On the Use of Orwell’s “1984” in Internet Policy Narratives

by on May 31, 2012 · 5 comments

This Book is NOT about the Net

My latest Forbes column takes a look at Andrew Keen’s latest book, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us. It’s an interesting book, and a much better one than his previous screed, Cult of the Amateur. Andrew raises valid concerns about the sheer volume of over-sharing taking place online today. As I note in my review:

Keen is on solid ground when outlining the many downsides of over-sharing, beginning with the privacy and reputational consequences for each of us. “Social media is the confessional novel that we are not only all writing but also collectively publishing for everyone else to read,” he says. That can be a problem because the Internet has a very long memory. A youngster’s silly pranks or soul-searching self-revelations may seem like a fun thing to upload when such juvenile antics or angst will win praise (and plenty of pageviews) from teen peers. Your 34-year-old self, however, will likely have a very different view of that same rant, picture, or video. Yet, that content will likely still be around for the world to see when you do reach adulthood.

And Keen offers many other reasons why we should be concerned about a world of over-sharing and “hypervisibility.” The problem is that Keen drowns out these valid concerns by assaulting the reader with layers of over-the-top pessimistic prognostications and apocalyptic rhetoric. In particular, again and again and again in the book he comes back to George Orwell and his dystopian novel, 1984. Keen insists that some sort of Orwellian catastrophe is set to befall humanity because of social media over-sharing. (See this other Forbes column on Keen’s book, “Why 1984 Is Upon Us,” to see just how far this theme can be pushed).

Interestingly, Keen is not the only person to raise the specter of Orwell’s “Big Brother” nightmare in an Internet policy tract. Allusions to Orwell’s 1984 and “Big Brother” are increasingly common in Net policy books, blogs, essays and even newspaper articles. Variants on the “Big Brother” theme include: “Corporate Big Brother,” “Big Brother Inc.,” and even “Big Browser.” Similarly, back in 2008, a Public Knowledge analyst likened Apple’s management of applications in its iPhone App Store to an “1984 kind of total control.”

Let’s put an end to this silliness. George Orwell’s 1984 is a book about coercive, totalitarian governmental control in which citizens are forcibly and relentlessly brainwashed by an all-encompassing tyrannical Big Brother. It is a world of propaganda, censorship, historical revisionism, mind control, top-down planning, and total war.

By contrast, the modern digital devices and social media services that Keen and others repeatedly decry as “Orwellian” are nothing of the sort. First, and most obviously, they are purely voluntary. No one forces us to use Apple, Google, or Microsoft devices or any other company’s digital technologies. Likewise, no one forces us to join Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, or others social media services.These companies and countless others compete for our allegiance and try to win our business. If we do choose to use their services, we are also free to later abandon them. These are not “crystal prisons,” as this recent EFF blog post suggested (at least of Apple). These companies can’t coercively keep us in their “walled gardens,” which really aren’t all that “walled” or “closed” as I have argued here before. And while we are using those services, there is no effort by any of them to brainwash us or encourage us to take up arms against others. They are just looking to make money, not war.

To reiterate, I absolutely understand that there are very legitimate privacy and reputational concerns associated with excessive social media sharing and online living more generally. Again, Keen and others are on strong ground in raising some alarm about the perils of hypervisibility and over-sharing of personal information. But such concerns are in a totally different league than the sort of issues Orwell was raising in 1984. It’s hard for me to take seriously those Net policy authors and analysts who conflate the two.  I hope they stop.

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