Home > Interesting reading >  30 years of 1984: 8 Tech predictions of George Orwell that have come true

 30 years of 1984: 8 Tech predictions of George Orwell that have come true

1984 Michael Radford

The DVD cover of the Michael Radford movie 1984 based on George Orwell’s 1984. This 110 minutes movie was released on 10th October 1984; Image credit: video.fnac.com

In 1949 the book of “George Orwell Nineteen Eighty Four’ (1984) was published. The book looked at the dystopian future of human societies, governments, mass surveillance, end of need of sexual lives of human beings and lot of new intelligent technology products by the year 1984. This book is considered the first documentation of government and mass surveillance as a tool for the State to control citizen.

On the 10th of October in 1984 Michael Radford released the movie 1984 based on Orwell’s novel in UK. Today the movie completes 30 years, and we are actually seeing a lot of things that were predicted by Orwell (later shown by Radford) in real life today.

I believe it took the human minds and technology a little more time than anticipated by Orwell in his famous novel. While Orwell thought 1984 to be a period when “technology” and “propaganda” will dominate the human day-to-day lives, “1984” was probably the beginning of all this.

The beginning

The rise of technology dates back to the age of cold war. “The primary developments that gave rise to the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution occurred during the cold war. These includes the global spread of electrical generation; the proliferation of communications satellite; commercial application of integrated circuits, fiber optics, and microprocessors; and the explosive growth of home/personal computers, the Internet and the World Wide Web” notes Richard H. Immerman and Petra Goedde in The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War.

Steve Jobs in 1984 in the very popular television commercial designed by Ridley Scott introduced Apple Macintosh PC to the world. The ad was based on dystopian future of mankind and meant to save humanity from the “conformity” of IBM’s attempts to dominate computer industry. The ad said “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’.”

These computers when arrived later in October heralded a new era of computers making possible more and more innovations in personal technology on one hand, and catalyzed competition in this sector on the other hand. Needless to say that this also made possible the proliferation of technology to homes (till this time it was restricted to offices, military organizations and were high in cost)

As a result of this computer technology which started with PCs and got nono-fied in later years with the urge to innovate fast and sell faster, gave us smartphones later. Needless to say today we are leading a life revolving around technology products in all form – call in smartphones, keeping data in cloud, connecting via social network, talking via a watch or driving without a steering wheel!

Today, I summarize Orwell’s predictions about future that have come true and understand how these are predictions will further consolidate themselves.

Here is a look at the 8 predictions of Orwell.

1. Big brother is watching – Continuous surveillance mechanism

This one is one of the most talked about and discussed interpretations of Orwell about the society and government. The continuous surveillance that happens in market places, in your home, office, on roads happens through HIDDEN MIKES and TELESCREENS. (and via human agents who work for the big brother)

These telescreens were able to detect any change in facial expression of a person, could hear breathing of any person or even he heart beat of a person.

That means the telescreens were fitted with cameras behind the screen that is able to zoom in on any face and see change in expressions. Two they carried very sensitive omni-directional microphones to pick sounds of all kinds.

Though Orwell did not use words like “camera on telescreen” or “comfecting” in the book (which is the fraudulent process of attempting to hack into a person’s webcam and activate it without the webcam owner’s permission) he did mentions that all telescreens are powered with the ability to look into every corner of the room they are installed in. Theses screens are always-on (owner did not had the ability to switch it off or change the direction TV is facing.

Orwell did explained “comfecting” of telescreens!

Progress on surveillance technology so far

After the Snowden revelations and many governments looking at the possibilities of peeping into conversations on social media (we do know about multiple arrests made for posting messages on social media like facebook) – we do know that big surveillance network is coming. Monitoring people is today done via cameras installed at public places, online monitoring of content that is passing through the network node.

Ever wondered if the phone camera (now every phone comes with two cameras right?) and mic is used for surveillance? Well, most of the phone users today stay online and from them mostly use an Android phone. Android OS has the largest market share in the world n terms of OS devices.

‘Once you are connected to internet the only thing a hacker needs to do is to break your lock’. The problem is when you are not hooked to Internet, the pathway that could make possible the hacker reach you, is just missing – well, this makes you safe though.

Android One

Android One smartphone from Google

According to Kaspersky, during 2011, it witnessed an explosion in the number of malicious threats targeting the Android platform. The number of threats for Android will continue to grow at an alarming rate, it predicted.

So, in case there is a possibility of switching on the camera/mic of your phone ‘remotely’, your own gadget turns as spy on you, and with the technology growing at a very fast pace, it is now possible. You will not even come to know that the phone is actually sending your conversation to a remote location to a third person.

