Neil: Groupthink

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For Banned Books Week, we’ve asked our writers to pick a frequently challenged book and tell us how that book has affected them. Today, Neil writes a post inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Big Brother has arrived, in a way. But we don’t fear him. Instead, we mock him, making him seem harmless.

Even though I understood the cautionary tale in Nineteen Eighty-Four when I first read it at age 12, the totalitarian culture conveyed seemed absurd. To physically observe even a fraction of any population would be a staggering feat of scale and logistics. I was naive: Twenty-first-century-style surveillance culture is new in scope, but not in type; mass surveillance of our citizens has happened before.

Surveillance of emails and phone calls (both of which leave a digital record) is more comprehensive than reading snailmail, as the US government and the military did in earlier eras. Being soft on terrorism is a terrible platform at election time. In times of war, Orwell’s vision of a human-powered distributed system of oversight over everyday life is possible and maybe even inevitable.

The technologies of totalitarian control are in place. Some of the legal framework is there, too, thanks to ongoing states of emergency in the US since 1933. But will these pieces be assembled, or used as the enabling technologies they were meant to be?

It’s a common joke online: “After that last comment, I’m probably on some watch list.” Big Brother has arrived and we truly love him, just as Winston Smith realized with a tear on his cheek on the last page of Orwell’s opus. It’s the love of a child towards an unstable, authoritarian parent.

We have relatively easy access to corporate-run systems of email, chat and social media: Gmail, Facebook, Twitter. A culture has developed over time, one where we trade links and discuss them as a matter of course. As we write this system of meta-commentary, we do a pretty good job of telling each other what to think. The US government may (or may not) have “backdoor” access into these systems.

Politics and personal privacy; Israel and the Middle East; how many spaces to type after a period; Obamacare. While discussing these issues in our online cliques, we tell each other what to think on all of these issues. Political debate and regurgitated philosophy inevitably takes on the tone of groupthink.

Internet access has been declared a human right by the UN, and electronic communication has created a digital elite: Those people on the internet and those not. Arguments along the lines of “if you don’t like Facebook, don’t use it” are simplistic. There are social benefits to being available on social media and reachable via email. Friends not part of the digital elite tend to be excluded from events. If you can text someone, it’s easy to chat about your everyday life in granular, obsessive detail. And one out of seven people use Facebook. That’s one out of seven people on the planet Earth. The company employs people to make predictions based on the data that people post, so they can target ads to them.

It was rumored among party members that Big Brother might not even exist. But in the real world, Big Brother is a group of corporations. And governments are trying to grab some of that control. Fortunately, some companies are at least trying to resist, avoiding the easier path of complying with governments.

There is a group gestalt. Being the lone holdout is scary, and runs against the human compulsion to conform. Once welcomed into the hivemind, fighting groupthink is a lot of work. Much like Winston was persuaded to betray his lover rather than confront his fears, Social websites can, and do, influence their users’ moods.

Facebook in particular has an enormous amount of power over the opinions and moods of one-seventh of the world. The hivemind molds its users, and Facebook molds the hivemind.

Newspeak was the language of Oceana, and its vocabulary was made smaller over time. The goal was to make subversive thoughts–or “thoughtcrime”–unthinkable, with no way of expressing subversive thoughts. It’s quite possible to live one’s life continually plugged into the net. Enabled by smartphones with multiple video cameras and microphones (some of impressively high quality), more and more users do exactly this.

The blogosphere was supposed to be a bastion of free discussion and thought, and for a time it was exactly this. In the 90’s, blog journalists were making news by scooping newspapers. But in addition to legitimacy, bloggers want exposure and fame. So they tend to talk in terms of posts and headlines. What could have been thoughtful and pointed essays usually become posts written with an audience in mind, much like network sitcoms designed for ad-mandated demographics. Is it any wonder that blog content is homogenized?

But there is hope.

Boundaries are still being stretched on the net: Wikileaks wants to hold governments accountable, the Occupy movement wants them to treat their citizens better.

Anyone with a little time and money can record music or write a novel or film a story. 3-D printers are making sculptures and adjustable wrenches and internal organs. The trend of “makers” creating music and movies threatens the livelihood of entrenched copyright holders. None of this would be possible without the digital revolution that both made Twitter and Facebook a threat to totalitarianism and allows the US governments’s PRISM surveillance program to be as pervasive as it is.

The term “web 2.0” was coined in the 90’s to describe interactive, user-generate content. The net is clearly due for its third act, and the story of maker culture and the empowered artist is far from over.

This is the third post for Banned Books Week on Magnificent Nose. Thanks to Julie Goldberg and Ceil Kessler for editorial help with this post.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints and draws when possible. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.

Photo by David Burillo, via Flickr.


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