The beginning of the 21st century presents us with a paradox. On the one hand, we are free to roam online, read various interpretations on any subject, express our opinions and exchange ideas liberally with anyone we choose. On the other side, our actions are surveilled, our data is aggregated and we are subject to behavior manipulation. Many of the privacy and surveillance challenges faced today did not occur as a result of coercion, but in the course of voluntary activities that are carelessly enjoyed as entertainment. Contemporary digital society incorporates mass surveillance and new forms of entertainment intertwined in a paradoxical relationship. Huxley’s Brave New World does not address mass surveillance and conversely, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four omits entertainment. Given these blind spots in these two projected futures, I suggest that the contemporary social order is best analyzed and reflected upon using a combination of Orwell’s and Huxley’s visions.
In the context of this research on audio beacons, a significant similarity between Huxley’s and Orwell’s worlds is that microphones play a significant role within the surveillance apparatus of the state. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, they are used to capture the inner feelings of Winston and Julia. In Brave New World, microphones are used to spy on John (the Savage) and to capture his internal state. This leads to elimination of his privacy and ultimately to his death (Huxley 260).
The books overlap in their connection to the act of reading. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston is tasked with rewriting the content of written media. Books are rewritten and altered to match current Party doctrine and those that remain original are banned or destroyed, as it was with Emmanuel Goldstein (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four 39,40). A similar situation exists in Huxley’s Brave New World, where books are banned (51) because they will obstruct the conformity of the populace (226) and individuals are conditioned to hate books altogether (21).
Another connection between the books is the use of slogans. Orwell uses several slogans for propaganda purposes – “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” (Nineteen Eighty-Four 4). Brave New World uses slogans to condition the populace – “Ending is better than mending” (Huxley 49), “Gramme is better than damn” (Huxley 54), “When the individual feels, the community reels” (Huxley 94). The most popular contemporary slogan respective to privacy is “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” (Solove 2,3). Also called the “nothing to hide” argument, this slogan is a continuation of the privacy-security dichotomy (Solove 7) explored in Chapter 9. According to Solove, the slogan undermines the value of privacy by positing it as a question that affects isolated individuals (23). This eliminates the social impact of mass surveillance (Solove 23) and shifts the power balance toward institutions and governments (Solove 10).
11.2 – Epilogue: The Digital Paradox Society
The fictional worlds of Orwell and Huxley present opposite environments, but are equally concerned with power. Both societies are completely dominated by the ruling party, but their execution takes different routes. If we marry these two visions of totalitarian society, we recognize the two faces of contemporary society. On one side, we have a power imbalance enhanced by digital algorithms which is reminiscent of Orwell’s vision. On the other side, we have entertainment surveillance, reminiscent of Huxley’s vision. Entertainment offers distraction for individuals and shifts the point-of-view away from surveillance practices. Entertainment surveillance nourishes a state where an “army of managers control[s] a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude” (Huxley XV). Without entertainment surveillance, the system will collapse and it will resemble Orwell’s world with its gaudy display of power.
In the digital paradox today two types of protections, constitutional law and regulatory law, have “learned how to use the other’s laws to bypass their own restrictions” (Schneier). The result is the denial of privacy protection through a hidden process which masks personal harm. Citizens can be covertly penalized within an imposed social order of totalitarian measures.
Contemporary society has its roots in the previous discipline society as seen from Foucault’s description of the utopian legal penalty system – “deprive the prisoner of all rights, but do not inflict pain; impose penalties free of all pain” (Discipline 11). The system focuses on gathering information not about the past, but rather on current activities that provide additional insights revealing their potential of committing future crimes (Foucault, Discipline 126). In this penal system, punishment is carried out to transform the criminal (Foucault, Discipline 127), while in the digital paradox, behavior modification is targeted towards mercantile goals. As examined in prior sections, audio beacon technologies are linking multiple devices, making it possible to de-anonymize an individual. This action imposes geographic constraints on the individual due to accurately located data within a confined space. Moreover, people are unaware of the continuous data capture and cross-device identification.
For Foucault, an integral part of the process emerges from meticulous records of individuals’ habits (Discipline 129). The emergence of fusion centers, where different types of data are linked to reveal the full digital identity of a person, takes this idea one step further. According to Foucault, this process obscures its own manifestation prohibiting the individual’s involvement (Discipline 129). In the digital paradox society, this is ensured by the proprietary nature of data and the absence of disclosure of how algorithms work, what information they gather and how this information is used. The elimination of interference from outside forces succeeds by the scarcity of government legislation.
To ensure the order’s disciplinary power over the individual, Foucault observes that the visibility of the populace is paramount – “their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them” (Discipline 187). However, in the digital paradox society, the presence of power does not need to be overtly demonstrated. The exercise of power is masked by on-demand entertainment, games and instant gratification commercialism. In this way, I argue that today’s society is a combination of both dystopian and utopian tendencies mixed in a digital paradox. On one hand, we are subjected to penetrating tracking practices that make Orwell’s vision of surveillance in Oceania seem infantile (Haggerty and Ericson 612). On the other hand, we are inundated by technologies that make our lives convenient and allay boredom. Digital technologies allow us to travel virtually to any part of the globe, connect with loved ones instantly, discover long lost family members, and even locate organ donors. This thesis began with a quote from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four - “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” (267). For Orwell, the “boot stamping on a human face” (Nineteen Eighty-Four 267) is a symbol for the completely surveilled and oppressed society. In the digital paradox society, with its entertainment surveillance, Huxley's soma has become Orwell's boot.
In fact, the discernible aspects of the contemporary digital environment astonishes us with its variety, usability and lightheartedness. Reminiscent of characters in Huxley’s Brave New World, we need our daily ration of the custom-designed advertisement popping up at the right moment to fill the gap between loneliness and desire. This accords with Foucault's idea of how discipline over the body can function – it increases utility and concurrently decreases political disobedience (Discipline 138). In the digital paradox societies such as ours, extraordinary measures to protect individual privacy are not only desirable, they are imperative.