Best Argument: No
Audience Favored: Yes (72%)
Every year more and more
One truly interesting take-away after reading Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Orwell never specifically identifies Big Brother. We don't know if Big Brother is a person, a group, or even just a shared belief system. That's part of what made the story such an important cautionary tale.
Many in our audience do have a shared view of what Big Brother looks like, and that's the image forever seared in our minds from the 1984 introduction of the Macintosh. We saw soldiers walking in lock-step, a population of near zombies in gray, and, of course Anya Major flinging the hammer.
In this debate, we've focused our attention on just one small aspect of the Orwellian future we worry about: surveillance. But Orwell's dystopian vision was about so much more: group think, thought police, unknowing blind worship, and more.
Agencies like the NSA are not trying to become Big Brother. They are merely carrying out their mission of protecting Americans. But that doesn't mean we don't have to be constantly aware of the forces of Big Brother. We can see signs in Big Brother in some of our organized religions, in our largest corporations, in industry and interest groups trying to control the national agenda through influence.
Every year can be more and more like Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's our job to throw the hammer of truth and let the light in.
Our democracies are not at risk
When we examine Orwell's seminal work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, we have to place it in the context of the times. It was written in 1948, when the Stalinist Soviet Union's expansionist iron grip on the Eastern European territories in the post-WWII era was well underway, and the country successfully tested and began building its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
In 1948, when Orwell was finalizing his manuscript, the frightening prospect of a repressive Maoist government emerging in China was a major influence on his views about totalitarianism. His nightware was transformed into reality by the time his novel was published in 1949.
The Stasi, the East German Ministry of State Security and the organization that is most often compared to realizing a truly effective Orwellian state, was not formed until 1950. But it learned its techniques of creating a huge network of informants and repressing its citizens through a culture of state-sponsored surveillance from the Soviet Union's own KGB.
The litmus test of whether or not we live under an Orwellian, Big Brother government is very simple -- the repression of independent thought and freedoms of expression by imprisoning or "disappearing" those citizens and the families of those who would oppose them. Under our American Democracy, this is just plainly not the case, and even my opponent will be first to admit this.
It is also impossible in our democracy -- given the existence of Googles, Bings, Facebooks, Twitters and Yahoos of the world -- to create "Memory Holes" that the Soviet Union, North Korea and other repressive regimes have been known to implement in order to re-write history to their own advantage. If information is to disappear on these vast repositories, it will be as a result of content rot, not through willful state intervention.
The bottom line: Our democracies are not at risk of becoming Orwellian, but we should always view the extreme ends of dystopia for what they are, and as models that we should never emulate.
We have the technology, but no Big Brother to run it
The Snowden revelations have detailed just how pervasively we are surveilled by government agencies – our own and those abroad. Pretty much any electronic communication is likely to be vacuumed up by one spy agency or another, while physical surveillance in the form of ever more CCTV cameras makes even walking down the street an event to be catalogued by the authorities.
If that wasn't enough, we cheerfully hand over our personal information in exchange for access to social networks, which then repackage our information for advertisers.
So does all of this mean that Big Brother is alive and well and will be running our lives in 2014?
The technology is in place for sure, and evolving to allow even more fine-grained analysis every year.
But probably the most striking point is that in 1984 nobody seems to be having a lot of fun; not the proles, not even the party chiefs; it's a society marked by shortages and discomfort as well as permanent surveillance. In the novel this lack of fun is part of the system – a result of the constant warfare between the different blocs.
In contrast, right now we have a surveillance state that pretty much everyone is comfortable with, and one that doesn't impact on our day-to-day lives; most are willing to trade a small daily and barely noticeable amount of privacy in exchange for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to be able to operate.
To me it's a question of intent; we have the technology but no Big Brother to run it, at least not yet. So against the popular vote, I'm giving this one to Jason.