Lessons we still haven’t learned from 1984

Looking at George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ and seeing some uncomfortable parallels to our modern world.

There are 3 lessons (out of many) that it seems like we still haven’t learned from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Briefly, they are:

  • Pervasive government surveillance is bad.
  • Censorship/rewriting history is bad.
  • Constant fear of an unseen external enemy is a great way to control people.

Sound familiar?

Another way to put it is that we have learned these lessons, but that we just chose to ignore them. Either way, the effect is the same.

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

Pervasive government surveillance is bad. Specifically, the kind of pervasive surveillance where: the government might be watching you at any time; you have no idea if you’re being watched; and there is little or no oversight.

Think about how different your daily behavior – and I’m talking about all of your behavior, from the moment you get out of bed in the morning to when you go to sleep at night – would be if you knew that someone was watching you every single moment of every single day.

Remember: some surveillance is fine, on a small scale, but ubiquitous surveillance by a single controlling entity is absolutely not OK.

For a free society to function, people need to be “secure from unreasonable searches and seizures,” which also implies having a bit of privacy. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is also quite important – but if everyone is under surveillance, there’s a sort of presumption of guilt in that, which implies that everyone is guilty, they just haven’t been caught on tape yet (but they will be!).

Censorship/rewriting history is bad. Censorship on its own is bad enough, but once you start censoring non-fiction, you are effectively re-writing history (or the historical record, anyway).

For a free society to function, the people must be able to find out the truth. When things are censored or re-written, it becomes impossible to find out the truth (as most people understand the meaning of “truth”). Instead, “truth” becomes what the censor believes should be the truth, instead of what actually is (or was). Drawing from the novel 1984 again, this is more along the lines of what O’Brien says the truth is (i.e., whatever The Party says it is) as opposed to what Winston believes it is (an external thing that can’t be altered or covered up).

Which version of “truth” would you prefer?

Constant fear of an unseen enemy is a great way to control people. Some people will by now be getting tired of me harping on this point again and again, but it really is the most important point we can draw from 1984. In fact, this is one of the founding principles of the dystopian government described in the book – that it doesn’t matter who you are at war with, as long as there is always an enemy to direct your hate at, then people can be easily controlled and will willingly go along with things they would otherwise morally oppose.

Parallels to Today

All three of the points I’ve made above can be seen in greater or lesser degrees in our society today. We may not have the telescreens from 1984, but we do have security cameras almost everywhere – in stores, in banks, in malls, in restaurants, in public buildings, in public places, and on public roads. On top of all the cameras, our phones have GPS built in, our cameras can “tag” photos with GPS coordinates (telling people where we were when we took the photo), web sites can use location-awareness to pin down your location (generally accurate, but not pinpoint accurate… yet), and of course our phones and email can be tapped/record/read by police/government agents at any time, without our knowledge, and often without any sort of civil or judicial oversight. There is a famous quote by the Englishman William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, from 200 years ago that is still applicable today: If society has regressed to where power alone is sufficient for government action, we have a police state.

Fortunately, at least here in the US, censorship and the re-writing of history has not come as far as it has in some countries (e.g., China). However, that’s not to say that we’re not on our way towards stricter censorship. Politicians, political pundits, and others will frequently reverse their position on an issue, and then deny that they ever held any other position but the one they have right now. If this doesn’t strike anyone as a perfect example of Doublethink, then I don’t know what would. And once people start thinking that way, it is inevitable that they will want to re-write history to match what they think… and on that path lies madness.

As for the constant fear aspect, well, I hardly need to provide examples, considering that we’ve had a constant “enemy” for nearly 80 years now. It started, in large part, back in World War II, with the Nazis – who were of course quite real! But after that, our fear shifted to the Soviet Union and Communism – so much so that we started turning in people around us for fear that they were communists, and accusing people left and right of deviating from the “party line.” (Just read up on McCarthyism for a chilling look at how fear of an unseen enemy made people behave.) During that time, not agreeing with the ruling class’s political beliefs was enough to get you thrown in jail. Again, does any of this sound familiar? Because it should, seeming as it does to be drawn almost verbatim from George Orwell’s novel!

