In George Orwell’s classic, “1984,” totalitarian control of society was made possible through the systematic and pervasive technological surveillance of its citizens. There was no escape from the tyranny of Big Brother because his reach was total and his means draconian. Hence, “1984” spelled the end of human freedom.
In an alarming, more sophisticated variant, Orwell’s dark world of thought control, albeit two decades late, has entered our lives digitally and stealthily with a vengeance, through the internet.
With its vast global web of virtually instantaneous networks of connectivity, the internet has spawned, something we never expected: an uneven, often savage battleground between real people who are bound by some rules of decency and fair play and invisible, destructive, unaccountable adversaries bent on destroying what stands in its way. The weapons of the latter are hard to identify: apocryphal and laundered internet-identities, armies of bots and trolls, which spread lies, threaten and destroy reputations, and sow fear. Thus, what we see today on the internet is a kind of Gresham’s law writ global as bad ideas and fake news drive away the good, reliable ones via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and search engines like Google.
What began with so much enthusiasm and hope for an expanding world of knowledge, insights, and freedom of expression has thus degenerated into a Darwinian cyberworld of unaccountable power that prizes outright lies, venom and stealth over truth, decency and human dignity.
The internet was expected to be the new commons of humanity, a global space where the aims of the community are best served by a free, unimpeded flow of information and ideas between people. As such it replaced with lightning speed most of the old, slow, personal ways of reaching out to friends, associates and strangers through landlines, letters, and personal and social meetings. More dramatic and exhilarating for many were the virtually unlimited treasure houses of books, authoritative articles and videos available at the click of the mouse.
Those slower, conservative means of personal and social communication worked well in the past because of two of the most powerful human emotions: shame and the desire to be liked. The basic rules of good manners and fair play were generally observed because the actors were real persons, with real addresses and real reputations to damage and to lose. So they were careful with their language and conduct on public spaces. Being accountable for their words had a disciplinary effect on the manner and tone of interacting people. No one wanted to be sued in court for libelous accusations. And it would have been disgraceful to one’s family, friends and peers if one sounded like a vulgar idiot or a shameless peddler of lies. Culture thus provided a strong deterrent to foul language and unfounded accusations. Nobody wanted to be known as a certified fool.
But in the new global commons, shame, accountability and decency have been thrown out the window due to technological defaults that require greater velocity of ideas and the freedom to express them. Since the modern commons has a social media audience of billions of virtually invisible users, it became an easy target for predators, thieves and criminal minds to prey on, protected as they are by their identity masks and weak firewalls.
The very secrecy and unaccountability of the internet have likewise emboldened unscrupulous governments to wage cyberwar on rival nations and even its own citizens. The recent exposure of Russia’s behind-the-scenes involvement to influence the results of the last US presidential election through the massive, systematic use of bots and trolls highlights the geopolitical games great powers play in the global commons.
In a related, more recent event, Facebook and Google have been unhinged by a massive, scandalous breach of privacy involving 50 million users in the United States, a crisis of confidence that is scaring customers into canceling their Facebook accounts. These two chilling developments augur a dark age for personal privacy and human freedom.
If George Orwell were alive today, he would undoubtedly be saddened that we have learned little from his dire warnings.
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Narciso Reyes Jr. ([email protected]) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-1981 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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