It was on this day, 8th June 1949, that George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Terminally ill, he died seven months later, an Orwell who lived into a ripe old age might have felt there was a depressing familiarity in the unfolding of history, that the trends in society were those that he anticipated in the post-war years.
It was with extraordinary prescience that Orwell wrote of the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of minds.” Big Brother was not worried how promiscuous they might be, and, through the activity of the Ministry of Truth’s Pornosec, provided pornography which many young men bought, believing themselves to be engaged in illicit behaviour.
Orwell anticipated a time when the majority of people would believe that being allowed to have sex with whomsoever they wished and having access to pornography would mean that they had freedom: Big Brother was not interested in curtailing such freedom.
The national security agencies charged with watching over ordinary citizens are hardly more interested in the activities of the overwhelming majority of us than Big Brother was interested in the activity of the proles. Authorities might paraphrase the words of Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans in which Paul argued that rulers held no terror for those who did right.
Surveillance in its various forms, it would be argued, is overwhelmingly no more a curtailment of freedom than a lifeguard on a beach is a curtailment of the freedom of sunbathers. Perhaps it is more the case that provided we are no more dangerous than the proles, no-one will disturb us.
The significant question to be asked is not whether surveillance takes place (and anyone who uses any of the social media or search engines like Google, will know from the advertisements that their content is being monitored), but what constitutes a threat to national security and who makes that judgement. Tales of scary men in the shadows watching every social post, text, email and web search do nothing to protect our freedom (Orwell would probably have suggested that such stories assist the development of Big Brother, diverting attention down sensationalist channels).
Individual freedom must include having the capacity to decide what it means to be free, and not having that decision made for us by agencies which are subject to neither open debate nor scrutiny. Otherwise Orwell’s vision will be completely fulfilled.