Science Fiction Got Surveillance All Wrong

Government scrutiny isn’t how it appears in 1984. To understand privacy, we’ll need to update our analogies.

A flagpole with surveillance cameras at the top and an American flag waving
Getty; The Atlantic

As a journalist contacting sources incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons, I must send letters to a warehouse hundreds of miles away in Florida, where they’re digitized and kept indefinitely by a company called Smart Communications—it’s never clear how many people read them. Smart Communications earns millions of dollars from prisons and jails across the country each year, highlighting a bizarre contradiction in how the United States thinks of privacy: There are some people whose surveillance we hardly ever think about. And the literature we reach for to understand government scrutiny rarely takes them into account.

Revelations that the National Security Agency was reading troves of Americans’ communications prompted outraged allusions to George Orwell’s 1984. But despite how frequently the book is deployed to explain our reality, it isn’t that apt: The novel’s “Party” is totalizing, affecting everyone, the author Noah Berlatsky argues, and that’s not how surveillance functions in the United States. The so-called right to privacy, so often violated these days, has always been a luxury good, Sarah E. Igo writes in her review of Seek and Hide, Amy Gajda’s history of privacy in American law. And in On the Run, Alice Goffman documents how the burden of police monitoring weighs most heavily on poor communities of color, shaping how some men live their lives.

Orwell considered invasions of privacy a threat to liberty. Newer works have complicated the science-fiction genre by also considering surveillance a threat to justice. Books by Namwali Serpell and Pola Oloixarac, Lily Meyer argues, provide revised perspectives by comparing it to colonialism. In a period of renewed censorship and rising authoritarianism, new literary comparisons that take stock of government snooping will prove particularly important—because the authors whom Connor Goodwin finds are most affected by book bans also tend to be those most affected by surveillance. To understand who’s watching whom, we’ll need to update what we read.

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What We’re Reading

a scene from the "1984," the British film adaptation

(Virgin Films)

Stop comparing the NSA to 1984 (and start comparing it to Philip K. Dick)
“Using Orwell to understand NSA spying, then, ends up functioning as a distortion by metaphor. It suggests that all of us are equally targeted, and that the problem is that all of us are equally targeted—that middle-class non-marginal people are going to be stomped by Big Brother. The truth, though, is that the NSA data will likely be used primarily, as it always has been, against the androids and the Zhangs—which is why we need to try to find a metaphor that addresses not just liberty, but justice.”

photo illustration of back of smartphone with 3-lens camera where 2 of the lens circles are covered by closed window blinds and the third lens is covered with half-open window blinds

(Rodrigo Corral)

The price of privacy
“We live in a world where daily, continuous—and often unfelt and unseen—intrusions are the rule, the work not just of traditional media but of tech companies, data-analytics firms, entertainment systems, financial industries, and state agencies seeking unfettered access to our information. Each of us now navigates competing claims of transparency and privacy every time we swipe a credit card, download an app, or pass through a smart home. Focusing on individual violations and litigation in the courts, a strategy that once served to protect (some) Americans’ privacy, is insufficient in the present. For a shot at privacy in the digital age—to say nothing of the coming metaverse—we will need to envision privacy as a collective social good in need of collective solutions: strong public regulation that systematically reins in the parties who trample it.”

an illustration of a man hiding in shadow from a flashlight

(Tim McDonagh)

The society of fugitives
“The police, in Goffman’s portrayal in On the Run, are at full-fledged war with residents. They beat up people under arrest, steal from suspects, smash up homes while serving warrants, and use the results of surveillance to turn lovers or family members against one another. Such behavior shocks Goffman, at least at first. But the neighborhood’s longtime residents are more resigned. To them, police raids are like thunderstorms: take cover if you can, and don’t go back outside until it stops raining.”

the cover of Pola Oloixarac’s novel "Dark Constellations"

(Soho Press)

Science fiction’s preoccupation with surveillance
“In this way, The Old Drift enters territory that Dark Constellations leaves untouched. Both writers’ works highlight how easily surveillance can masquerade as progress, and expose the subtle ways colonialism persists in contemporary political life.”

Book with barbed wire around it

(Getty; The Atlantic)

The banned books you haven’t heard about
“The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has a telling statistic: It estimates that a staggering 82 to 97 percent of book challenges go unreported on. That means these books, the overwhelming majority, don’t even make it beyond the school-board minutes and into the local paper. And, as it turns out, this question of how much attention a book gets—either because it’s already well known, like The Bluest Eye, or because the banning itself generates big news—is a crucial factor. It makes all the difference in whether censorship helps or hinders a book’s chances of landing in a reader’s hands.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Andrew Aoyama. The book he’s reading next is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans.

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