NSA Leak: Did George Orwell Get it Right in 1984?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is the world. Edward Snowden told the newspaper in Hong Kong today that he's neither a traitor nor a hero. "I'm an American," said Snowden. As you know he's the man behind the leaked information about the NSA's phone and internet surveilence programs. His leaks have raised concerns about Big Brother. As in George Orwell's "1984"³

Trailer: This is one mans alarmed vision of the future. A future which he felt might, with such dangerous ease be brought about.

Weman: The trailer from the film adaptation of 1984 there is all about a dystopian future where the state sees all and knows all. The novels even seen a burst of sales of recent days. So is this what Orwell predicted? Corey Doctorow is a journalist and science fiction writer.

Corey Doctorow: I think it's dangerous to call Orwell a predictor. I don't think science fiction writers predict. i think science fiction writers who try to predict are like drug dealers who sample their own product. What I think Orwell did and what Orwell does is warn. And Orwell warns that technology had the power to shift the relationship between the individual and the state and that technology was giving the edge to governments and to powerful institutions over less powerful institutions and over individuals. What Orwell didn't see was where technology by dint of making it cheaper for us to work together gave enormous power to groups of people to build things as complicated and wonderful as you know say Wikipedia. So you know I think we didn't hear Orwell's warning, we allowed ourselves to be lulled by really dumb arguments like if people choose to perhaps unwisely to give a lot of information to Facebook doesn't that mean that spooks should be allowed to harvest as much of that information from Facebook as they want without a warrant.

Werman: What do you think?

Doctorow: For the record, I don't use Facebook and I don't think you should either but….

Werman: Why not?

Doctorow: Well because I think Facebook is a Skinner Box designed to teach you to undervalue your privacy. You make a disclosure now and then months or years later in a total different context that disclosure comes back and bites you in the butt. It's like trying to learn how to hit a ball by swinging the bat and then turning around and running away as fast as you can before you see whether the bat connected with the ball and then a couple of years later someone will come to you in your living room and say that was a really good hit. And there's lots of stuff like that but because of there's this long fuse between action and consequence there, it's hard to practice it and get good at it. So with programs like Prism, if we make good decisions about our privacy we weaken their security.

Werman: Are you saying the state really does support things like Facebook and the social media, that they like these kind of platforms for getting information?

Doctorow: One of the things that apologists for this kind of technology say is no one is listening in on your phone call, it's algorithms listening in on it. And the problem is that algorithms are unaccountable right? Some piece of software that someone's written that you'll never be allowed to see or interrogate has drawn a conclusion about your life that could have profound effects on you. I mean already your social media history is being used in some cases to determine your eligibility for a mortgage.

Werman: Right, yesterday we actually spoke about how big data sucks up all this information and the Philip K Dick novel. The minority report kept running through my mind where people are accused of what they're predicted to do before they actually do it. It's scary and we are not there yet but what do you think science fiction can tell us about the present? You kind of work in the near future.

Doctorow: I think that what science fiction does tell you a lot about is what we are anxious about or hopeful about in respect of our technology. And for me, my novels often involve people who have discovered problems with technology, ways that technology is being used to limit individual freedom, who use technology to push back against that. And so my books often feature protest movements or civil society groups or activist groups that are energized by technology and use technology but who are also pushing back against the misuse of technology.

Werman: You know the debate about the future often use to revolve around Orwell versus Huxley. Aldous Huxley's novel, "Brave New World" which deposited humans in the future won't put up a fight because we're happy enough due to technological distractions. You know Soma, Huxley's feel good drug could now be seen I guess as a combination of fast food and Facebook. Do you see it that way?

Doctorow: I think that people who thought it would either be Orwell or Huxley lack the imagination to anticipate that it would be Orwell and Huxley. You know why choose, when you can have both of them? And I think that technology is a race between people who's instinct is authoritarian or deference to authority. And who see in technology the power to take away freedom… And people who see in technology the power to work with their friends to guarantee freedom, and that race is won that is a long and old race. But the difference now is that you have an establishment that is enormously powerful and well coordinated. And then you have a kind of citizenry who lack the coordination almost entirely. And the technology gives the establishment more coordination so it makes them more effective. But it gives the citizen re-coordination where there was none. I'm a pessimist because I think that if we don't do anything the power of the Internet to take away freedom makes Orwell look like an optimist. But I'm an optimist because I think that technology has given us the mechanism by which we can push back and use technology to build a better world that's more cooperative and fairer.

Werman: Corey Doctorow great to speak with you, thanks a lot.

Corey Doctorow: not at all, thanks.