Stop Comparing the NSA to 1984 (and Start Comparing It to Philip K. Dick)

Writers overwhelmingly use Orwell's novel to describe the surveillance state—which makes it easy to forget who's really oppressed today.
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As any intelligence operative knows, isolated facts don't tell you much. If some random person mentions a bomb somewhere on the Internet, is that a threat? A joke? A mistake?  To understand data you need a context and a narrative. You need to be able to put it in a story.

So it makes sense that, in trying to understand the intelligence community itself, journalists and reporters use stories too. The PEN American Center, a group that works to advance literature and freedom expression, just released a study looking at the metaphors reporters used to explain the revelations about NSA spying in June 2013. Examining the work of 105 authors and 60 news outlets over two months, PEN found that journalists most often used metaphors of collecting (9.31 percent), but other approaches included nautical metaphors  (tentacles, trawling, leviathan), war metaphors (blitz, invade), and metaphors of authoritarianism (totalitarian, police state, Nazi.)

PEN also found that journalists used literary analogies to try to explain NSA surveillance. Or rather, they used one literary analogy. George Orwell's 1984 was the only work referenced.

Orwell's ubiquity is not exactly a surprise—Rebecca Rosen wrote about how central 1984 is to these discussions here at The Atlantic last June. Still, the fact that 1984 is the only book PEN could find cited shows a striking lack of imagination. To paraphrase a quote by Benjamin Cardozo that the PEN site references, the use of Orwell seems, in this case, not to liberate thought, but to enslave it.

How does Orwell enslave thought? Rosen mentions legal scholar Daniel J. Solove, who has argued that focusing on Orwell means that we center surveillance as a problem rather than the "inscrutable" bureaucracy that grows up to process information and make decisions about citizens in secret. Solove suggests that Kafka's The Trial would be a better touchstone. You many not care if some computer recorded which website you just visited, but finding yourself on a no-fly list for some unknown reason can be a nightmare.

Perhaps a more central problem with using Orwell, though, is that Orwell imagined not just a totalitarian state, but a totalizing one. The Party in 1984 controls everything and watches everyone. People have no rights, no power—even language and metaphors themselves are officially vetted by the state machinery. This isn't the world we live in, and, as Solove says, it's not the world we're "heading toward" either. Most people, most of the time, are not directly confronted with a police state.

That "most people" is, I think, crucial. There are, after all, some citizens who are watched and controlled in a systematic manner. Our massive prison population, for example, experiences surveillance and control on a par with that of Winston in 1984. Arun Kundnani, in his recently published The Muslims Are Coming, argues that Muslim communities in the U.S. are systematically infiltrated and observed in a manner comparable to the police states under Communism (a blueprint for 1984).  Police profiling programs like stop and frisk are designed to give the authorities the power to regulate young black and Hispanic men, while leaving others largely unmolested. Big Brother is watching you—but only if "you" fit certain criteria.

Orwell doesn't capture that reality—but there are books that do. Philip K. Dick's 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, for one, is set in a run-down future dystopia that is dilapidated rather than authoritarian. The protagonist, Rick Deckard, is a policeman, but he doesn't spy on his neighbors or terrorize the general populace. Instead, he is focused on identifying, tracking down, and destroying androids. The surveillance apparatus and the murderous force of the state are targeted, specifically, towards those defined as different.

Presented by

Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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