Tagged: Totalitarianism

The New Iron Curtain

In the January 24, 2014 issue of Science (vol. 343, P. 372), Albert-László Barabási reviews Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle. The novel concerns a large technology company that “relentlessly innovates to reduce crime, to organize and store all information, and to leave no one behind.” Employees live by the “Orwellian” NewSpeak dicta, “Privacy is theft” and “Secrets are lies.”

Where the novel would depict what Barabási calls “the 21st Century’s version of Orwell’s 1984,” both the novelist and the reviewer seem too eager to latch onto the technological aspects of 1984, as well as today’s growing surveillance state. The review concludes with an observation about the National Security Agency and George Orwell’s novel 1984, by way of likening the NSA’s use of private contractors to the themes in Eggers’ new novel, which “reboots 1984 for the digital age.”

The main problem with this techno-centric approach to looking at Orwell’s novel — or today’s surveillance state, for that matter — is that 1984 doesn’t need to be “rebooted for the digital age.” The key principle in the novel is a psychological one — that of the Panopticon — that applies as well today as it did at the very start of the industrial revolution, when the principle was first formulated.

Although 1984 depicts a pervasive system of surveillance, is not about surveillance technology per se, but about the psychology of living under a political system that makes use of such technology. Modern readers tend to focus on the technological aspects of 1984, but this is a modern bias that probably derives from the post-war emphasis on technological growth, and a shift in the science fiction genre away from what Robert Heinlein called “speculative fiction” to what is perhaps might more properly be called “technology fiction.”

In 1984, however, the technology is largely incidental: the protagonist Winston Smith suffers his downfall not because the surveillance proves to be an effective tool for law enforcement, but, rather, because of his own personal indiscretions. Winston Smith — petty bureaucrat and Party member — frequents a resale shop in the forbidden “proletarian quarters.” Winston buys trinkets left over from a world he spends his professional life erasing; he buys a notebook in which he writes his personal heresies; and, when he eventually rents out the spare bedroom above the shop — for the purposes of an illicit love affair — he is entrapped by the shopkeeper, who turns out to be an undercover officer with the “thought police.”

The society in 1984 is modeled on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon: a prison design that Bentham proposed in 1787, which he felt had applicability to a broad range of social contexts.  The full title of Bentham’s work reads:

“PANOPTICON; Or, The Inspection-House: Containing The Idea Of A New Principle Of Construction Applicable To Any Sort Of Establishment, In Which Persons Of Any Description Are To Be Kept Under Inspection; And In Particular To Penitentiary-Houses, Prisons, Houses Of Industry, Work-Houses, Poor-Houses, Lazarettos, Manufactories, Hospitals, Mad-Houses, And Schools: With A Plan Of Management.”

The key effect of the pan-optic (“all-seeing”) surveillance system in 1984 is psychological: a constant pressure exerted by the mere possibility of being observed, which coerces individuals into behaving as though there are in actual fact being monitored at all times.  Orwell describes the psychology of the surveillance system in 1984 as follows:

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live–did live, from habit that became instinct–in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

Orwell’s description of this psychological effect is quite similar to Michel Foucault’s characterization of Bentham’s contrivance.  Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish (1975):
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
“To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”

It is, indeed, “Orwellian” that, as we become more aware of this type of surveillance, we come more under its influence — even while lacking a basic understanding of the real effects of the system. It is, to say the least, disconcerting that our modern biases — which we fancy to be so sophisticated — blind us so systematically to those ideas we need now more than ever to properly grasp.

While one may be tempted so suppose that our modern surveillance state represents something new — because of how technologically advanced it is — there is ample evidence that such a system of total surveillance cannot be effective, in terms of detecting all criminal behavior.

In his essay, “Your Face is Not a Barcode,” computer scientist Philip E. Agre reiterates an argument made by noted cryptologist Bruce Schneier.  Using face recognition technology as an example, Agre writes:

“Face recognition is nearly useless for the application that has been most widely discussed since the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington: identifying terrorists in a crowd. As Bruce Schneier points out, the reasons why are statistical. Let us assume, with extreme generosity, that a face recognition system is 99.99 percent accurate. In other words, if a high-quality photograph of your face is not in the ‘terrorist watch list’ database, then it is 99.99 percent likely that the software will not produce a match when it scans your face in real life. Then let us say that one airline passenger in ten million has their face in the database. Now, 99.99 percent probably sounds good. It means one failure in 10,000. In scanning ten million passengers, however, one failure in 10,000 means 1000 failures — and only one correct match of a real terrorist.

“In other words, 999 matches out of 1000 will be false, and each of those false matches will cost time and effort that could have been spent protecting security in other ways. Perhaps one would argue that 1000 false alarms are worth the benefits of one hijacking prevented. Once the initial shock of the recent attacks wears off, however, the enormous percentage of false matches will condition security workers to assume that all positive matches are mistaken. The great cost of implementing and maintaining the face recognition systems will have gone to waste. The fact is, spotting terrorists in a crowd is a needle-in-a-haystack problem, and automatic face recognition is not a needle-in-a-haystack-quality technology. Hijackings can be prevented in many ways, and resources should be invested in the measures that are likely to work.”

Similar arguments can be made for other forms of automatic target detection.  Consider, too, that the NSA doesn’t even attempt to process all the data it gathers — since it’s unnecessary.  In an “Orwellian” twist, it appears that NSA chief General Keith Alexander can tell Congress that the NSA doesn’t “intercept” domestic communications by tapping into the fiber optic lines of telecommunications carriers, making copies of the data, and storing it in a warehouse.  According to how the NSA defines what it does, data is only “intercepted” when it is “put into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.”  Which is to say, in Foucault’s words, “the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.”

The more fundamental problem with the fixation on the technological aspects of the surveillance state is that it draws attention away from the real issues at play.  Towards the end of 1984, the goal of the totalitarian state depicted in the novel is described as follows:

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

Like the characters in 1984 who, due to NewSpeak whittling down the dictionary, were in the process of losing the ability to express basic facts about their lives and circumstances, we — due to our cultural fixations on growth, and technology, and novelty — effectively live under the same circumstance, and cannot see it.