DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy

By David Brin, Ph.D.


George Orwell [image from Britannica.com]

What will the future be like?

The question is much on peoples’ minds, and not only because we’ve entered a new century. One of our most deeply human qualities keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow’s dangers. We all try to project our thoughts into the future, using special portions of our brains called the prefrontal lobes to mentally probe the murky realm ahead. These tiny neural organs let us envision, fantasize, and explore possible consequences of our actions, noticing some errors and evading some mistakes.

Humans have possessed these mysterious nubs of gray matter — sometimes called the “lamps on our brows” — since before the Neolithic Era. What has changed recently is our effectiveness at using them. Today, a substantial fraction of the modern economy is devoted to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come. Which variety of seer we listen to can often be a matter of style. Some prefer horoscopes, while others like to hear consultants in Armani suits present a convincing “business case.”

Each of us hopes to prepare for what’s coming and possibly improve our fate in the years ahead. Indeed, this trait may be one of the most profound distinctions between humanity and other denizens of the planet, helping to explain our mastery over the world.

Yet, it is important to remember that a great many more things might happen than actually do. There are more plausibilities than likelihoods.

One of the most powerful novels of all time, published fifty years ago, foresaw a dark future that never came to pass. That we escaped the destiny portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, may be owed in part to the way his chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight “Big Brother” to their last breath.

In other words, Orwell may have helped make his own scenario not come true.

Since then, many other “self-preventing prophecies” rocked the public’s conscience or awareness, perhaps helping us deflect disaster. Rachel Carson foresaw a barren world if we ignored environmental abuse — a mistake we may have somewhat averted, partly thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and the movie Soylent Green. Who can doubt that films such as Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe helped caution us against dangers of inadvertent nuclear war? The China Syndrome, The Hot Zone — and even Das Kapital — arguably fit in this genre of works whose credibility and worrisome vividness may help prevent their own scenarios from coming true.

Whether these literary or cinematic works actually made a difference or not can never be proved. That each of them substantially motivated large numbers of people to pay increased attention to specific possible failure modes cannot be denied.

As for Big Brother — Orwell showed us the pit awaiting any civilization that combines panic with technology and the dark, cynical tradition of tyranny. In so doing, he armed us against that horrible fate. In contrast to the sheep-like compliance displayed by subject peoples in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems that a ‘rebel’ image has taken charge of our shared imaginations. Every conceivable power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, has been repeatedly targeted by Hollywood’s most relentless theme... suspicion of authority.

Can you cite even a single popular film of the last forty years, in which the protagonist does not bond with the audience by performing some act of defiance toward authority in the first ten minutes?

These examples point to something bigger and more important than mere fiction. Our civilization’s success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as the successes that we plan. Sadly, no one compiles lists of these narrow escapes, which seem less interesting than each week’s fashionable crisis. People can point to a few species saved from extinction... and our good fortune at avoiding nuclear war. That’s about it for famous near-misses. But once you start listing them, it turns out we have had quite an impressive roll call of dodged bullets and lucky breaks.

Learning why and how ought to be a high priority.

History is a long and dreary litany of ruinous decisions made by rulers in all centuries and on all continents. No convoluted social theory is needed to explain this. A common thread weaves through most of these disasters; a flaw in human character — self-deception — eventually enticed even great leaders into taking fatal mis-steps, ignoring the warnings of others.

The problem is devastatingly simple, as the late physicist-author Richard Feynman put it. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Many authors have railed against the cruelty and oppression of despots. But George Orwell focused also on the essential stupidity of tyranny, by portraying how the ferocious yet delusional oligarchs of Oceania were grinding their nation into a state of brutalized poverty. Their tools had been updated, but their rationalizations were essentially the same ones prescribed by oppressors for ages. By keeping the masses ill-educated, by whipping up hatred of scapegoats and by quashing free speech, elites in nearly all cultures strove to eliminate criticism and preserve their short-term status... thus guaranteeing long-term disaster for the nations they led.

This tragic and ubiquitous defect may have been the biggest factor chaining us far below our potential as a species. That is, till we stumbled onto a solution.

The solution of many voices.