If phones that we keep always with us, take with us to our bed, to kitchen, dining table, to a tennis game, to shower sometimes – can turn SPY- Orwell’s word will be true. Here is what he wrote –

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed – ne escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”

Now look at these self-explanatory news reports about viruses and apps that justify that this is actually possible and is being done today –

  •  The FBI can listen to everything you say, even when the cell phone is turned off. A recent court ruling in a case against the Genovese crime family revealed that the FBI has the ability from a remote location to activate a cell phone and turn its microphone into a listening device that transmits to an FBI listening post, a method known as a “roving bug.” – ABC News 2006 via Washingtonsblog.
  • By September 2004, the NSA had developed a technique that was dubbed “The Find” by special operations officers. The technique was used in Iraq and “enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off.” – A report in Slate via a news story in Washington Post.
  • FinFisher spyware can secretly monitor computers, intercept Skype calls, turn on Web cameras and record every keystroke. This virus has now spread to five continents – Bloomberg via Computerworld
  • According to Kaspersky Lab Flame virus is able to execute total surveillance and monitoring that includes turning on your camera and microphone, copying your data, and recording emails and chat conversations. – Inforwars, IBTimes
  • “If you can give me just any small amount of information about yourself, I promise you, within three days, I can turn on the camera on your computer at home and watch whatever you’re doing,” John MacAffee, the maker of AcAffee anti-virus says. – ABC news via DeepdotWeb
  • A researcher claims to have written an Android app that takes photos and videos using a smartphone camera, even while the screen is turned off – a pretty handy tool for a spy or a creepy stalker. – NakedSecurity
  • mSpy mobile surveillance application (not a spy software) runs on smartphones and tablets including iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, iPad and Galaxy Tab devices. It allows users to remotely spy on (others) text messages, call logs, and emails; track location, record surroundings, and more on smartphones and tablets. – NakedSecurity

No privacy of personal communication

Use of media for personal communications spearheaded industrial revolution. Service like telephones, trains, postal facility helped industries grow. With email things became faster and virtual.

Orwell mentions “by a routine thaw a not even secret, all letters were opened in transit”. While this is possible with the written letters, emails have just widened the area under surveillance.

This prediction of Orwell was a very manual form of surveillance, which one can understand. But with the advent of Internet the scope of this searching of personal communication passing through Internet Nodes maintained either by companies or by the government- has increased. The geographical reach of surveillance has increased, and so is the capabilities of the governments. Now emails going from India can be opened and read in another geographical area.

The companies where we work have software to monitor our emails citing administrative purpose as reasons. Our governments have infrastructure to do so, on our personal emails, facebook posts if they wish to do so, citing security and national integrity as reasons.

You did heard of NSA’s prism surveillance program, and other such surviellence programs, didn’t you?

“After the 9/11 attacks, Bush started a still-mysterious National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on phone calls, texts, and emails by U.S. citizens who were communicating with people overseas,” Fusin reported in 2013 after Snowden Revelations.

“After the 9/11 attacks, Bush started a still-mysterious National Security Agency program to eavesdrop on phone calls, texts, and emails by U.S. citizens who were communicating with people overseas,” says Huffington Post.

In January 2014, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) launched NETRA (NEtwork TRaffic Analysis). Netra is the intelligence software network to intercept and analyse internet traffic using pre-defined filters.

The software is capable of analysing voice traffic passing through software such as Skype and Google Talk, and intercept messages with keywords such as ‘attack’, ‘bomb’, ‘blast’ or ‘kill’ in real-time from the enormous number of tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, internet calls, blogs, forums and even images generated on the internet to obtain the desired intelligence.

Where’s own life?

In an environment where your facebook posts are monitored, your movement on streets and bedroom is monitored – you will, become conscious enough not to do anything that is wrong (illegal). You tend to pretend, post posts that please other, behave in a way that you are not noticed.

In today’s world very many do not know that the camera can he hacked and operated remotely, you phone mic can be switched on and send all you do to the hacker. Many who know still believe that they no problem with this as “why would one spy on me?”

Given that the surveillance via your phone/tablet is a known fact and is told to the people, the behavior will definitely change.

2. New media – that will have a unidirectional “legacy media” structure again

burning books

In May 10, 1933 students and storm troopers put to fire a huge pile of books with “unGerman” ideas at the Opera Square in Berlin. In the picture the bonfire rages as books are tossed. Credit: http://www.historyplace.com

Destruction of evidence and correction of ‘misquoted’ text

When you look at the print media whatever has been printed cannot be erased (unless all such records are destroyed). Same is for TV or AV media where whatever is recorded stays as it is till destroyed. That needs physical search of text or data- difficult task indeed.

However, that is not the case with the online media. With online media the text you have written can be replaced easily. All such records (websites) can be searched for showing the text and can either be blocked or the text could be erased (includes, pursuing the content hosting portal or the user).

If all content is in on Internet, the problem of that comes with searching it no more exists. Destruction of evidence is easy compared to other media, right?

