10 ways big government uses AI to create the totalitarian society of Orwell’s classic ‘1984’
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George Orwell envisioned the dangers of monolithic government armed with artificial intelligence in his famous novel of a future dystopia, “1984,” published in 1949.
The Party, led by Big Brother, uses omnipresent technology to monitor constantly and to propagandize to the docile citizens of Oceania.
The terrifying tandem of technology and the human intoxicant of power is used in Oceania to rewrite history, control society, crush the human spirit and keep the Party entrenched forever.
Protagonist Winston Smith works for the ironically named Ministry of Truth, a job he hates. He dreams of the freedom to think, act, write and love.
The totalitarian scenarios described in “1984,” and the technologies to enforce them, seemed like science fiction 75 years ago.
Yet they appear more possible today with the emergence of artificial intelligence and the stark warnings about its dangers from Elon Musk and others among the brightest people in technology.
Digital devices already constantly track our movements and behaviors.
Artificial intelligence, experts say, is on the verge of perhaps even predicting our thoughts and actions.
“Big Brother is watching you.” — George Orwell, “1984”
The warnings of “1984” are also more ominous after big tech proved its eagerness to partner with big government in recent years to influence elections and stifle dissent.
The book that issued warnings about these very scenarios may now also be a target of governments armed with technology to track dissent.
Orwell was recently added to a list compiled by government officials in the U.K. of authors whose works are allegedly shared by people sympathetic to “the far-right and Brexit,” according to The Spectator.
Here are 10 warnings from “1984” that seem more prescient — and more urgent — than ever.
“The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely,” Orwell wrote of the household electronic device in Oceania we now recognize as the television.
Few homes in the U.S. or U.K. owned televisions in the late 1940s — but Orwell already saw their potential for surveillance.
“You may not be aware of it, but your TV knows — and shares — a lot of information about you,” Consumer Reports noted in 2021. “We’ve found that you can’t stop all the data collection.”
2. History is canceled and rewritten to benefit the state
“Who controls the past controls the future,” wrote Orwell. “Who controls the present controls the past.”
Thomas Jefferson, and his words from the Declaration of Independence, such as “all men are created equal,” are recast or canceled in “1984.”
“Jefferson’s words would be changed into a panegyric on absolute government,” wrote Orwell, while only fragments of the Declaration of Independence exist as it is slowly erased.
The legal system is obsolete in Oceania, where society exists only to support the government.
Orwell discussed the phenomenon when Smith opens a diary to pour out his thoughts, then considers the dire consequences of his action.
“Nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws.” — Orwell
“This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws),” Orwell wrote.
“But if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by 25 years in a forced-labor camp.”
The residents of Oceania are fed a constant stream of digital hatred against a figure who dared to speak out against the Party.
“As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed onto the screen,” wrote Orwell of an office meeting.
“All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies.”
Goldstein’s crimes, Orwell wrote, were advocating freedom of speech, press, assembly and thought.
Words such as honor, justice, morality, democracy, science and religion “had simply ceased to exist’ in Oceania, Orwell wrote.
“A few blanket words covered them, and, in covering them, abolished them.”
It might already sound familiar today: Concepts such as morality and religion are belittled on social media, while new phrases quickly gain political power by their sudden and constant presence on the same platforms.
Words such as honor, justice, morality, democracy, science and religion “had simply ceased to exist.” — Orwell
Speaking new phrases becomes a virtue unto itself even if the words are undefined.
Any existing faith in God in Oceania is replaced a death cult that worships only the Party and specifically Big Brother.
Assemblies or even words of faith are easily tracked by technology.
“Everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure, the same worship of semi-divine leader,” wrote Orwell.
The prevailing philosophy, he added later, “is called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.”
“The Ministry of Truth … was startlingly different from any other object in sight,” Orwell wrote of London’s most glorious edifice in “1984,” after describing the squalor inhabited by ordinary people.
“It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace … Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size.”
They were, he noted, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love and the Ministry of Plenty — each name a misrepresentation of their actually mission.
8. Basic facts are rewritten as a tool of oppression
One of the tenets of the Party in “1984” is that 2 + 2 = 5.
The obvious error of math seems less shocking today, in a world in which people in position of power can no longer define the word “woman” or flout the long-known scientific reality of two genders.
Children learn to pledge allegiance to the Party over their parents in “1984,” armed with technology to peer into their lives.
“It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children,” wrote Orwell.
“And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which ‘The Times’ did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ’child hero’ was the phrase generally used — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.”
The most famous phrase from “1984” entered pop culture long before it became a reality.
Televisions, computers, smartphones, even automobiles today can already track our movements and even hear our voices.
Social media giants know all about our lives and behaviors — information the publicly has given willingly.
Constant surveillance will only grow stronger and more pervasive with the advances of artificial intelligence, most experts agree.
“Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by the telescreen,” wrote Orwell.
“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.”