Each of us may be too stubbornly self-involved to catch our own mistakes. But in an open society, we can often count on others to notice them for us. Though we all hate irksome criticism and accountability, they are tools that work. The four great secular institutions that fostered our unprecedented wealth and freedom — science, justice, democracy and markets — function best when all players get to see, hear, speak, know, argue, compete and create without fear. One result is that the “pie” we are all dividing up keeps getting larger.

In other words, elites actually do better — in terms of absolute wealth — when they cannot conspire to keep the relative differences of wealth too great. And yet, this ironic truth escaped notice by nearly all past aristocracies, obsessed as they were with staying as far above the riffraff as possible.

Orwell saw this pattern, perhaps more clearly than anyone, portraying it in the banal and witless justifications given by Oceania apparachniks.1

How have we done with his warning? Today, in the modern neo-west, even elites cannot escape being pilloried by spotlights and scrutiny. They may not like it, but it does them (and especially us) worlds of good. Moreover, this openness has helped prevent the worst misuses of technology that Orwell feared. Though video cameras are now smaller, cheaper and even more pervasive than he ever imagined, their arrival in numberless swarms has not had the totalitarian effect he prophesied, perhaps because — forewarned — we act to ensure that the lenses point both ways.

This knack of holding the mighty accountable, possibly our culture’s most unique achievement, is owed largely to those who gazed at human history and saw the central paradox of power — what’s good for the leader and what’s good for the commonwealth only partly overlap, and can often skew at right angles. In throwing out some of the rigid old command structures — the kings, priests and demagogues who claimed to rule by inherent right — we seem to be gambling instead on an innovative combination: blending rambunctious individualism with mutual-accountability.

Those two traits may sound incompatible at first. But any sensible person knows that one cannot thrive without the other.

The Orwellian metaphor is pervasive. On disputative web sites like Slashdot, every third posting seems to blare warnings about “Big Brother,” as adversaries scream "this is just like 1984!" whenever something vaguely bothersome turns up (e.g. wall-sized television screens, personality tests for high school students, government surveillance cameras).

Is government the chief enemy of freedom? That authority center does merit close scrutiny... which we’ve been applying lately with unprecedented ardor. Meanwhile other citizens worry about different power groups — aristocracies, corporations, criminal gangs, and technological elites. Can anyone justifiably claim exemption from accountability?

Orwell’s metaphors have been expanded beyond his initial portrayal of a Stalinist nightmare-state, to include all worrisome accumulations of influence, authority or unreciprocal transparency. Elsewhere I discuss the role that righteous indignation plays in helping to create what may be the first true social immune system against calamity. All four of those great social innovations mentioned above, that fostered our unprecedented wealth and freedom (science, justice, democracy & free markets), are based on harnessing this network of suspicion through vigorous and competitive application of mutual accountability. It may not be nice, but it works far better than hierarchical authority.

These "accountability arenas" function well only when all players get fair access to information.

Technological advances like the Internet may help amplify this trend, or squelch it, depending on choices we make in the next few years. The implications of burgeoning information technology may be enormous. Soon the cognitive powers of human beings will expand immensely. Memory will be enhanced by vast, swift databases that you’ll access almost at the speed of thought. Vision will explode in all directions as cameras grow ever-smaller, cheaper, more mobile and interconnected.

In such a world, it will be foolish ever to depend on the ignorance of others.

If they don’t know your secrets now, there is always a good chance that someone will pierce your veils tomorrow, perhaps without you ever becoming aware of it. The best firewalls and encryptions may be bypassed by a gnat-camera in your ceiling or a whistle-blower in your front office. How can you ever be sure it has not already happened?

Criticism is the best antidote to error. Yet most humans, especially the mighty, try to avoid it. Leaders of past cultures crushed free speech and public access to information, a trend Orwell showed being enhanced by technology in a future when elites control all the cameras. In part thanks to Orwell's warning, ours may be the first civilization to systematically avoid this cycle, whose roots lie in human nature. We have learned that few people are mature enough to hold themselves accountable, but in an open society, adversaries eagerly pounce on each others' errors. To preserve our freedom, we must not try to limit the cameras — they are coming anyway and no law will ever prevent the elites from seeing. Instead, we must make sure all citizens share the boon — and burden — of sight. This is already the world we live in. One where the people look hard at the mighty, and look harder the mightier they are.

