Big Brother: No Longer A Fictional Concept
Chances are, throughout the English classes you were forced to take in high school, you were assigned to read some sort of dystopian novel. This could have been Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or even George Orwell’s highly-referenced 1984. Why are students assigned such texts in a classroom setting? Perhaps it is because they are highly-acclaimed texts, but I think it goes way beyond that. I think these books give us insight into a world defined by mass technology, a world in which citizens are constantly monitored by an overarching authority, and the perils that come along with such a world. More than this, though, these books warn us about a world we are slowly creeping into…
Let’s take Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison into consideration. Foucault discusses historical instances of open forms of punishment (i.e. public executions, torture, et cetera) and how these displays of discipline were used in order to show the power of an individual/group at the top of the social hierarchy. He uses this as an introduction to discuss the concept of prison and how such a structure was greatly influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (a building in which individuals felt they were being watched and, therefore, acted in accordance to being supervised by power when, in reality, they were rarely supervised. The mere thought of them being watched was enough to correct inmate behavior). While Foulcault’s work primarily discusses the ineffectiveness of such a solitary structure, he makes implications that point toward the dangers of mass surveillance (how it causes individuals to change their behavior, therefore, taking away individuality), thus providing a link between his work and all of the high school English novels to which we have been exposed.
How is any of this relevant? Millennials were born into a world of technology. This age group isn’t the only one affected though; no one is free from some sort of technological influence in this day and age (barring the Amish). It’s everywhere, monitoring us, tracking our every move. Social media does not make this better, when we are willingly giving out our information and letting the world know about our every thought, our relationships, and even our physical location. What websites we visit are being tracked, the annoying little advertisements we see on the side of social media sites are being tailored to our interests based on our computer history. It’s pretty scary when you think about it. While some will argue that such surveillance is necessary for safety (especially in a post-9/11 era), I contend, just like the dystopian novelists, there is a fine line between safety and intrusion of privacy.
Perhaps you have heard of Edward Snowden, a CIA employee turned whistleblower. In 2013, Snowden leaked confidential information regarding the NSA spying on American citizens and was declared, by the US government, to have violated the Espionage Act (an act that aims to protect the government from internal leaks). While Snowden is seen as a traitor to the United States government, he can be considered a national hero to the general population for showing the corruption of our overlying authority. It is through Snowden’s exposure of misconduct that a greater distrust in government emerged for American citizens overall. He showed us that we may not have as much privacy as we had been raised to believe and this was, and still is, shocking to many. This government surveillance, brought to light by Snowden, takes on a very Orwellian feel and prompts us to question which direction our society is going in. If we’re already being monitored via our technological gadgets for “safety” purposes, what is to say that our country won’t adopt a Big Brother approach and mandate us to put cameras in our own homes, arguing it’s for the “safety” of citizens? Or perhaps we are already on our way to doing this when we are the ones bringing the cameras into our own homes (via smartphones, webcams, et cetera), making it easier for the government to watch us, making their job(s) easier.
I become especially fearful of this type of society, especially under our new administration which has already attempted to strip so many individuals of their liberties. Why not throw privacy in there too? I’m sure the new administration could conjure up some halfwitted excuse as to why the government needs to supervise every American’s move. They would probably target a minority group, paint them out to be a “common enemy,” and declare that the specified minority group is the reason why American citizens need to protected (in other words that they won’t say: Have their privacy invaded by the US government). I can just see it now…
What can we do? It is not practical to propose a ban to all technology (unless you’re willing to uproot your life of internet access and move to an Amish civilization). Social media shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. I sit here writing this article on a website on my laptop, I am not professing to be above technology in the slightest. I am, however, saying that we should at least slow down every once in a while to recognize the way in which our society is changing. Years ago, our grandparents would have never imagined having a small telephonic device glued to our hands 24/7, they would have been dumbfounded at the idea of a Skype call. This is not to say that technology has not helped us either — I’m sure it has made long-distance relationships thrive and has allowed others to feel connected in a way they could not achieve on a face-to-face basis. I am, however, saying that such a world of technology can be dangerous, especially when linked to surveillance. It groups us together like animals, relinquishing us of our freedoms. Like Foucault, Orwell, and everyone in between that has warned us about a seemingly totalitarian regime through mass surveillance, we must be cautious. We must be aware. We must remember that we are individuals above all else.