Bombarding messages – reinforcing of message

With the legacy media which started the Gutenberg era, media involved messages created at one end traveling to the other end. Inspired by the ‘Magic Bullet Theory’ of communication, bombardment of messages was the preferred mode of development of many nation states. Messages were assumed “to have a direct and immediate effect on the viewer’s consciousness as if they were injected like a drug into the bloodstream,” says LessonBucket.

With the development of Internet (largely) after 1995, this uni-directional media stood challenged. With more and more people hooking to Internet, producing, sharing and consuming content, the earlier relationship of “information producer -> information consumer” was challenged with a new emerging relation of “information producer <=> information consumer”.

But censorship of media, (all kind of online content), does indicate that media (including social media, since we are looking media as a platform for expression) is not going to be free expression.

A look at the Google Transparency Report would indicate that content removals requests asking to block access to content with allegations of defamation, local laws prohibiting hate speech or adult content, are received and complied. Let’s not talk about arrests that follow a post facebook.

According to the 2012 State of the News Media report from Pew Research centre, the news industry “finds itself more a follower than leader shaping its business.” Technology companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple now control the future of news, says Forbes in a news report based on this report.

The flux in the state of Internet filtering highlights the crucial importance of strategic intervention by civil society in this intercourse. As the importance of the Internet grows, more systematic attempts will likely be made by the government to exert control over Internet content. (Arun Mehta and Manasi Dash; Internet Censorship 2011)

With a framework to censor content (that includes prosecution) is free expression possible? There will always be spaces where people will express whatever they want, but largely expression of thought will not nbe totally free.

Before the advent of Internet, Orwell in 1949 predicted that the media will turn uni-directional with surveillance. Though he reached to a extreme point when mentioned that writing a diary was also illegal and could be punished with “death”.

3. Speakwrite

Orwell mentions a speakwrite that is a mic with a mouthpiece. Whatever is said to the mic it is transformed into text and written.

We are today living in the age of speech-to-text software and virtual assistants. Almost every phone (tablet and computers) comes with speech recognizing virtual assistant. Windows have got Cortona, Apple has Siri and Android has OK, Google.

There are software like Dragon Dictate (speech recognition software too that let you dictate documents, search the web, email and more on your computer) and SpeakWrite (this is a converting transcription to text service) that listen to what you say and convert it to written text.

4. Digital document drawer with display screen

When Winston dialed “back numbers” on a telescreen and called for “appropriate issue of Times”, the pneumatic tube “slid out” the required document after few minutes.

Electronic document management systems in offices, libraries are common today. Even a normal file manager folder drawer we use today is the basic form of electronic drawer where we can ask or search for desired documents. 

5. Missile detection system 

Orwell mentions a “Proles” who had some kind of knowledge that a rocket is coming several seconds before the rocket actually lands.

After the 9/11 attack on United States that we started hearing about Missile Detection System that is detection of such item to toward the country’s air space and being able to destroy the incoming object with a faster missile.

6. Printed postcards

Orwell did not talk about email messages, but he did mentions “printed postcards” which has got a list of pre-written messages. All the sender needs to do is to strike on which is necessary.

Look at it as a pre-written SMS or a document or email format that we use today, the signature that we put on in an email by making a simple arrangement to make it appear at the end of each email that goes out of our email account is also an example. Most of us today use pre-written messages for mails that arrive when we are not online.

7. Reading Memory

No there was no mention of mind reading or mid reading technologies in Geroge Orwells book. I am however, tempted to use this here as Orwell does mentions that he telescreens were capable enough to look at the facial expressions which could reveal what is in one’s mind. It was important to keep the faces expressionless and even control breathing.

If we look at developments today we are yet to figure out mind reading. There have been some developments which we can call a beginning on mind reading-

  • US military’s project making binoculars that read the user’s own subconscious brainwaves to help identify threats from afar. These gadgets can take multiple images with each scan and feed them to a software program to identify potential threats from a distance.
  • Jack Gallant in the University of California, Berkeley is also working on a similar project in which he uses a screen to display images from movies. On another screen he uses feed from brain scans to read (guess) what the subject of study is watching at the time.

8. Memory hole 

This is the machine used in the story to alter or disappear incriminating or embarrassing documents, photographs, transcripts, or other records.

History is packed with examples where books were burned in an attempt to erase history. But with time and technology moving ahead, the way of doing so has changed.

Paper shredders had been invented, but were hardly used when Orwell wrote his book. The actual implementation of the technology or wiping out things from memory could be viewed as the concept of wiping out a hard drive in computer. With the source altered there remains no scope that the file/document is available in any form (unless there is print version of it).

9. Versifactor

This was the song composer that needed no human intervention. The song composer Versifactor was a mechanical instrument that could make songs.

Though Garage Band app still needs human intervention, but the app can produce music without the need of other musical instruments. We get a list of software called music composers that churn out new music and pre-fed voices today.

  1. December 17, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    They are already working on computer software to read facial expressions and body language for use in CCTV.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s