The dystopia of 1984 is no longer relevant

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In our era of ubiquitous surveillance and data-gathering online, pundits often use the scifi icon Big Brother to explain what's happening. But journalist and academic Zeynep Tufekci, who participated in Turkey's recent protests, says we need a new dystopian story to explain our lives.

Illustration by Steve Squall

Tufekci writes about how social media is used in protests — but also, how data-gathering on those same social networks is used by governments to control its citizens in often subtle ways. In a terrific essay on Medium, she says we have to understand that coercion in this day and age doesn't look like cages full of rats attached to our faces, they way it does in Orwell's classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Most of us don't live in a world of forceful coercion and fear. Instead, our politicians use social media's personalized tools of persuasion, based on your Facebook "likes" and tweets.


So what comes after Nineteen Eighty-Four as our dystopian tale? Tufekci believes it has to be a story that explores how media manipulation and persuasion control our political decisions without us even realizing it.

She writes:

As revelations about the scale of NSA surveillance flowed, sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell's dystopian novel, shot up 6,000 percent on Amazon. Many came to see Oceania, the novel's massive, fearsome surveillance state, as the model of the modern digitally-empowered state. Nineteen Eighty-Four had finally arrived, it was said—just off by 30 years or so.

But this is the wrong way to understand what's happening. Deep and pervasive surveillance is real. It is likely worse than what we know, and is becoming more pervasive by the day. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has very little to do with it.

Others turned to a different metaphor: the Panopticon, a thought experiment invented by the 18th-century social reformer Jeremy Bentham and later popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Bentham imagined a prison with a tall tower at its center, located so that guards in the tower can peer into each prisoner's cell. The gaze of the guards—all-seeing, but invisible to inmates—would make prisoners internalize the discipline of the prison, Bentham thought. Foucault later extended the idea by adopting it as a metaphor for the impact of surveillance on society.

But that's also wrong. The Panopticon has little to do with most surveillance in liberal democracies.

And these metaphors aren't just wrong—they can be profoundly misleading.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the anti-hero, Winston Smith, lives under bleak conditions. Everything is gray. He eats stale dark bread. Informers and the cameras are everywhere. Sex is banned. Children spy on their parents. If a citizen defies Oceania's harsh rules, a cage of rats is placed around his face.

This imagined future is an allegory for a fear-driven state, one inspired by Orwell's views on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Nineteen Eighty-Fouris about surveillance in a society where the power of the state bears down on everyone, every day. In other words, it is about totalitarianism.

The Panopticon is a thought experiment: a model prison meant to control a society of prisoners. But we are not prisoners. We are not shackled in cells, with no rights and no say in governance.

In our world, pleasure is not banned; it is encouraged and celebrated, albeit subsumed under the banner of consumption. Most of us do not live in fear of the state as we go about our daily lives. (There are notable exceptions: for example, poor communities of color and immigrants who suffer under "stop-and-frisk" and "show your papers" laws.)

To make sense of the surveillance states that we live in, we need to do better than allegories and thought experiments, especially those that derive from a very different system of control. We need to consider how the power of surveillance is being imagined and used, right now, by governments and corporations.

We need to update our nightmares . . .

After the Arab Spring, I was asked the same question over and over again: Is the internet good or bad?

It's both, I kept saying. At the same time. In complex, new configurations.

But the "bad" isn't a watered-down version of Oceania or the Panopticon, at least not in modern democracies. In an era in which the ideas of citizenship and rights have taken deep roots, coercion based on violence is of limited use. Coercion alone can't compel people to do the things modern states and corporations need us to do to keep the system going: to vote for their parties, to consume their products, to work in their corporations.

To understand the actual—and truly disturbing—power of surveillance, it's better to turn to a thinker who knows about real prisons: the Italian writer, politician, and philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who was jailed by Mussolini and did most of his work while locked up. Gramsci understood that the most powerful means of control available to a modern capitalist state is not coercion or imprisonment, but the ability to shape the world of ideas. The essence of some of Gramsci's arguments can be seen in another great dystopian novel of the 20th century. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley envisions a state that eschews existential terror in favor of a drug, soma, that keeps its citizens happy and pliant . . .

This is why the state-of-the-art method for shaping ideas is not to coerce overtly but to seduce covertly, from a foundation of knowledge [produced by internet surveillance]. These methods don't produce a crude ad—they create an environment that nudges you imperceptibly . . . Companies want to use this power to make us buy products. For political parties, the aim is to attract support based on a tailored presentation of that party's politicians and policies. Both want us to click, willingly, on a choice that has been engineered for us. Diplomats call this soft power. It may be soft but it's not weak. It doesn't generate resistance, as totalitarianism does, so it's actually stronger.


You really need to read the full essay over at Medium.