America’s political flirtation with a temperamental, impulsive, emotionally undeveloped political leader has blossomed into a full-blown crisis of faith in our systems of government and democracy itself, and comparisons between America in 2017 and George Orwell’s “1984” are frequent and often salient. Accordingly, Orwell’s dystopic novel about an authoritarian society supported by technology and the absence of privacy has recently assumed a top spot on the list of best-selling books.
Orwell presciently described the invasion of technology into ordinary life; he envisioned two-way video monitors, hidden microphones for spying, and large-screen projection; the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, has a day job at the Ministry of Information, where he operates a device used to alter the content of photographs to better match them to current political “reality,” essentially a computerized “photoshop” program.
The intent of the technology in “1984” is to manipulate the population through propaganda, coerce conformance with political doctrine though suspicion and spying, and enforce the ruling party’s doctrines through force, including torture. As it was, it remains a chilling picture, but pales in comparison to what’s happening in our very own 21st century.
Despite his vision, Orwell did not foresee digital technology nor its deep impact on society. Though the invasive technology of “1984” correctly predicted a loss of privacy, as depicted it was mostly “course-grained,” which is to say primitive compared to today’s “fine-grained” technology.
Though Smith could be observed and his behavior “corrected” in his home at any time via a “view-screen” that observation was conducted by an actual person, not a computer program. As such, this model was first conceived by England’s Jeremy Bentham, who designed a prison he called a “Panopticon” in which all prisoners knew they could be observed by a guard station at any time. The mere knowledge that such observation was possible theoretically inhibited bad behavior.
Today’s fine-grained methods are individualized and administered by algorithmic digital computer programming; the administrative human element has largely been removed, and as artificial intelligence advances, the administrative human element will disappear entirely.
During the election of 2016, advanced programming, data-mining and fine-grained manipulative propaganda were all employed in an unprecedented fashion. It has come to light that user habits and data accumulated on America’s 200-million Facebook users was analyzed by a firm hired by the Trump campaign, profiles of each user created, and that profile was then used display Facebook posts customized to each individual user’s inclinations and preferences. For example, if a user displayed interest – meaning “clicked” on posts – about the dishonesty of Hillary Clinton, for example – then additional posts were placed on that user’s timeline to reinforce opinion about Clinton’s dishonesty.
The firm in question, Cambridge Analytica, first successfully employed its methods in Great Britain during the Brexit campaign; as we know, that outcome defied all poll projections. The company then worked for the Trump campaign, which produced the same result. This fine-grained approach may explain why traditional polling was inaccurate and why the outcome of the American election defied predictions. One last fact; Steve Bannon, of Breitbart, Trump’s campaign manager, and now special White House Counselor recently named to sit on the National Security Council, is on the Board of Directors of Cambridge Analytica.
Big Brother, indeed.