"We have met the enemy and he is us." - Walt Kelly, Pogo
The very words "Big Brother" inspire fear and loathing. The mere mention of George Orwell's book 1984 evokes a future of government control through omnipresent surveillance and mental enslavement through disinformation and revisionism. It has become an ingrained part of our collective social consciousness to such a degree that even the author's name has become synonymous with totalitarian dystopia and loss of privacy. We fear the emergence of an Orwellian super-government capable of tracking our every move and controlling our thoughts and opinions.
Every day, there are new omens that "Big Brother" is ever nearer. Civil liberty groups and conspiracy theorists alike sound the alarm with each new surveillance technology, browser feature, cell phone application, or online convenience. Those who fear the future are often seen as luddites or delusional Chicken Littles shouting, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" Their warnings are often met with wry amusement by the average person or raw panic by survivalists and Coast to Coast AM listeners.
Such fears seem ridiculous. Orwell's 1984 portrayed a government of pervasive, perpetual surveillance in complete control of all media and information. If Oceana were at war with Eurasia, but the next day retroactively announced that the two had always been allies, a citizen had to accept the new reality as true. To do otherwise is a Thought Crime against the government. Such is the power of absolute control of all news and information. But how could anyone honestly believe such a fantasy possible today? We have hundreds of cable television channels and news outlets to choose from. It would be impossible to control all information, wouldn't it?
According to Dr. Michio Kaku, the internet has destroyed the possibility of Orwell's cautionary tale from ever becoming a reality. If anything, we now live in a culture closer to Huxley's futurism of plentiful technology, cloning, and social hedonism. We live in a time of endless possibilities. Oh Brave New World Wide Web, that has such people on it.
But can Orwell be so easily dismissed? Does it make a difference if the average person has no access to reliable news or is inundated with so much unreliable news that it all becomes useless white noise? Does it make a difference if the population is kept docile by government drugs in the food or distracted by an opiate of MTV, Reality TV, and SUVs? Advertising, entertainment, and politics have formed a unique fusion of ratings-driven propaganda that has all but replaced news impartiality. We live in an age of misinformation and "newsertainment."
The good news is that you can stop worrying about 1984. It's not about to happen or going to happen. That's because it's already here, mixed with equal parts Brave New World and Monty Python.
The bad news is that we are Big Brother. Big Brother isn't Big Government or an illuminati conspiracy secretly controlling mankind. To paraphrase Voltaire, Big Brother did not exist so it became necessary to invent him. We did it. We the people, for the people, and of the people, have brought 1984 to life.
Today, more information is collected about you than ever before. Tomorrow, there'll be even more. Consider the information available through your credit and ATM cards alone. Where do you shop? What did you buy? Did you use a card to fill up your gas tank? Where and how much? What other purchases have you made? Movie tickets? Online shopping? Dinner out? Where did you buy your groceries, when, and which items? All of these things are available for "trending" your habits by banks, advertisers, and more. Big Brother was a mere amateur compared to today's National Security Agency and Homeland Security.
As to pervasive public surveillance, today there are cameras everywhere. There are automated traffic-ticket cameras, police cameras on street corners, even cameras in most stores, gas stations, and ATM machines. Apparently, impatient for an Oceanic camera in our living room televisions, we put them in laptops to follow us everywhere in or out of the home. But that wasn't enough. Now, people of all ages eagerly line up to buy the latest in personal surveillance, cell phones, and video cameras. The amount of personal videos shared via the internet and YouTube are truly staggering.
However, we must remember to keep these cameras trained only upon ourselves. In many states, it's illegal to video record a public police officer in any way, shape, or form. You can be arrested (and sometimes beaten) for standing in your own driveway and videotaping police across the street. There are even instances of police using Facebook to gather information on individuals with outstanding tickets. More recently, it has been revealed that police may access a person's cell phone at a routine traffic stop to review past calls and locations.
The amount of information people make free to the public is breathtakingly intimate and comprehensive. Social network sites like Facebook become open diaries for the world to read. The profile pages are preferred reading by advertisers and government agencies alike.
What about your online presence? What crumbs do your cookies leave? What IP do you access from? What sites do you visit and for how long? Who else might be looking inside your laptop? We trust search engines and browsers that collect our habits like flies trapped in a web. We create electronic trails and update our locations for anyone to see.
Let's face it. Privacy is dead. We rushed like mad lemmings over the cutting edge of a technological cliff to kill it. We've given away freely what no government in the history of mankind has dared hope to take so completely.
But we have a free press and the internet for our news. So long as we have that, then 1984 can't happen, right? Unfortunately, a government doesn't need to control all the news. It only needs to obfuscate the real news in a swamp of disinformation. Truth becomes meaningless when it's indistinguishable from advertising and entertainment.
"But wait!" some might say. "We have free speech! So long as we have that, there will be no Thought Crime in our lifetime."
We live in a culture that has re-edited Mark Twain for political correctness. Revisionism in school text books has become commonplace. People are fined or prosecuted daily, not only for physical crimes and actions, but for words and thoughts that are considered hate speech or undesirable. To acknowledge these as Thought Crimes has itself become a Thought Crime.
Big Brother has arrived - not with a bang, but with our own whimpers for more. We've bribed our browsers with cookies to lure Big Brother into our daily lives. We've paid advertisers for the privilege of being manipulated into complacency. And we've loved every minute of it.
Truthfully, there's no one to blame but ourselves. There are no dictators or conspiracies behind our beloved Big Brother, only our need to give up control and be entertained. Big Brother is here, all served up and ready on a golden platter. All we need now is a leader to accept what we're so eager to give.
Sonja Thompson started at TechRepublic in October 1999. She is a former Senior Editor at TechRepublic.