Saturday, 1 December 2012

Chills for Our Brave New 1984

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In 1932, Aldous Huxley published the novel Brave New World. Set far into the future (2540) it describes a dystopian society shaped and controlled by reproductive technology and mind control (1).

Later, 1949, George Orwell published his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, set not so very far into the then future. It describes a society where the tyrannical and totalitarian 'Party' employs government surveillance, persecution, censorship, harsh treatment of 'thoughtcrimes', and a layered, elitist structure, acting out its ideology (2).

Both books are masterpieces.

Orwell sent a copy of Nineteen Eighty Four to Huxley who responded by letter a few months later, with thanks, and some comments. The letter can be seen on the website Letters of Note (3)

Huxley admired the book, and also commented about comparisons between the two different 'futures'. He mused that he believed his own predictions in Brave New World would be the more realistic and more likely to materialise than those in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. His reasons were that the Brave New World methods of manipulation, selection, and mind control would be easier in practice, 'more efficient', than the Nineteen Eighty Four approach of massive surveillance, prisons, cudgel and boot. 'The ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing' he said (3).

What sends shivers down my spine is the realisation that Huxley was probably wrong.

After I was watching television and surfing the world wide web for what seemed like only a short while, I turn around and realise that communications technology has morphed into the technological equivalent of a sharp kitchen knife. Dangerous if used wrongly. 

Facilities now exist which are so powerful, cheap, and plentiful that the tide of massive surveillance has arrived, and shows no 'arduous' nor even 'wasteful' aspect.

Not only is high tech surveillance widespread, it has come to be imposed, against my wishes, at my home, 'Castle Mon Abri'. Deep packet inspection by my ISP of all my internet activity. Not only is this total surveillance now in operation, but its consequences include active censorship, again against my will, of some web sites that, apparently, I am not supposed to see.

Huxley did not expect the technology of science fiction to be available so quickly, and so cheaply. Neither did I.

The facility of Speaker's Corner in UK's Hyde Park is a lovely novelty, where tradition has it that you can stand on your wooden soap box and shout your message to the world (4).

Modern free speech is the internet. When, for any reason, my use of the internet is subject to constant surveillance, censorship (and other threats), as it is now, then my freedom of speech, my world view as an individual, my informed function as a citizen, is already at risk.

The availability of amazingly powerful, amazingly cheap technology for mass surveillance and control, and its widespread use in UK, means that 'freedom' as I knew it probably no longer exists.

Huxley would be shocked and surprised, I think, and Orwell might think his satire was justified, but not at all amusing.


(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World
(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nineteen_Eighty-Four
(3) http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/03/1984-v-brave-new-world.html
(4) http://www.speakerscornertrust.org/library/about-free-speech/a-brief-history-of-londons-speakers-corner/
(2016 typo correction)

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