Of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union we had to find something else to fear, and it took us a little while to find it – but find it we did, under the increasingly broad definition of “terrorism.” There’s a lot of parallels between our old imagined enemies of the communist era and our new imagined “terrorist” enemies:

  • They are from a foreign country, naturally (one that few of us have been too, so it seems even more foreign to most of us – because “foreigners are scary”).
  • They could be anywhere – even hiding in plain sight! They might even be someone you already know! (“Be afraid of everyone, even your friends.”)
  • They could strike us at any time! (“Always be afraid.”)
  • Not content with the explanation of “some people are fighting against us because they disagree very strongly with us,” we’ve somehow morphed things into some sort of EPIC BATTLE, because it’s our ideals and principles against theirs, and of course we have to win because THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
  • If you disagree with the idea that this is an EPIC BATTLE which we MUST FIGHT and MUST WIN because there is NO OTHER CHOICE IF WE WANT TO SURVIVE then you are branded as UN-AMERICAN.

Given all of these parallels, you’d think at least someone would maybe stop and point them out and sort of deflate the rhetoric being tossed around to justify all of the above – but no, sadly, no.

In the end, most people are more interested in other things – maybe the economy, or more likely what was on Lost or The Bachelor last night. So we just ignore what’s going on, forget the history lessons we were taught in school (assuming it’s still being taught in school – I worry sometimes), and march towards a future that is, sadly, just like the past… because we refused to learn from it.

The Fear Disease

Looking at the increasing level of fear which has crept into both the American populace and American politics over the years since 9/11.

This article, Terrorism Derangement Syndrome, hits a lot of good points. In particular, it talks about how what we once saw as a “reasonable response” to terrorism right after 9/11 is now seen as “too weak.” It seems like we just keep getting more and more afraid:

It’s hard to explain why this keeps happening. There hasn’t been a successful terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The terrorists who were tried in criminal proceedings since 9/11 are rotting in jail. The Christmas Day terror attack was both amateurish and unsuccessful. The Christmas bomber is evidently cooperating with intelligence officials without the need to resort to thumbscrews. In a rational universe, one might conclude that all this is actually good news. But in the Republican crazy-place, there is no good news. There’s only good luck. Tick tock. And the longer they are lucky, the more terrified Americans have become.

Some of this can be explained as simple one-upmanship; when your political platform is “fighting terrorism,” each time you run for re-election you kind of have to vow to “do more” than you did last time (or more than your opponent did), which leads to “more security” and “tougher stances” and so forth.

The problem is that the American public is going along with this. That’s what really worries me. It’s like the whole country is infected with some sort of “fear disease:”

We’re terrified when a terror attack happens, and we’re also terrified when it’s thwarted. We’re terrified when we give terrorists trials, and we’re terrified when we warehouse them at Guantanamo without trials. If a terrorist cooperates without being tortured we complain about how much more he would have cooperated if he hadn’t been read his rights. No matter how tough we’ve been on terror, we will never feel safe enough to ask for fewer safeguards.

You may agree or disagree with his policies, but you can’t argue with the truth in what Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his inaugural speech: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I think it’s time and past time we all remembered that.

Treating our Legal Code like Computer Code

Looking at some pending legislation through the eyes of a computer programmer… and finding it… wanting.

I’ve posted before about the idea of treating our legal system (legal code) like a computer system (computer code):

Our legal code is almost entirely like an entire operating system written in undocumented Perl.

  1. There are no hints as to what any part of it is supposed to do and it is written in a language that to most people looks like line noise.
  2. Every significant patch is applied by adding an additional Perl module that overrides an existing method in an existing module, replacing all of the code in that method with a complete new copy of the method that is almost identical to the old one but adds or removes a backslash in a single regular expression.
  3. The entire core logic was written in a crunch session by a bunch of geeks locked in a room together and forced to design it by committee.
  4. The application was a rewrite of another application that never really worked well in the first place.
  5. Every function name is chosen explicitly to provoke an emotional response in the developer, e.g. thisFunctionSucks() or callMeNow().

