Let me explain why.
First of all, some homework for you. Go and read this article
by Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias
. In it Hanson ridicules those media stories about new fossil discoveries that are older than the hitherto oldest known fossil evidence for whatever. Quoth Hanson:
The public loves to hear a story of academics shocked, just shocked, by new findings. But there is an obvious bias: we hear lots of stories about data forcing estimates to be earlier, but hardly ever stories about data forcing estimates to be later.
Given continued new earliest fossil finds, it is quite unreasonable to estimate that the earliest behavior started about the time of the earliest known fossil.
The important point to bear in mind is this:
I should note that our best estimate for anything should always follow a random walk; any systematic deviation from such a random walk suggests bias.
Now, I first read 1984
in 1989 in my final year at school. One thing that was frequently remarked upon at the time was that the dystopia that Orwell warned about had not come to pass. If Orwell was trying to predict the future, he got it wrong. He may have successfully predicted the Cold War
, but the state did not keep its subjects under constant surveillance, thought was still free and the people did not live in fear of being disappeared and tortured for petty offences against party dogma. My assumption, therefore, was that we didn't really have much to worry about, even though my English teacher did remark at the time that the world could still go that way.
In the years since, however, with the proliferation of CCTV cameras, the establishment of the National Lottery and the like in Britain, I have frequently been surprised at the extenet to which many of Orwell's visions appear to becoming true after all. Despite my surprise, however, I have always thought that although I may not approve of these developments, they will not lead to the nightmare of 1984
. Rather than the people fearing torture within Room 101 in the Ministry of Love, the effects will be more subtle - wasted tax money on crime prevention schemes that don't live up to their promises, the frustrations and inconvenience caused by an obdurate bureaucracy. Perhaps a handful of people will have their lives ruined by corrupt officials taking advantage of their new powers, but it would only be a handful. The possibility that the state would systematically murder people merely for disagreeing with the party line would be remote in the extreme.
That was until I read this story
. The most vivid image of 1984
that was burned into my mind was of the omnipresent telescreens and their perpetual barking. Whether it be the celebration of the increase of the chocolate ration from 80 grammes per week to 40 grammes, or a scolding for failure to show sufficient enthusiasm for your morning exercises, the telescreens were the source of an incessant din from which there was no escape. Not only that, but they were a two-way channel of information, used by the state to identify thought criminals. This is different from the way things were going until now - surveillance was a separate activity from propaganda. Even if the state could see what you were up to and send its jack-booted thugs round to kick your door down after the fact, at least the BBC wouldn't prod you in the back and scold you whilst your were happily endulging in whatever sinful pleasure the state disapproved of. You had the choice of switching the telescreen off.
But now, it appears, this is all to change. CCTV cameras are to be fitted with speakers, so that when an operator spots you committing "anti-social behaviour" (presumably meaning anything from p***ing in the street whilst drunk, to, who knows?, putting the wrong coloured glass bottle in the recycling bin), you will be suitably admonished for your sins.
I should make it clear that I don't think that this represents some sort of quantum leap in our progress towards the panopticon state. What is different is that it is, I think, the first such development that I have been aware of since I read Hanson's article about the fossil discoveries [Correction: No, it's not. I've just been reading my own blog.]
and the thought struck me that whenever I read about such things in the news, I always experience surprise at the extent to which Orwell's visions are becoming reality. Perhaps with the exception of the collapse of communsim in eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War, I cannot think of a single major news story that has surprised me and would count as refutation of Orwell's predictions. My assessment of Orwell as a prophet does not appear to be following the random walk that it should do if it were unbiased. New evidence nearly always suggests that I have underestimated him.
In the light of this, I think it is now time to change my assessment of Orwell's prophecy. From now on, my default assumption will be that everything that Orwell predicted will come true. The intrusions of the CCTV cameras, the petty little rules enforced by bottom inspectors, biometric identity cards and the rest will be nothing compared to what we will eventually have to put up with. The state really will try to control every aspect of the language we speak, we really will have to join in the Two Minutes Hate with gusto and honest, law-abiding folk really will live in a state of perpetual fear of being hauled off to be tortured because their children have snitched on them.
Of course, my new assessment may well be an over-reaction and our future society will lie in some intermediate state between what I expected and what Orwell described. But as things stand, I cannot continue in my old complacency. Things are worse than I thought.