The Digital Age

Orwell's Nightmare Vision
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.

George Orwell's disturbing vision of a future dystopia memorably chronicled in his novel "1984", a world in which "Big Brother" hovered over all watching every movement, controlling information and dictating truth, has never come to pass - at least not yet. In reality, the Nazis and Soviets who likely inspired Orwell's vision would have liked to control their subject peoples like Orwell envisioned, but they simply did not have the technology to make it happen.
But the digital revolution is upon us and today humanity has the technology to make Orwell's nightmare vision a reality. The Chinese are leading the way and with reason. The Chinese government is essentially a criminal enterprise in which a relatively small number of people control the levers of power which they use to enrich themselves. Ordinary citizens are routinely abused and have no recourse for lack of a viable legal system or independent press. The Chinese people are highly intelligent. They know what is going on. Social and political upheaval is always possible. Thus, Beijing is obsessed with controlling the masses any way it can.
It isn't enough to control the flow of information, block out foreign news and gag the Internet. Big Brother wants to keep tabs on everyone. A pilot program in Jiangsu province north of Shanghai has adopted a system in which people are rated according to their behavior, much like school students in our country. You get brownie points for doing something good, like winning a prize or writing an essay praising the government, and demerits for stuff like minor traffic offenses or "illegally petitioning higher authorities for help." People who behave according to the government's standards are eligible for various goodies such as job promotions or moving to the front of the line for housing or access to universities.
The objective is clear. By the year 2020, Chinese officials assert, the government will be able to "allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step." Those discredited would include criminals no doubt, but also people who dare to question government policies or point out corruption at high levels. Other sorts of untrustworthy behavior include anything that "seriously undermines the order of cyberspace transmissions."
The government evolving in China does bear increasing resemblance to Orwell's nightmare vision and with digital technology it just may have the power it needs to enforce such a system. We may say and believe that such an all-encompassing regimen is not possible here, but we have the same technology and we are using it in worrisome ways. There are video cameras posted almost everywhere. You get speeding tickets in the mail from remote cameras that caught you doing 23 MPH in a 15MPH zone. (There is no such thing as 15 MPH!) Of course, those cameras are there to deter criminal activity, but they can be used for anything depending on who is in charge. Even more troublesome is our government's monitoring of phone calls and e-mails. It isn't difficult to imagine what Orwell would have to say about it.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.