The Price of Apathy

More than 50 days after former NSA employee Edward Snowden introduced the general public to a secretly flourishing surveillance culture, some Facebook accounts may have been cancelled or email providers changed, but a vast majority seems busy getting used to the omnipresence of global surveillance. Apparently, we don‘t realise that by putting up with it, we pave the way for dystopian scenarios resembling the ones fiction confronted us with for the last 50 years.

The recently increased sales of George Orwell’s 1984 suggest that Snowden‘s disclosures indeed remind us of similar scenarios from cinema or literature: That the NSA has access to not only personal records and external actions, but also our thoughts and moods which we type into Google or share with friends on Facebook quickly invokes the spectre of Orwell‘s thought-controlling Big Brother.

The hackneyed phrase, “Big Brother is watching you” might accompany our everyday online activities to a greater extent than we would wish for, since the screens of our fancy devices not only provide a window into a digital netherworld, but have come to resemble Orwell‘s two-way-Telescreen with an amorphous observer returning our gaze. Similar to Big Brother, the algorithms tracking our every move don‘t speak a word; they don’t express themselves like we do, but they are ubiquitous, nonetheless.

Of course these eerie parallels are rather superficial and most people would agree that states like North Korea would still defeat the Western hemisphere in every 1984 look-alike contest (if there ever was such a thing), but the newly gained awareness that our much-praised western freedom is literally recorded leaves us with an uneasy feeling that Orwell’s bleak vision of 1948 might bear the qualities of a roadmap.

In order to take a sufficiently educated guess where our surveillance problem is headed, one has to add other stories to the equation, given that 1984 features relatively little technology, while digital machines constitute the kernel of the NSA‘s surveillance apparatus. The vast and invisible power exerted by these super computers has sparked shallow movies such as Enemy of the State, which tap into our most obvious fear of surveillance: The fear of being persecuted without knowing why, of facing a faceless organisation that uses high technology to hunt us down for no apparent reason. In a way, we are afraid to be subjected to the same terror as Kafka’s Josef K. when, ironically, the official purpose of the all-seeing, all-saving machine is to prevent terror (admittedly of a different kind).

Modern day software such as Boundless Informant is designed to anticipate where and when terrorists might attack, and then to keep them from doing so. “Crime prevention” is the catch phrase, stopping crime before it happens — an idea which fiction took up a long time ago.

In Isaac Asimov‘s short story “All the Troubles of the World”, a super computer named Multivac saves every bit of existing information on a daily basis, in order to calculate the course of the following day. Among other things, the clairvoyant computer seeks out the individuals who are likely to commit a crime. A single thought is enough to increase the probability of criminal behaviour and cause officers to incarcerate citizens for a crime they did not commit.

Quite similar things happen in Philip K. Dicks 1958 story, The Minority Report, which was famously made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2002. The task of the “Precrime Department” is to prevent crimes predicted by the prescient Precogs before they happen. Dehumanised by heavy brain damage, the existence of the Precogs consists solely of seeing imminent incidents, not unlike Multivac or the NSA’s algorithms.

Indeed, the pre-crime concept is used in ways other than NSA‘s terror prevention program. Since 2010, the FBI has been using statistics and algorithms to calculate where crimes are most likely to be committed so that police officers can be at the crime scene before the perpetrators. This approach is called ‘predictive policing’ (a phrase conspicuously reminiscent of ‘pre-crime’) and is working well enough so that British police, too, recently introduced it. Even if this particular method is predicated only on local crime statistics: Think for a moment about the possibility that huge amounts of data saved by the NSA could be used by this system. Who’s to say that crime prevention in the shape of Multivac, and with it the concept of Orwell‘s thought crime, won’t leave the realm of fiction and enter our everyday lives?

We sense that the line between prototype and paranoia, between possible reality and angst-ridden delusion is thin and blurred, not least because we know relatively little about the structure of global surveillance, about what is really done and what is only an Orwellian dream. At any rate, dystopian narratives seem to prefer the more pessimistic angle—not only to thrill or to exploit, but to explore what it means to be human under potentially inhumane circumstances. The Roman poet Ovid’s words come to mind, “Principiis obsta!” (“Resist the beginnings!”)

We are at a time and place where we can pay heed to the cautionary tales of Wells, Dick and others and yet, comfortably accommodated, we merely watch as our reality morphs into an amalgamation of these well known fictional nightmares. Isn’t it time we asked ourselves, Do we really want to live in a world like this?

Alexander Lohninger is a freelance writer working in Vienna.

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