this panopticon experiment to invoke a metaphor of modern disciplinary societies and their ubiquitous need to “observe and normalize.” The experiment proved to be effective and concluded in confirming Foucault’s idea of social control being pervasive whether or not authority is observing.
Foucault’s influential panopticon study is a perfect metaphor for NSA’s PRISM in an electronic sense: the ability to store information, encrypt data and observe behavior is highly available. Yet, it is also prone to bouts of absence. Orwell’s and Huxley’s respective visions have been prevalent not only in the United States, but in Totalitarian and oppressive regimes throughout the world–namely Egypt, China, Libya, Syria, North Korea (restricts Internet access to much of its citizens) and many more. This is a poverty of privacy.
– Sagar Jay Patel
Sources: Quantcast, Quantcast, Truthout, Purdue.edu, ThinkProgress, Slate, George Orwell 1984, Aldous Huxley Brave New World
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