A planet in peril and so many Big Brothers: George Orwell would have been shocked

So many of the worst things of our time would not have been particularly shocking in the time of George Orwell. After all, he and his contemporaries lived through the rise of the Third Reich, the swift corrosion of the Russian revolution into Stalinist authoritarianism, Franco’s brutalisation of Spain, Mussolini’s reign in Italy, and masses ready to cheer on all the villains, drink up the delusions and lies they spread, and even serve as their butchers. The kleptocratic Trump, the totalitarianism-aspiring Putin, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, Lukashenko in Belarus and the rest of the rogues’ gallery of demagogues and dictators are nothing new. The invasion of Ukraine echoes the Stalinist regime’s brutality there in the 1930s.

Ahead of an opening lecture at the Orwell festival of political writing, I have been thinking about what his mindset might have been, and it occurs to me that two things in our time would have shocked him. One of them is climate change. That human beings had wrecked bits and pieces of the natural world was perfectly evident in the coal-mining districts that Orwell had visited in 1936 for his research for his book about the working class and their conditions, The Road to Wigan Pier. That there was much that was filthy and poisonous about industrial capitalism and fossil fuel was clear from the smogs of Pittsburgh and London, where the air quality then was more or less comparable to the air quality of New Delhi and Shanghai now, and just as deadly.

But that human beings had the capacity to wreck the whole system was not something many had conceived. They imagined the natural world, or more often ignored it, as the stable background against which human dramas played out. What humans did was conceived of as impacting, largely, humans and maybe human infrastructure, not changing sea level and the weather and the propensity of forests in the western US to burst into firestorms akin to those of Dresden and Tokyo in the second world war.

The first atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese civilians in August 1945. They came with the terrifying news that humans had acquired the power to make small, short-lived suns on Earth, but only to wreak havoc. Orwell wrote about that in his 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, in which he coined the term “cold war”. He did foresee something like the climate crisis: “But meanwhile man’s power over Nature is steadily increasing. With the aid of the atomic bomb we could literally move mountains: we could even, so it is said, alter the climate of the Earth by melting the polar ice-caps and irrigating the Sahara.” He imagined an intentional and controlled transformation that he nevertheless deplored, rather than the runaway climate change that’s currently producing droughts, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, a rising sea level, famine and, of course, melting polar ice.

Computer technology, specifically the technology Silicon Valley has brought us, would amaze and horrify our forebears. Stalin’s secret police, the US’s FBI and East Germany’s Stasi never imagined the capacities to violate our privacy and document our every expenditure, action and affiliation that Silicon Valley has provided, along with stalkerware, facial recognition technology and other forms of surveillance. They have made China a place in which state control relentlessly reaches into the smallest corners of everyday life. There, this intrusion is not optional; in the west, people cheerfully buy expensive tracking devices that also serve as phones and hand their data to every website they visit. You can opt out, but people blithely, blindly opt in.

When it comes to capitalist tech profiting off ad revenue, or rather off selling access to us and our data to adversaries, I once thought that there was some kind of coherent divide between collecting information to sell commodities back to us and manipulating politics. It turns out that there’s not so very much difference between selling shoes and ideas, vacations and politicians, and the people who control access and information are often all too willing to facilitate the sale of anything if there’s a profit in it.

Years ago I looked up “smallpox blanket” while doing a bit of historical research, and the algorithms, perhaps a bit less sophisticated than they are now, hastened to offer me smallpox blankets for sale. They were not real commodities, but they were signs of the amorality of the internet. We see that in other ways as platforms insist they are not publishers, and therefore incitements to hate, misinformation and vicious personal attacks by those they platform are not their concern.

The ability to target market customers and citizens with gathered information is harmful in many ways. At its bluntest, it puts us in information bubbles, where what we tend to like and believe is fed back to us. At its worst are so many choices. Google found that extremist content on its subsidiary YouTube held people’s attention best, and researchers have concluded it pushed conspiracy theories and informational garbage. The ability of misinformation to be weaponised online has had consequences from Brexit to Q-Anon to the incendiary lies about the Rohingya in Myanmar that were spread by Facebook and paved the way for genocide. Last winter a $150bn lawsuit was filed in San Francisco against Facebook, arguing that Mark Zuckerberg’s corporation was “willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in south-east Asia”. That’s in the spirit of smallpox blankets and gulags.

In many ways the world is a better place. There are many kinds of human rights campaigns: for queer rights, women’s rights, the rights of disabled people, of people of colour. More egalitarianism in everyday relations has made a lot of our lives better, along with improvements in healthcare and widespread increases in the standards of living. Many wonderful possibilities have opened up.

But there’s all this other stuff, and so many of these troubles lead back to the tech oligarchs. Who could have foreseen the scale and reach and troubling potential of that? In many ways, we are not living in the world of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but we certainly have a gang of Big Brothers watching us now.

  • Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist

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