Orwell's dark future can’t come true if confident citizens have a habit of protecting themselves by seeing and knowing.

Some businessfolk, like Jack Stack (author of The Great Game of Business), see the writing on the wall. By using open-book management, they reduce costs, enhance employee morale, foster error-detection, eliminate layers of management, speed their reaction time, and learn how to do business in ways that make it irrelevant how much their competitors know.

Companies that instead pay millions trying to conceal knowledge will strive endlessly to plug leaks, yet gain no long-term advantage or peace of mind. Because the number of ways to leak will expand geometrically as both software and the real world grow more complex. Because information is not like money or any other commodity. It will soon be like air.

Let’s take this a bit farther. Say you are walking down the street. Your glasses are also cameras. Each face you encounter is scanned and fed into an Internet pattern-recognition search.

Your glasses are also display screens. Captions accompany pedestrians and passing drivers, giving their names and compact bios. You do an eye-flick, commanding a fresh view from an overhead satellite. A tap of your teeth retrieves in-depth data about the person in front of you, including family photos and commentary posted by friends, business associates... even enemies.

As you stroll along, you know that others see you similarly captioned, indexed, biographed.

Sound horrific? Well, then here’s the key question — how are you going to stop it? Outlawing the tools will only ensure that common folk can’t use them. As Robert Heinlein said, the chief thing accomplished by privacy laws is to make the bugs smaller.

That, in turn, will only serve the interests of the mighty. As George Orwell would surely point out, elites (government, corporate, criminal and so on...) will get these new powers of sight, no matter what the rules say. So we might as well have them too.

The metaphor of Oceania’s telescreen is central here. In Orwell’s world, those at the top of a rigid pyramidal hierarchy controlled the flow of information with fierce totality. Only propaganda filtered downward, while every iota or datum about the lives of prols flowed upward. Accountability went in just one direction.

Despite repeated efforts by our own hierarchs to justify one-way information flows, the true record of the last generation has been an indisputable and overwhelming dispersal of knowledge and the power to see. People are becoming addicted to knowing. Take the events that surrounded the tragedies of September 11, 2001. Most of the video we saw was taken by private citizens, a potentially crucial element in future emergencies. Private cell phones spread word quicker than official media. So did email and instant messaging when the telephone system got swamped. Swarms of volunteers descended on the disaster sites, as local officials quickly dropped their everyday concerns about liability or professional status in order to use all willing hands. The sole effective action to thwart terrorist plans was taken by individuals aboard United Flight 93, armed with intelligence and communication tools — and a mandate — outside official channels.

Is this a true and unstoppable trend? I speak of this elsewhere. Has it been, in part driven by the inoculative effects of cautionary fiction such as Nineteen-Eighty Four? I can’t even begin to prove the hypothesis. Is this a different way to look at the effects and importance of literature? You bet it is. Scholars aren’t used to considering the pragmatic fruits of fictional gedankenexperimentation, but perhaps it’s time they started.

Consider the issue of these dispersed information systems from another perspective. The best analogy I can come up with is the old villages that our ancestors lived in, till just a few decades ago. They, too, knew intimate details about almost everyone they met on a given day. Back then, you recognized maybe a thousand people. But we won’t be limited by the capacity of organic vision and memory. Our enhanced eyes will scan ten billion fellow villagers. Our enhanced memories will know their reputations, and they will know ours.

This is obviously cause for mixed feelings and deep misgivings. Will it be the egalitarian "good village" of Andy Hardy movies... safe, egalitarian and warmly tolerant of eccentricity? Or the bad village of Frank Capra's Potterstown, a place steeped in hierarchies, feuds and petty bigotries, where the mighty and the narrow-minded suppress all deviance from dismal normality?

Or even the vast, stifling, all-knowing ‘village’ of Orwell’s Oceania?

We’d better start arguing about this now — how to make the scary parts less scary, and the good parts better — because the village is coming back, like it or not.

The key to our success — both personal and as a society — will be agility in dealing with whatever the future hurls our way. Moreover, there are reasons to think we already have what it takes. Consider the following hoary old cliché.

“Too bad human decency and justice haven’t kept pace with our technological progress.”

Here is another.

“No past era featured as much cruelty and misery as this one.”

People seem to draw perverse pleasure from such statements, even though they are patently false.

