Will 2014 be Nineteen Eighty Four?

Moderated by Steve Ranger | December 16, 2013 -- 07:00 GMT (23:00 PST)

Summary: In light of the NSA Snowden revelations, we asked our debaters: Is Orwell's vision coming into focus at last?

David Gewirtz

David Gewirtz




Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Best Argument: No


Audience Favored: Yes (72%)

Closing Statements

Every year more and more

David Gewirtz

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

Jason Perlow

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

Steve Ranger

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.


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  • You meant to say,

    Will 2014 see the continuation of these Orwellian time in which we live.
    Reply 104 Votes I'm for Yes
  • Careful

    $80 hr? Wow, you need to be careful about where you post this sort of information unless you're keeping really careful tax return information. I'm guessing that you're a faceless spambot, which is a real shame since you're probably wasting your $80hr on cheap robot hookers and black market CPU's. Thanks for being part of the Internet and doing your bit to add further chaff to the NSA databases.
    Reply 87 Votes I'm Undecided
    • Great

      The spam I replied to has been removed. Now I look stupid (more so)
      Reply 99 Votes I'm Undecided
      • Lol

        But all the same, you got a lot of up-votes!
        Reply 7 Votes I'm Undecided
  • I'd say it's well within the realm of possibility.

    I'd say it's well within the realm of possibility. The NSA certainly has the capability of digging up dirt on anybody. It'll take only one crooked person to leverage that to turn things completely upside down.

    I can't say for sure that 2014 will be 1984 (no one really can, predicting the future isn't as certain as some seem to think), but I can say that we're likely to be one corrupt person away from a dictatorship.
    Reply 89 Votes I'm Undecided
    • A thought on something Jason said . . .

      "The bottom line is that we are all part of one huge Big Data application"

      To be honest - that's not really a future I want. I've always taken the stance that we should be in control of our technology, rather than our technology controlling us.

      I'm all for technology. Always have been, probably always will be.

      But technology isn't a linear path with only one choice. The way we use technology is important, and affects how it evolves. There are many possible ways the future could end up, and I'd like to make sure that the future we have is one where we are in control.
      Reply 74 Votes I'm Undecided
    • I'm going with tor

      I'm getting ready to use Tails on a USB Stick from the Tor Progect and the Tor Browser Bundle on my Windows Machine. I also will be setting up a Tor Relay on one of my spare PC's to help with the bandwidth for Tor users.
      Screw the NSA!!!!!!!!
      Denny Fry
      Reply 116 Votes I'm Undecided
      • Wanna screw the NSA?

        Stay off the damn internet! There is life outside of it, you know that right?
        Reply 84 Votes I'm Undecided
    • Or a few million misinformed voters away from a theocracy/plutocracy

      It is not the information flowing FROM us that is the biggest concern (although that is certainly one of the big ones), it is the information NOT flowing TO us without distortion by money-driven media. That is where the future dictators have their key to power. The power of "big business" combined with "big religion" (and in the US, the combined power of the big fundamentalist protestant churches is a bigger threat than the power of the foreign based Catholic church) to persuade the very citizens who NEED protection from big business and big religion that they should worry more about "big government" and "big labor" (which has been cut down almost to the power of a small town PTA, in reality), will eventually result in a permanent feudal underclass of 99 percent and a permanent "nobility" (even though Americans never use that WORD; but remember, the word "king" (REX) was an obscenity to the Romans, so when they GOT a line of kings, they called themselves "commander in chief of the army" (IMPERATOR, or Emperor) instead of kings).

      This has been addressed in a number of books, such as "The Problem with Kansas." And the states with the most people in NEED of Medicaid expansion to save their lives, in NEED of unemployment insurance because there are no more jobs, in NEED of temporary help to keep their children from starving, in NEED of good public schools that will educate their children, etc. have the most people WITH THOSE NEEDS voting for politicians that promise to STOP THE ASSISTANCE those voters need, convincing them that if "someone else" were not sharing the help with them, they would not need any help. The chickens are indeed voting for the fox to run the henhouse, because they believe whatever the FOX tells them.
      Reply 78 Votes I'm Undecided
      • Curiously enough...

        ...I here much the same story from Conservatives, to include some who post to ZDNet. What is usually not acknowledged, though, is that Democratic politicians long ago wrote off rural America and religious conservatives (who are often liberal on economic issues) because putting economic and environmental issues before social and cultural ones would alienate too much of the base.

        Back in the 1980s, there were a fairly large number of morally/culturally conservative, economically liberal Democrats in public office. Now there are almost none. It's part of why I stayed away from the Democratic Party for 22 years.
        John L. Ries
        Reply 34 Votes I'm Undecided