Friday, May 25, 2012
George Orwell’s novel, “1984”, introduced the telescreen, a two-way video device that the government used to completely control society. The telescreen was a camera that spied on citizens. The telescreen was also a television that broadcast government-approved propaganda. Telescreens were everywhere in fictional Oceania.
The telescreen seems like quaint science fiction now. But in 1948, the year the novel was published, the telescreen was a terrifying concept. At the time, there were about 44,000 television sets in America, and three-fourths of them were in New York City.
When I first read “1984”, the concept of the telescreen was no surprise. What did pique my curiosity about the book was how a society would let itself be ruled by the telescreen. Why didn’t the citizens of Oceania simply smash the telescreens?
To be sure, George Orwell wrote a fascinating novel. But truth is stranger than fiction. Orwell, on his most creative day, could never have foretold of a powerful public official named Weiner exposing himself to the telescreen. You just can’t make that up!
To a lesser degree than that of the New York Weiner, 900 million other people expose themselves daily on Facebook and Twitter. They say: “Look at me!” “Read my thoughts!” “I fear not the telescreen!”
Facebook and Twitter are not the telescreen that Orwell envisioned. But they are the state of the art in evolving telescreen technology. Telescreen technology has come a long way from the first RCA television and Ma Bell’s party line telephone system. The telescreen has also come a long way from MySpace and AOL’s instant messaging.
Orwell also coined “Newspeak”, the heartless, soulless vocabulary approved by Oceania’s totalitarian regime. While the telescreen caused people to live in fear, it was Newspeak that bankrupted Oceania’s citizenry of thoughts and emotions.
Are we not also embracing Newspeak? Facebook and Twitter are defined as “social media.” I don’t know what “social media” means. But it sure sounds like zombie phrase turning.
Social media is a glorified term for “Reply All.” It sounds absolutely Utopian. It is narcissism. It is the pond into which we look for our own reflection. And it is a perfect mirror until an interloper enters the chat screen.
When that interloper appears, he or she must be removed. Or rather in social media speak, the interloper is unfriended.
Unfriend. What a heartless, soulless word. Orwell, on his most creative day, could never have coined “unfriend.”
May 18, 2012 was an important date in history. Investors spent $100 billion buying Facebook stock—the largest IPO ever.
The Wall Street experts said in unison—groupthink to Orwell—that Facebook will have to sell more advertising to justify its stock price. Left unsaid was the valuation of Facebook’s most important asset—your personal information which you freely gave the company.
The investors who spent $100 billion are not banking on more ad sales. The investors are betting on the power of the telescreen to collect even more personal information.
George Orwell believed that only a Fascist regime armed with guns and spies could dominate a country like Oceania. Orwell’s premise was grounded in Fascist rule of Germany and Italy in the 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini, both murdering thugs, were role models for Oceania’s Fascists.
Now we see that Orwell’s premise was wrong. You don’t need guns or thugs to interrogate the minds of a people. Give the proles their moments of vanity in front of the telescreen, and they will tell you everything.
Many of you will say that I am overreacting. And that would appear to be true for the present. You don’t fear the telescreen; you don’t fear the people who own your information. For now at least.
We are simply in a lull. So much information has been collected so quickly, that no one has had the time to sort it out and figure out how to use it. But the day is coming that the geeks will profile you accurately.
In the future—we don’t know when—the question facing you is this: What will you do, and how far will you go to avoid the thing you fear the most—unfriending?
In this regard, Orwell had the ending right.