The Future of Civil Liberties

According to “1984,” surveillance technology is in nearly every home and workplace by the year 1984 – with two-way telescreens and hidden microphones to monitor the activities of individuals. This is so pervasive that in the book it is predicted that by 2050, “New Speak” will have completely replaced “Old Speak.”

This book written in the 1940s envisioned a dystopian future and a lack of civil liberty. Is that future possible? Does technology on balance promote liberty or tyranny? Does it empower the state or the individual more?

Orwell was quite political and, at the same time he was writing “1984,” he penned an essay called “You and the Atomic Bomb.” He writes:

It is a commonplace that the history of civilization is largely the history of weapons. In particular, the connection between the discovery of gunpowder and the overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie has been pointed out over and over again. And though I have no doubt exceptions can be brought forward, I think the following rule would be found generally true: that ages in which the dominant weapon is expensive or difficult to make will tend to be ages of despotism, whereas when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance. Thus, for example, tanks, battleships and bombing planes are inherently tyrannical weapons, while rifles, muskets, long-bows and hand-grenades are inherently democratic weapons. A complex weapon makes the strong stronger, while a simple weapon–so long as there is no answer to it– gives claws to the weak.

This is a profound observation, and while it looks like an argument for despotism in the future, I think it is the opposite. Sure, weapons in the sense that Orwell thought of them are clearly becoming more expensive in our present day. But what matters now are communication, information, and public opinion. Governments used to control all of these. Now they don’t. These weapons have shifted to the people. Thanks, Internet.

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