One of my favorite books of all time is 1984 by George Orwell. The dystopian novel is a terrifying read because it depicts a possible future where privacy and individualism are things of the past, as is free speech and even free thought. The totalitarian state has complete control of its citizens and uses technology to do this effectively. The book marked me at a young age and it continues to be in the back of my mind. It was strange to see it cited on multiple occasions in the past week (you probably know why). But are the comparisons warranted? I believe so.
1984 is already here
When I look around at certain totalitarian countries, it’s frightening how much it resembles what was depicted in the book. China is a frightening example where there is only one belief system allowed, what the government dictates. Last week, a Chinese court on Monday sentenced a citizen journalist who documented the early days of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison. While some might complain about lockdown restrictions in this country, at least we have the ability to complain without fear of imprisonment.
What’s particularly striking about China is that they are able to control their massive population programmatically. Technology has been a dictatorship’s dream. If you have any doubt, listen to this NPR podcast that documents China’s social credit score system. This is essentially the real world equivalent of a famous Black Mirror episode. I bring up China as an example to steer away from and that a future like this is not impossible.
Sure, but we’re a democracy!
Over the past week, many people have cited the book as an example of recent events. Technology platforms took the initiative to remove the sitting president as well as a niche social media site home to conservatives and right-wing conspiracy theorists. While these actions might be justified (I believe they are), I would not be quick to praise them. The government did not have a hand in these actions and that’s the scary part. Unaccountable centers of power can decide on a whim what their rules are and restrict usage. As we move more of our lives into the digital realm, should private corporations decide the rules? Or should it be elected officials?
What happens in the dark
What worries me the most is not the big public stories of people being deplatformed. It’s about the undocumented cases that go unnoticed. As more of live’s become digitized, the exertion of control over our lives is completely possible – even if that control appears to be mundane.
Let’s take even small examples. You used to own the media you purchased in the form of CDs, etc. – now you pay for access which is centrally controlled. What happens when the platforms that control access have different viewpoints of what is considered moral.
Art by definition is supposed to push boundaries which also tend to change over time. Now these boundaries need to stay within well-defined swim lanes – nothing else is scalable. That is a hell of a way to control thought. Take for instance, an old episode of Seinfeld. It was banned from all streaming services because of a racially charged scene. Perhaps this removal was justified but will people feel afraid to push the boundaries? And thus by extension enforcing everyone to think in the same way?
There does not need to be a grand conspiracy for this to occur. No one from the government is forcing these technology platforms to control their policies. That is particularly true when most of the companies are foreign. It just does not make business sense for these companies to be ensnared in controversies daily. It’s much easier and profitable to create rules that can be applied evenly and everywhere.
The system is trending towards this centralization and we still don’t understand its potential consequences.
It’s also worrisome because the world we live in is not static. We live in a democracy now but that is not a fait accompli in the future. If a large group of people become radicalized and find a way to take power, they will have central access points to control information, media and much more. This may sound far fetched, but after this past week – anything is possible.
Open is better than closed
While there might not be any miracle solutions to an extremely complicated problem, there is one avenue that should be pursued – more transparency. The choices these platforms make, how their algorithms work should be made public knowledge. Another idea is documenting internal meetings with notes and how they came to certain conclusions. This is an additional burden to be sure yet certain measures need to be taken to avoid the government imposing regulation which may or may not be effective. We’ve started down a dark path, the only way to get out of the dark is to have more light.