“He sees you when you’re sleeping.” –from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie
“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever.” –George Orwell, 1984
“Every time I close my eyes, all I see is people dying.” –Sentence spoken spontaneously to San Franciscan Shawn Kinnear by the Amazon Echo personal assistant Alexa
When you are in school, you are introduced to lots of “classic works” of literature. Some you read because you have to, a few your read because you want to, and about some you say, “I’ll get around to that.” But life is demanding and busy, and reading a long work takes time. The average reader can read about 300 words a minute, but when reading long works, people get distracted by other tasks and by their own wandering thoughts. Gotta get up and make that cup of cocoa! So, it’s probably reasonable to reduce that to about 200 words minute.
George Orwell’s 1984 is 88,942 words long. At 200 words a minute for the average reader, it would take the average person a little over seven hours to read.
If this book is one of those that you’ve always thought you might get around to but haven’t, I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO DO IT NOW. An hour a night for a week. There are classics that are like medicine–you think that they will be good for you, but they aren’t particularly tasty. Orwell’s 1984 isn’t like that. Once you get into it, you will find that it’s really a compelling, gripping story. You will find yourself caring about the characters and wanting to know what’s going to happen to them, and unlike many novels, which slow down in the middle or at the end, this one becomes more fast paced and more gripping the further you get into it.
And here’s the thing: The novel is extraordinarily relevant. I can think of no other more relevant to the here and now.
We live in a time when autocratic leaders are emerging worldwide–ones quite willing to use the full powers of state violence to achieve their ends. If you thought, like Francis Fukuyama, that in the twentieth century we fought hot and cold wars to end, for good, the threat of totalitarianism and to pave the way for liberal democracy to flourish into a beautiful future for most of us, well, you are wrong. Orwell was a great visionary, but even he could not foresee the powers that technology would place in the hands of the totalitarian in the 21st century–ubiquitous real-time surveillance; computer networks; personality profiles; artificially intelligent data mining; facial recognition software; GPS tracking; the ability to collect, to store, and to search, using AI algorithms, vast quantities of data; malware in enormous and obscene variety; fake news; memes as propaganda tools; drones; autonomous war-fighting machines; technologically enhanced soldiers and police; DNA databases, sequencing, and identification; social networks like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram; spoofing and deepfakes; cryptography; the “Internet of Things”; automated personal assistants; and so on. Simply making a list of the tools now in the hands of the would-be totalitarian is a considerable undertaking. These technologies make Orwell’s telecreens and Thought Police helicopters and Ministry of Truth seem extraordinarily prescient.
Here’s the thing: Our federal government changes hands every four years. Any power that is conferred upon the government today will be, in the future, in the hands of the worst leaders in our history at the most calamitous time in history. Put together concentration of wealth and influence in a few hands, a would-be despot of the future with broad emergency powers, a bunch of enablers in Congress, a judiciary bought by a wealthy cabal, a severe economic crisis, and all of those technologies for command and control, and you have a recipe for the emergence of a totalitarian state here in the land of the free.
ROBERT’S RULE: If you are wondering whether a new policy, procedure, technology, law, regulation, or system is a good idea, just think of the worst person at the worst time in the future wielding its power.
At the same time that all those technologies have been developed, wealth and power are increasingly concentrated into a very few hands. Twenty-six people now have more wealth than the bottom 3.8 billion of the world’s population. The richest man in the world today is probably the absolutist leader of a large and extraordinarily powerful autocratic state. The fellow whom the press describes as the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, sells facial recognition software to the police and military. Scratch the surface of anything, now, and you will find a few very wealthy players who made it happen, and people, being busy with their lives, don’t pay much attention to all that. Do you really know how and why the Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] and high-stakes state testing and the charter school movement were created? If so you are one of the few; if not, if you knew the actual stories there, you would be horrified and angry. In short, for now, the story can be out there, in the mainstream press, in fragments, and easily pieced together, but most people don’t bother. They have lives and entertainments to attend to.
And, of course, we are in the process of creating a great many human augmentation technologies–chemical hedonics, germline genetic engineering, brain-computer interfaces, and various life-extension technologies–that will be available to the very wealthy and powerful but not to people generally.
And, we are inventing technologies that will make vast numbers workers obsolete. The daughter of an acquaintance recently graduated from the Chicago School of Law. At the welcoming ceremony for the students, they told her class (I’m paraphrasing here based on her account to me), you are lucky you are here because technologies will soon make most lawyers obsolete–you can go online and incorporate your company or make a will or do an artificially intelligent automatic case law search–and only people from the best schools will have jobs. So, it isn’t just manual workers–warehouse workers and truck drivers–who will be replaced.
And, at the same time, the number of people on the planet is putting a great strain on resources, so the ruling class will have enormous reason for wanting to reduce the numbers of people running about.
And, ofc, we are seeing the emergence of longitudinal individual tracking software. China has implemented its Social Credit system, by which the government uses a database to track, over their lifetimes, people’s social worthiness. Here in the United States, Bill Gates created a company, InBloom, the purpose of which was to record all available records about students in K-12 and college, and then on into the workplace–grades, evaluations, test scores, disciplinary records, race, religion, and so on, and many states bought into it until parent protests shut this down. For now. The Education Department under Arne Duncan did research into real-time devices for continually monitoring students’ emotional responses and attention to tasks–trackers of where student vision was directed, galvanic skin response wrist bracelets, and others (Hey, everyone, let’s apply call center optimization strategies to education). Workers in Amazon warehouses now wear vests that talk to the floor robots. And, of course, placing GPS on every cell phone so that you can be tracked wherever you are was made into law by presidential decree, without any congressional debate or messy democratic hoopla in the press. Your local police department has riot gear and military-style weapons and DNA sequencing machines and access to ubiquitous street cameras with facial recognition technology and devices that enable them to sit outside your door in a car and monitor all your communications. To keep you safe.
In Tunisia, during the Arab Spring, demonstrators in the street got messages on their cell phones from their government saying, “You are involved in an illegal demonstration, and we know who and where you are.” They knew where they were because of GPS tracking systems on phones. Those tracking systems were required by US regulators.
There’s a lot more I could write about here, and doubtless there is a lot that I know nothing whatsoever about. But that’s enough for now.
To return to my original point: 1984 is probably the most relevant book that you will ever read–the one that speaks to what is happening now. I think that READING IT IS A CIVIC AND PERSONAL DUTY. You owe it to your fellow citizens and to your children and grandchildren, to the future, to know what Orwell’s vision was.
Of course, reading that book might be dangerous. The first thing that totalitarians do is to round up and kill the intellectuals.
Oh, and btw, it will be quite easy for totalitarians to put a smiley face on the New Feudal Order they are putting into place. Here’s how you will recognize that face: He or she will have model good looks and lots of financial backing. And he or she will talk in vague terms like Hope and Change.
“What do you read, my Lord?” asks Polonius. “Words,” answers Hamlet.
And, of course, he or she will pretend to be a populist nationalist, as Vlad’s Asset Orange, aka IQ45, does.