Twenty-two years after the big year came and went, folks are still remarking how spot-on George Orwell was in 1984: you know, the all-seeing cameras, the data bases, the bad architecture… But there’s one big thing Orwell got wrong: in 1984 the government was able to rewrite history to suit its purposes, dictate the reportage of current events, even insist that 2+2=5. In short, the government had nearly total control of the truth. That was the essence of totalitarianism–by exercising total control over information, the government was able to exert total control over the population. What we wound up with, thankfully, is 180 degrees from Orwell’s vision.
No doubt, governments around the world still make desperate and clueless efforts to control the truth. Sometimes they even succeed, at least in the short-run. But since Orwelll wrote his book, it’s become almost impossible to exert Hilter- or Stalin-style control over a large population. What Orwell didn’t forsee is that the communication network he described in 1984 would work both ways: not only would it give Big Brother a window into our private lives, it would also give private citizens a chance to report on and share information on Big Brother’s doings. Exhibit A: the Bush Adminstration. For every clumsy effort it made to spin everything from the war in Iraq to, well, its Big Brother efforts to tap our phone conversations, there were a jillion citizen reporters waving their digital hands and saying, ‘Nuh-uh, that’s not what happened!’
Looking back, it almost seems like the totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union were the fruit of a never-to-be-repeated phase in the evolution of communications technology. For a brief, horrific period, governments had total control over powerful tools—television and radio—that they could use to communicate with their citizens. The internet, by design, makes such centralized control impossible.
But does that make us safe from groups of super evil mean crazy people? It’s been widely observed that new technologies—from gunpowder to nuclear fusion—have historically been harnessed to serve malevolent ends. Why should communications technology be any different? While mass communication technology helped enable the rise of totalitarian regimes that laid down the law, the internet is pretty good at empowering destructive entitities that work outside the law—terrorists, for one. Just as the new technology has given us a billion little blogs and news sites and tv channels and video streams, it’s also giving us thousands of new, super organized hate-based groups to worry about.