יום שלישי, 23 במאי 2017

What Orwell Saw—and What He Missed—About Today’s World

By Thomas E. Ricks

He got it right about big government. But he didn’t see Silicon Valley coming.

While spending the last three years immersed in the works of George Orwell for a book I was researching and writing, I often was struck by how often his writing speaks to the problems of today. That’s especially impressive, given that he died in 1950.
The dystopian future Orwell portrays in 1984 helps illuminate our post-9/11 world. In the novel, the government of “Big Brother” carries on a perpetual war that, as in American life today, “involves very small numbers of people, mostly highly trained specialists, and causes comparatively few casualties. The fighting, when there is any, takes place on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at.” And just as young Americans today have lived with that anti-terror campaign all their lives, so too 1984’s hero, “Winston,” “could not definitely remember a time when his country had not been at war.” Orwell would not be surprised that the U.S. government, prosecuting such a war, officially endorsed the use of torture, for the first time in its history.

Nor would Orwell have been surprised by President Trump’s limited vocabulary of words like “sad,” “bad” and “amazing.” In 1984, the government purposely dumbed down language, with “excellent” and “splendid” replaced by “plusgood” and “doubleplusgood.”

Yet Orwell was hardly all-seeing. He never visited the United States, and so perhaps as a result did not grasp the resiliency of capitalism. He wrote in 1943 that “an economy ruled by the profit motive is simply not equal to re-arming on a modern scale.” That assertion might have been true of the Britain of the 1930s, which had a declining economy that had failed to adequately fund innovation. But over the last eight decades, the United States has proved his assertion to be incorrect three times—first during World War II, then again during the Eisenhower-era Cold War buildup, and finally in the post-Vietnam rebuilding of the American military, when Reaganite defense spending combined with computers to create a powerful new U.S. military machine built around precision-guided weapons and the swift transmission of data.

As a consequence, Orwell also underestimated how intrusive Western states and companies could become. This was in part because his views on the limitations of capitalism were formed by what he observed in mid-20th century Britain—that is, a nation caught in stagnating, late Industrial Age capitalism. The highest goal of that aging structure was efficiency, which meant that companies sought profits by having managers squeeze a little more money out of existing systems and workers. Hence he thought that industry could only succeed through ever-greater repression of labor. “Unless there is some unpredictable change in human nature,” he concluded, “liberty and efficiency must pull in opposite directions.”

Orwell could not see that with the dawn of the Information Age several decades later, efficiency would become far less economically significant than innovation and adaptiveness. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and myriad other late-twentieth-century companies did not offer faster typewriters. They created entirely new products, such as handheld computers and applications for them. They were hardly efficient in doing so, because innovation is necessarily a wasteful process, producing many more failures than successes. For example, the extraordinary ups and downs in the career of Apple’s Steve Jobs of Apple were beyond anything Orwell witnessed in his own country. Nor were these new companies built on repressing their employees: They could compete only by lavishing money, stock options and other benefits on workers capable of imagining and developing attractive new products.

But Orwell likely would have been fascinated about the next step these innovative new corporations took. Nowadays they produce goods that intrude far deeper into private life than ever was done by the titans of 20th century industry. It is not uncommon today to, say, search online for an airfare one day, and the next day to see an advertisement in your Facebook timeline for a bargain on a hotel at the contemplated destination. I’ve had similar advertisements pop up on my computer after searching for an obscure book. The chilling fact is that anyone using the internet is being monitored endlessly by companies eager to sell them more goods. Just as Orwell’s Big Brother conducted personal observation of citizens, so do too these companies—and far more efficiently than did Orwell’s clumsy monster.

Today, data is not only powerful, it also has become hugely profitable. There is a saying in Silicon Valley that there is no such thing as a free app—that is, if you use an app that comes without a cost, then you are the product. Today’s tech companies treat people as resources to be mined and exploited, not unlike, say, coal in the nineteenth century.

Here, Orwell again likely would have some insights to offer. Just as he knew how to write about coal miners, so too would he grapple with the moral and political significance of the corporate mining of the seams of our own lives. He would be especially intrigued by how privacy is becoming a luxury good in the 21st century—something you have to pay for, sometimes quite expensively, as when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg bought the houses adjoining his.

His greatest contribution may be the least appreciated: He gave us the mental vocabulary that helps us understand all that. I could not have written the previous paragraph without having read Orwell. In his novels and essays, he instructs us even now in how in how to be alert to the numbing rhetoric of government pronouncements, of pervasive official and corporate surveillance, and most of all, of intrusions by both public and commercial powers into the realm of the private individual.

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