05 July 2013
Are We Ready For 1984?
This essay was originally published in 2003. Readers generally scoffed at the basic thesis. Somehow, I do not believe that is still the case.
1984 Did Not Happen
George Orwell (the pen name of an Englishman named Eric Arthur Blair) conceptualized how a socialist - fascist Government could use technology to control a nation. First published in 1949, his book "Nineteen Eighty-Four", described an extremely oppressive bureaucratic system of social management. Fortunately for England, the brutally intrusive police state he depicted never happened.
There were three basic reasons:
1. We humans had not yet developed the necessary computer, software and communication technology. Though several dictatorships had extensive surveillance networks, they lacked the necessary technology to impose a truly effective system of social control.
2. Although several Western nations flirted with socialism, and liberals championed the brutal forms of communism found in China and Russia, the cultural trend from ~1950 through 2000 was toward the adoption of capitalistic democracy. Most western nations were able to overcome the economic, social and political strains of the Cold War without resorting to overly restrictive centralized planning. Communism collapsed because it is, in essence, a very inefficient management system, prone to institutionalized corruption, and ignorant of human nature.
3. There was no real danger to our EcoSystem. Our environmental challenges were perceived as relatively insignificant. We had ample supplies of cheap electricity, oil, natural gas and coal. Gasoline, diesel, propane, and heating oil fuels were readily available.
Fast Forward to The 21st Century.
Things have really changed. Technology now makes Orwell's "1984" description of socialist - fascist political control physically possible. We humans have the tools to create a brutal system of social management:
1984. Orwell's vision would have needed an almost unlimited amount of computer power. Although mainframes and minicomputers were readily available in 1984, they would have been too expensive and too slow to support the enormous computing demands of a nationwide information system. PCs were not pervasive. Data base server technology was just beginning to emerge as a computing systems architecture. Data storage peripherals were expensive and inadequate for the amount of information that would be required for an effective surveillance system.
Today. The hardware to build a distributed computer system with a massive database now exists. There is sufficient mainframe computer power. PCs are a ubiquitous tool for data entry and retrieval. Server technology is cheap and readily available. Millions of relatively inexpensive data storage peripherals have been delivered. The pervasive use of networked enterprise and personal computer technology is a reality.
1984. Although many companies and government agencies had sophisticated software capability, the computer, network and database software that would have been required to support a massive system of social control was not available.
Today. As Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and other software companies have pointed out, we now have the systems architecture and software technology to track, monitor and record individual behavior on a massive scale. Indeed, several Internet Service companies and government agencies have already implemented user surveillance and tracking systems.
1984. Although most corporations and government agencies had extensive networks by the 1980s, they lacked the pervasiveness and interconnection required to support a vast system of data acquisition and dissemination.
Today. We now have a pervasive network for connecting computers, servers, PCs, microelectronic devices, and network appliances to surveillance computer systems. It’s called the Internet.
1984. The successful implementation of a socialist - fascist monitoring and behavior control system requires the widespread installation of millions of sensors and activity monitors. In 1984 sensors and monitors were relatively expensive and usually connected to a limited number of custom networks for specialized applications.
Today. Appliance and sensor technology is readily available and inexpensive (Credit and debit card readers, GPS appliances, cell phones, radio frequency identity tags and sensors, micro TV cameras, etc.). The associated embedded systems software is well developed. These devices can be programmed to “talk” to each other and to a centralized data base. Computer ID chips, carried on the person or embedded in the skin, tell the system where you are whenever you pass a sensor. Location and identification technology is now in place.
Using available technology, it is entirely possible to create an effective surveillance system with a massive database to track the location, identity and activity of every registered person. We now have the means to create the socialist – fascist State envisioned by Orwell.
So Here We Are
The social pressures of an increasingly complex world invite top-down political solutions. We are aware of our environmental challenges. Energy is increasingly expensive. The availability of oil and natural gas are in doubt. There is a rising demand for change in the midst of social turmoil. Although we look for order and personal security, diversity continues to breed division. Governments can no longer control their borders or growing populations of self-centered, self-absorbed factions who owe no allegiance to anyone but themselves. Will Democracy provide an adequate response to the cultural, economic and environmental strains of the 21st century?
1984. No political ideology or established government had a realistic opportunity to impose a social control system on America or any of the other OECD nations in 1984.
Today. Our existing institutions are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the demands of 21st century governance. Good management is subordinated to political expediency. There is inadequate leadership in Washington. Not only is Congress unable to deal with complex issues, it does not even appear to understand its responsibility. Our State and Local institutions pursue an obsolete model of governance. If our existing political institutions fail, how difficult would it be for an autocratic political regime to implement a system for the control of social behavior?
1984. Although Western culture was in transition, traditional values were still important. We had a relatively strong confidence in our elected leaders and the institutions of democracy.
Today. Traditional values are under relentless attack. Self-righteous belief systems inevitably lead to distrust and the nourishment of social conflict. Liberal elitists reject democracy, disparage traditional values, routinely use the courts to make law, and deride idea of national sovereignty. Add a nagging fear of terrorism, growing economic apprehension, the dislocation caused by policies of social diversity, and the growth of political organizations with an anti-Christian agenda and we have a trend - a transition in progress - to a authoritarian culture.
1984. Fortunately, no single event or combination of problems were catastrophic enough to encourage the creation of an authoritarian Government.
Today. Uneasy fears about our personal safety and economic security, incessant conflict between cultural groups, a pervasive shift from Christian democratic values to the autocratic theocracy of Liberalism, and a belief that the Federal Government has become hopelessly ineffective all contribute to a growing sense of frustration. We are not merely looking for new political leadership; we seek a fundamental change in the organization of our political institutions. Catastrophic acts of terrorism, a disruption in the flow of oil, or a severe economic recession are among the events that could trigger a demand for a new system of government.
The political control of social behavior requires four elements: technology (we have the tools), the institutionalized monitoring of human behavior (broadly accepted under current law), motivated autocratic leadership (a firm belief in the perfect political solution), and a continuous flow of politically correct opinion management (think of it as mind control). All of these elements are in place. Our former beliefs in the freedom of personal responsibility are gradually being replaced by public behavior regulation – all backed by the police power of the State.
American elections are thus critical to the future of democracy. The winners will be challenged to find solutions for a wide range of domestic and international issues. If our leaders continue to make decisions based on political expediency, if they keep on stumbling from one crisis to another without any direction, if they fail to apply the principles of good management to the complex demands of governance, - then they will jeopardize their constitutional power. The penalty for failure could be politically catastrophic. At some point, there will be a backlash against existing democratic institutions for one really simple reason – they don’t work.
On the other hand, if American voters have the collective wisdom to elect proactive, positive and constructive leadership, then it is possible our leaders will be able to redefine the role of government in a way that preserves the freedoms of democracy. In the final analysis, it is good management, not ideology, which enables successful political systems. We need intelligent, positive, and creative management skills at all levels of government – Federal, State and Local.
Our candidates for political office often use the word “change”. They assure us they can bring us together, enhance our security, and revitalize our economy. But change implies choice. Will we choose leaders who will bring about change by restoring traditional moral and democratic values? Or will we choose leaders whose actions invite an Orwellian conclusion?
Given the availability of enabling technology and existing cultural trends, this is by no means a trivial question. Perhaps we should be asking Barack Hussein Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Sidney McCain III if they understand the gravity of this choice.