The news and media are filled with stories of violations of our privacy, the monolithic United States threatening to dominate us all in the spirit of George Orwell’s Big Brother. What are we to make of the way these things appear to us?
It is with near absolute certainty that I can affirm that anyone reading this knows the name Edward Snowden. Open any social media website, switch to any well-known news channel or gaze upon any emblazoned newspaper headline and the face of the (in)famous “whistleblower” glares back at you, innocently bespectacled, the defender of our privacy. No respectable news agents would bat an eye at their task of enlightening the masses as to the impending threat of National Security Agency surveillance, and the power which the United States can (and probably will continue to, in spite of our efforts) wield over us all, spying on our precious Gmail accounts and carefully constructed Facebook profiles and so on and so forth.
So, many have turned to 1984, that work of literary fiction whose pages it seems have become a little dog-eared in their service as the quintessential source of intellectual grounding for our society’s decline into dystopia. “Look!” online pseudo-intellectuals cry, “George was right! Big Brother is at hand.” As readers or viewers, we lap it up (me included). The threat of this kind of doomsday totalitarianism is a common, appealing trope, re-hashed over and over in films like Equilibrium or The Matrix. We are all morbidly and fearfully fascinated by the idea of a world which totally controls each and every one of us in its pursuit of utopia. Inevitably, as the story goes, the world descends into chaos and dystopia, a message for all of us to heed… But wait! One man has risen up to save us all, to stand against what he sees as “invasion of privacy” or “injustice”. Vicariously we live through these characters and seek to emulate them.
There is something really interesting happening here. It seems to me that there is a stock narrative, being re-purposed in numerous media. But the really curious re-birth of Orwell’s famous dystopia as a trope is now at its most healthy in the news media. Why is that? Why is it that Edward Snowden and his run-ins with the powerful CIA/NSA/FBI/ any-other-acronym-you-choose makes for such enthralling news? Well, precisely because it is presented not simply as news, but as something all the more fascinating in our modern day: reality television. Reality TV, we all know, is absolutely engrossing, possessing that element of the real which makes our vicarious participation just that little bit easier. But we all know that most reality TV is at least a little bit scripted. Snowden is presented in such a way then for us to live through him, the same way we live through John Preston (Equilibrium) or Winston Smith (1984). I’m not saying the news is scripted, but they definitely choose which elements to really emphasise.
Now, this is not to discount the threat of being spied on. Sure, we should be concerned when governments wield their power under false pretences, claiming to protect us as justification for violation of what many consider a basic right to privacy. At no point do I wish to deny that. I am simply attempting to draw some attention away from the frenzy for a second and examine more closely the role of the media and how stories are both portrayed and participated in. Yes, they (the media) give us the news, and often it’s the truth. But they are also a source of entertainment – an institution which commodifies real stories about real people, often in a more malicious and flamboyant way than the dreaded reality TV franchise, neatly packaging the facts in a way that has mass appeal and boosts hits or views (or profits). More crucially as well, we become distracted from the real issue at hand. So enamoured are we by the escapism the “Life and Times of Edward Snowden” offers, we forget to critique the actual problem of surveillance – we lose sight of the issue.
Thus, the dystopian threat of 1984 is replayed for us over our morning cereal and we are enabled as defenders of our society, totally distracted from the real problem – we become our very own Winston Smiths over coffee with co-workers. We become our own Edward Snowdens, with a little help from our friends the news media.