The use, misuse and downright abuse of the word ‘Orwellian’ seem to be a prerequisite for much of modern discourse, political and otherwise. One wonders how the man himself would react, having fervently expressed his disgust at the linguistic imprecision prevalent in political commentary. He bemoaned the promiscuous application of the word ‘fascism’ to things as diverse as youth hostels, astrology, homosexuality and Gandhi, so one can only imagine his reaction the to the use of the word ‘Orwellian’ to describe Indian brain scans, employment equity, a recent Jimmy Page album, and a TV programme in which George Galloway wore a leotard and lapped milk from a saucer. Orwell lamented that “it is often easier to make up words…than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness…the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
Orwell was invoked recently in AC Grayling’s Guardian piece, which commented on the Brown government’s proposal to implement a system whereby every email, text message, phone call, VOIP call and web usage in the UK will be recorded, centrally stored, and made accessible to government entities, including those outside of law enforcement. The measure will require a billion incidents of data exchange to be recorded each day. Grayling described this astonishing proposal as an ‘Orwellian nightmare’, and went on to assert that “not even George Orwell in his most febrile moments could have envisaged a world in which every citizen could be so thoroughly monitored every moment of the day, spied upon, eavesdropped, watched, tracked, followed by CCTV cameras, recorded and scrutinised.”
The objection here is, unfortunately, that (for once) the commentator has undersold the extent to which Brown’s proposal accords with Orwell’s imagined dystopia. It is pertinent to place this proposal alongside other New Labour surveillance initiatives. Firstly, the police are planning to expand their automatic number plate recognition systems to enable them to read 50 million licence plates a day, reconstructing and recording the details of drivers’ journeys, which can then be held for five years. Secondly, the DNA of wrongly-arrested innocent citizens is now held on file indefinitely in a national database (as happened to Darren Nixon in February of this year – his black mp3 player was mistaken for a handgun, and for the rest of his life the national DNA database will testify that he was arrested on suspicion of a firearms offence). Thirdly, the Telegraph revealed this month that local councils are offering rewards of up to £500 to individuals, including children as young as eight years old, who snoop on their neighbours and report minor infractions, which can include crimes as petty as failure to recycle. The description of the role ranges from council to council, from ‘street scene champions’ and ‘street hawks’ to ‘covert human intelligence sources.’ Southwark Council employs 400 such volunteers.
Add to this mix the forthcoming nationwide introduction of compulsory ID cards containing biometric data, the proposed extension of pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects to 42 days, and, of course, that the fact that London’s citizens are caught on CCTV on average every six seconds (with facial recognition technology very firmly in the governmental pipeline). Suddenly the need to consider Grayling’s claim more seriously becomes apparent. Has the UK finally reached a point where comparisons with 1984 are genuinely appropriate?
Brown’s vision of the UK comprises a nation-state where every type of electronic communication (and car journey) of every person, all the time, everywhere, is recorded, with this information being made available to a list of entities that is distinctly shadowy in its precision. In 1984, the Thought Police achieved this level of surveillance by way of the ubiquitous two-way Telescreen, through which party messages were beamed and citizens observed. Siemens’ telecommunications monitoring technology – already sold to 60 countries – hadn’t been conceived in 1948 when Orwell wrote his book, but when combined with an estimated 4 million CCTV cameras, it is arguably more effective than the fictional Telescreen at capturing the day-to-day interactions of the populace. Telescreens could in some quarters be switched off, and paid only cursory attention to the ‘proles.’ Brown’s proposal is all-encompassing. Furthermore, the ‘covert human intelligence sources’ employed by local councils bear more than a passing resemblance to the youth leagues of spies in Orwell’s book, taught from an early age the value of betraying fellow citizens for the all-seeing state.
Finally, consider the plight of an individual detained under the anti-terrorist powers, like Rizwaan Sabir: a postgraduate in International Relations at the University of Nottingham studying terrorism, detained without charge for six days, for possessing an Al-Qaeda document available in paperback at both Amazon.com and the US Justice Department website. The Thought Police in Orwell’s novel would pluck potential dissidents – those yet to actually offend, as in Sabir’s case – from their daily lives, based on covert surveillance, depositing them in the Ministry of Love for re-education through torture. Thankfully, we are not at the stage of re-education through torture – yet – but the mere possibility of a reasonable comparison with the Thought Police is cause for grave concern.
So was AC Grayling right to claim that “not even George Orwell in his most febrile moments could have envisaged a world in which every citizen could be so thoroughly monitored every moment of the day, spied upon, eavesdropped, watched, tracked, followed by CCTV cameras, recorded and scrutinised”? Well, no. However his error was not the usual hyperbolic cooption of Orwell’s legacy, but a mere error of fact. Orwell did conceive of such a world. However, he did so in the context of a cautionary tale about the imagined excesses of a fictional totalitarian state – not a description of proposals to be included in the next Queen’s speech. In 1984, “there was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.” Did Orwell’s title miss the boat by 24 years?
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This post was written by Tom Bangay