In fact, over half of those alive on Earth today have never seen war, starvation or major civil strife with their own eyes. Most never went more than a day without food. Only a small fraction have seen a city burn, heard the footsteps of a conquering army, or watched an overlord exercise capricious power of life and death over helpless serfs. Yet these events were routine for most of our ancestors.

Of course, when I speak of fractions, that still leaves hundreds of millions who have experienced such things! I won’t minimize the terrors so many still endure. Our consciences should be prodded by the relentless power of television, into compassion and vigorous action.

Still, it’s worth noting that things have changed a bit since humanity wallowed in horror, back in the middle years of the Twentieth Century. The ratio of humans who now live modestly safe and comfortable lives — (though in conditions modern North Americans might deem scanty) — has never been greater. It means the slope hasn’t been all down, since the despair of 1942. Some might even argue that progress has been made.

As for comparing technical and moral advances, there’s just no contest. For example, while I truly love the Internet, its effects on real life have so far been rather exaggerated. Telephones and radio had far greater immediate effects on people’s lives when they entered the home, opening the world to millions.

It is our attitudes — toward all sorts of injustices that used to be considered inherent — that have undergone a transformation unlike any in history.

Consider the famous Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Way back when it appeared, in 1967, two monumental projects transfixed the people of the United States — conquering outer space and tackling injustice to achieve a more honorable society.

Who would have imagined, back then, that colonizing space would prove such a grindingly slow job... yet by 1999 we would take for granted so many advances in tolerance, decency and accountability? Or that we’d so ignore these achievements, focusing instead on the residual injustices that are left unsolved?

We still don’t have the fancy space stations of 2001... but there is another, more important difference. Our astronauts today come in all sexes and colors. Any kids who watch them on TV feel a bit less fettered by presumed limitations. Each of them may choose to hope, or not, without being told you can’t.

At this rate, who will bet me that a woman won’t preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars? Progress doesn’t always go the way you expect it to.

This is not the path prophesied in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which envisioned a bitter society — one that exploited every opportunity to stoke hatred and division among the ruled. One in which the common man is little better than a harried sheep, ignorant, disempowered and unable to imagine another way. So far, we seem aimed at avoiding that particular failure mode. (At least those who read science fiction cannot be accused of lacking imagination.)

Do we owe this fact, in part, to anti-Cassandras like George Orwell whose warnings, once they were heeded, thus never came true?

Is fear of dystopian nightmare a greater motivator and effectuator of change than any utopian promise? Indeed, our tendency seems always to criticize whatever injustices remain unsolved, rather than ever pause to rejoice in what’s been accomplished. That alone shows how deeply the lesson has been learned.

The worry that Orwell and others ignited in us still burns. It drives us on, far more effectively than any vague glowing promise of a better world.

We daren’t let up. Not ever, because we’ve been shown the alternatives.

The world that George Orwell presented was — and remains — just too scary.

1Orwell’s books are often cited as warnings against science and technology... a terrible misinterpretation. While Oceania’s tyrants gladly use certain technological tools to reinforce their grip on power, their order stifles every human ingredient needed for science and free enquiry. Beyond tools of suppression and surveillance, technology is stagnant, productivity declining. Innovation is subversive. It is a society that eats its seed corn and beats plowshares into useless statues. Yet, many critics persuade themselves that the Oceania elite, while evil, is somehow clever at the same time.

A similar fixation can be seen in popular interpretations of Mary Shelley’s masterwork, Frankenstein, which is widely perceived as a polemic against science and the arrogation of God’s powers. Yet, Shelley herself does not seem to hold that view. The ‘creature’ begins in innocence and a state of tentative hopefulness. It is Victor Frankenstein’s subsequent behavior that earns the reader’s contempt. Frankenstein’s vicious rejection and cruelty toward his own creation is the fault that brings pain to his world and unleashes his great punishment. Rather than rejecting science, the novel’s moral appears to be “don’t be a lousy dad.” (Which is interesting, given Mary Shelley’s personal background.)

The central lesson of both tales is that technology can be abused when it is monopolized by a narrow, secretive and self-deceiving elite, absent any accountability or outside criticism. Almost any modern scientist would call this obvious. And after growing up with such stories, many non-scientists find it apparent, as well. The warning is heard. (return to where you left off)