It has been many years since I read George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984. My curiosity about perusing the book anew is offset by my uneasiness about its prescience. I fear that the world occupied by Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, will eerily resemble America in 2010. Not entirely, but increasingly so. Big Brother is out there, observing, gathering data, infiltrating our lives in ways both overt and covert. The technology that we so eagerly embrace today, often with nary a second thought, may later bite us in the hindquarters. Sure, there are great benefits to cell phones, computers, wifi, the Internet, GPS, and the like. The whole world is immediately accessible. No longer do we have to await a call at home, seek information at the library, fumble with a map for directions, hunt for merchandise at local stores, wonder where our friends and family members are at any given moment. We have been freed from such burdens! But at what cost?
I worry that today’s liberators may become tomorrow’s oppressors. I worry that the technology we possess today may come to possess us tomorrow. I worry that the interests of big government and big corporations (often one and the same) will subvert and subsume our interests. I worry that we are not spiders on the worldwide web but prey. I worry that, as a people, we are growing ever more blithe about privacy and civil liberties—and ever less vigilant and perceptive. I worry about the future.
Do I appear paranoid? A little paranoia in this day and age may be healthy (assuming it’s reality-based). Was Julie Matlin paranoid when, after visiting a retail website and admiring a pair of shoes, she found that advertisements for “the shoes started to follow her everywhere she went online”? Was Louise paranoid when she encountered a stranger at a bar who “knew a lot about her personal interests” and then “pulled out his phone and showed her a photo…of [her] that he found online”? Was Juan Pineda-Moreno paranoid when, after being arrested on marijuana charges, he discovered that DEA agents “snuck onto his property in the middle of the night and…attached a GPS tracking device to [his] vehicle’s underside” and the “U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit…decided the government can monitor you in this way virtually anytime it wants — with no need for a search warrant”? Was Blake Robbins, a Philadelphia-area high school student, paranoid when he discovered that school personnel “activated the remote tracking system” on his laptop computer and “photographed him 400 times in a 15-day period last fall, sometimes as he slept in his bedroom or was half-dressed”?
Another twentieth century author, Joseph Heller, once wrote, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Do you know who’s watching you?