Although that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there was a certain grain of truth to it.

It seems that I’m not the only one to think this – and indeed, someone has taken the idea even further by applying systems design principles to the new health care reform legislation that the US Congress is working on at the moment.

Bruce F. Webster writes:

On the occasions where I have reviewed the actual text of major legislation, I have been struck by the parallels between legislation and software, particularly in terms of the pitfalls and issues with architecture, design, implementation, testing, and deployment. Some of the tradeoffs are even the same, such as trading off the risk of “analysis paralysis” (never moving beyond the research and analysis phase) and the risks of unintended consequences from rushing ill-formed software into production. Yet another similarity is that both software and legislation tend to leverage off of, interact with, call upon, extend, and/or replace existing software and legislation.  Finally, the more complex a given system or piece of legislation is, the less likely that it will achieve the original intent.

He then goes on to talk about some “design flaws” in HR 3200 – otherwise known as the “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009.” (Brings to mind point #5 from the “Legal System as a Perl OS” quote from above, doesn’t it?)

Bruce then goes on make a point which is basically the same as point #2 in the “Legal System as a Perl OS” quote above:

Much of HR 3200 makes piecemeal modifications to existing legislation, often with little explanation as to intent and consequences.

Or to put it another way, entire sections of HR 3200 do nothing other than override some existing legislation in some incredibly small way, which will (presumably?) have huge (and in all likelihood, unintended and unforeseen) effects – much like how adding or removing a single backslash from a regular expression can have huge (and often unintended and unforeseen) effects on its pattern-matching behavior.

Bruce’s entire article (it’s the first of a 3-part series – as I write this, only parts 1 and 2 are done) is well worth reading – and in fact I highly recommend it, even for non-programmers.

Of course, if you ask me, I really think all legislators should be required to take a programming course or two – because, as I’ve said before (in my “A Programmer’s Perspective on Politics” article), laws are effectively the “operating system” of our society… and right now, the people writing our society’s “operating system” don’t seem to be particularly good programmers!!

The Problems

Found this over on a Slashdot story about how attacks on voting machines are practical (despite arguments to the contrary):

The problem is our elections are supposed to be transparent by law.
The problem is our elections are supposed to have public oversight.
The problem is a private company can not provide public oversight.
The problem is electronic vote tabulation devices use invisible signals which no human (especially a poll watcher) can see.
The problem is China or North Korea could decide our elections and we wouldn’t know.
The problem is there is no electronic vote tabulation device (or electronic vote registration poll book device) which can be validated with public oversight.
The problem is without public oversight, no election can be validated.
The problem is if our elections can not be validated, we can not hold our representatives responsible.
The problem is if our representatives can not be held responsible, they tend to ignore the rule of law.
The problem is if our representatives ignore the rule of law, they tend to ignore protecting the US Constitution against all enemies.
The problem is when the US Constitution is ignored, we no longer live in a Constitutional Republic.
The problem is when we no longer live in a Constitutional Republic, we slip into fascism.
The problem is we have slipped into fascism.
The problem is ignorance is no longer an excuse for corruption.

It was, of course, posted Anonymously… but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

Using Tax Money

“Using tax money to provide goods and services does two things: it hides the true cost by shifting the burden of payment onto other people and it eliminates choice. Those are both bad, but for different reasons.”

Found this great quote from a discussion over on Slashdot on a story of some attackers cutting fiber cables into a city in California:

“Using tax money to provide goods and services does two things: it hides the true cost by shifting the burden of payment onto other people and it eliminates choice. Those are both bad, but for different reasons.”

This is a very insightful quote, and one that people would do well to remember whenever they start talking about having “the government pay for it.” (Of course there are cases where using tax money is the only way to do certain things, but it’s still good to keep this in mind.)