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David Bouchier: Little Brother

The Chinese leaders have been studying George Orwell again. They have devised a new plan for what they call “social credit,” which will be a kind of ranking by good or bad behavior. Citizens with good social credit will receive privileges like better jobs, access to travel visas, and cheaper insurance. Those with bad social credit will get a much less agreeable experience. How will the Chinese government know who’s naughty and who’s nice? By monitoring their internet use. If you interact with the wrong people online, watch the wrong videos, send the wrong messages, or play the wrong videogames, your social credit will go down, and you with it.

This is a tyrant’s dream. In his iconic book Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell imagined a state called Oceana in which citizens were surveyed and controlled by Big Brother in just this way—through hidden microphones and cameras everywhere, and video screens on every street corner. China, in one breathtaking step, plans to accomplish the same result without any such vast investment in surveillance equipment. Everyone will carry their own spying device in their pocket or purse in the form of a smartphone—and what’s more they will pay for it themselves!

Orwell, writing in 1948, guessed that complete totalitarian surveillance would by possible by 1984, which coincidentally was just about the date when the first personal computers came on the market. Orwell was a little ahead of his time, but not much. The Chinese government plans to have the universal spying system in place by 2020. Already most of us carry our own self-spying devices which connect to gigantic databases that sweep up all our personal details. Some people have even chosen to install spooky listening gadgets like Alexa and Google Home in their living rooms. If these things don’t already work both ways—collecting information as well as giving it—they soon will. Cameras will be next, just in case we are doing bad things but quietly. It seems that we are willing to give up almost any amount of privacy for a tiny increase in convenience.

I assume that our leaders in Washington are watching these developments closely. This is clearly the new frontier of political power, the ultimate answer to the vexing question: how can we control all of the people all of the time?

So sometimes I worry that Orwell’s dark fantasy has acted not so much as a warning as an instruction book for authoritarian regimes. Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China made great use of hidden microphones, as well as armies of secret police and citizen spies everywhere, an enormously costly undertaking, and wide open to corruption.

But the electronic Little Brother in your hand can do the same job much more efficiently at a fraction of the cost. You could switch it off, but this is a kind of sacrilege, and the ‘off’ switch will probably be removed from future models. You could throw it away, but Big Brother will find out and give you another one for free. The only answer is to do what Winston Smith did in George Orwell’s fable: learn to love your Little Brother, and tell him all your secrets.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.