- George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” Secker & Warburg: 1949
- Kurt Vonnegut, “Player Piano,” Chas. Scribner’s Sons: 1952
- Gary Shteyngart, “Super Sad True Love Story,” Random House: 2010
In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the characters struggle to maintain individuality in a world which requires conformity with the dictates of the ruling party. Every room, public or private has a two-way TV monitor always on. When Winston Smith slacks off on mandatory calisthenics in front of the TV, the instructress notices and demands he work harder.
In “Player Piano,” working class “proles” have been segregated from the ruling technocrats so that they can be safely left to do what they will. The fact that state security, seemingly unobtrusive, is effective is clear when Paul Proteus is arrested.
In “Super Sad True Love Story,” surveillance is open and ubiquitous. Not only do the authorities know everything, but a persons credit rating and attractiveness score are publicly broadcast. The Super Sad world has no old-fashioned TV-like monitors: indispensable hand-held electronic äppäräti enable monitoring that goes beyond “Orwellian.”
Monitoring of phone calls and internet usage authorized by the Patriot Act is much less intrusive than monitoring imagined by Orwell or Shteyngart. The major concern today may be that secret monitoring is hard to manage. I believe that Senator Wyden has a valid concern: if government officials deceive Congress, how is Congress to see that the spies don’t exceed their mandate. Spies may be focused on potential terrorists today, but turn their attention to political dissidents tomorrow — it has happened before in our history.
Workplace spying may be a greater concern than government activities:
- At one job I had, phone bills were routinely reviewed by management. The goal was to identify personal calls improperly billed to the company; to do this supervisors needed to determine who was called by looking up the number dialed. I don’t know that this information was ever misused, but it could have been.
- At another job, a VIP informed new hires that holding one of two political views he deplored, regardless of legalities, would be cause for dismissal. I held both views more or less, but he had no way to know that. Today I probably wouldn’t have been hired.
- At a third job, I worked in a room with a camera. I could have been watched without knowing it at any time.
Workplace spying is far more common and potentially significant than anything we know our government does.
Commercial spying too is ubiquitous now: every time we see a specific advertisement after doing an internet search we get a hint of that. By signing up with Google, Yahoo, or others we facilitate and consent to a sweeping loss of privacy.
The following article by historian Jill Lepore explains in detail much about mystery, secrecy, and privacy. Who knew that far before Orwell, Louis Brandeis warned of the “encroachment of the technologies of secrecy on the right to privacy?” Who knew that the secret ballot for elections dates only from the late 1800s?