"Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a riot” @radiosvoboda saw it live as it came in last night pic.twitter.com/uyqRKhiC5fMany people in Ukraine have received txt messages indicating that the phone company, and thus the government, has them registered as protestors. People have responded to this with concerned statements that it was 'Orwellian' which means they are again linking it to the idea of Big Brother in Orwell's most read book 1984.
— RFE/RL (@RFERL) January 21, 2014
And what was the response? The protests in Ukraine have expanded, the government has been forced for now in to a retreat.
#Ukraine update 1: Protesters occupy Agriculture Ministry building in #Kyiv. http://t.co/hzjdeVXp8XSeems Big Brother has failed.
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) January 24, 2014
In fact if you re-read 1984 you will notice that Big Brother failed at the end of the book. Everyone takes the sufferings of Winston and his final destruction by the party as evidence that Orwell believed that the technology of surveillance and psychology along with ruthless ideology could crush the individual and reduce humanity to a machine.
Assange and Snowden, along with many people in the EFF and all over the web are fond of pointing out that the current technology of agencies like the NSA dwarf anything Orwell could have imagined back in 1948. And on a level this is true, were are being watched all the time and the state and private companies, along with criminal groups, have massive amounts of data about us, they have been collecting it for a long time.
But does the collection of data mean effective execution of power?
The final line of 1984 is written in lovely, complex, subversive and critical English:
It was chiefly in order to allow time for the preliminary work of translation that the final adoption of Newspeak had been fixed for so late a date as 2050.
But obviously the existence of the sentence above proves that in the end Newspeak and the project of Big Brother failed. The novel closes with discussion of the Declaration of Independence, of Milton, Shakespeare, Byron and a discussion of freedom.
In fact Orwell closes the entire peace with 'The Principles of Newspeak' where he opens:
Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsco, or English Socialism.Not only is the state clearly set in the past but it is clearly political, it was the kind of statement Newspeak was suppose to make impossible, but somehow in the future Ingsoc and Big Brother and Newspeak vanished and English and Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence survived.
Clearly Orwell didn't think much of Big Brother's long term chances.
And neither should we. Just possession of data about subjects in a society does not give power. Every parent knows this. They know so much about their children, and this knowledge can come to such little effect. Anyone who has worked as a school teacher, a social worker, a home care giver or a police officer can tell you that though information is critical, it is more often than not of limited value in controlling the subject.
Foucault was certainly brilliant for his insight that modern prison created a regime of surveillance. But Foucault also understood that power always created its own opposition, that these regimes of watching resulting in regimes of hiding and deviance.
Yes the United States has a historically unprecedented ability to collect, store and manage information about not only its people but the people of the world. And yet how much has this ability given it? Did it enable the US to win the war in Iraq? Could reading people's mobile phones or emails enabled it to end the conflict in Syria? To stop protests in Europe? Was the US able to stop massive leaks of its data by Manning and Snowden?
If I was given control of the NSA tomorrow the first thing I would look at, before abuses, is value for money. How much reduction in crime, terrorism and radicalism did all this work get the US?
I think we should remember Gödel who proved that mathematics could not be fully reduced to logic, that statements could be true but could never be proven. If mathematics, the most formal activity humanity undertakes has pieces of illogic installed in it then what for people.
The reality is that humans are not formal systems, that if you know every fact about a person they can still surprise you. Humans are very good at hiding their true intentions, changing their minds before anyone can learn about it, and engaging in irrationalism.
As I write this it is being report that the 2012 Philpott murders in Derby England, where parents set fire to a house with their own children inside killing six children, could not have been predicted. The UK is the ultimate surveillance state. The Philpotts would have been monitored not only by police, school and social workers. The Philpotts may have been one of the most watched families in the world.
And yet after the murders of the children the Council had to conclude that there was no way that anyone could have predicted the outcome.
I was in Cairo at the start of 2011. Even though it was pretty obvious the Regime was not popular, there was no reason to think that in 2 months a revolution would break out. I travelled through Spain in 2007 and what reasons were there to conclude the booming economy was about to collapse.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the 2008 stock market collapse. Not only did some of the worlds most advanced computers and analysis software fail to see it coming, to a large extent the existence of this software promoted and may have caused the collapse.
My reading of 1984 is a bit different than most. I see O'Brian in a desperate effort to remove free thinking and descent, his vicious confidence is a defence mechanism from the fact that no matter how much the Party cracks down on humanity, humanity remains time and time corrupt, irrational, selfish and free. I see the massive data collections by Big Business, Big Brother and Criminal Groups as much a desperate effort to try and find something of value, an effort that has failed again and again, and always will fail.