Big Brother?

All of my teaching experience has been online. While this is not a post to discuss advantages and disadvantages of online courses, one benefit that I will point out is the ability to have in-depth discussions involving the entire class. It is easy to require everyone to participate, and unlike in a face-to-face class, the one guy who feels he must dominate the conversation has no stronger voice online than does the shyest student.

In one of my IT Security classes I wanted to discuss George Orwell’s vision of technology in 1984, and how reality has not met his expectations. I posed the following question for discussion:

In his book 1984, George Orwell predicted that technology would be used by the government (Big Brother) to obliterate citizens privacy and allow the state to completely control citizens lives. To what extent has Orwell’s vision been realized?

I was hoping students would discuss the ways in which citizens in repressive regimes used technology to undermine state control. Instead, many (though not all) of the students argued that the U.S. government is using technology to invade privacy just as Orwell had predicted. This I did not expect. Wondering how many of the students had read, or remembered Orwell’s book, I added the following details:

In Orwell’s 1984, every apartment has a telescreen.

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live –did live, from habit that became instinct– in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.


Each morning Winston does exercises in front of the telescreen.

‘Thirty to forty group!’ yapped a piercing female voice. ‘Thirty fo forty group! Take your places, please. Thirties to forties!’

Winston sprang to attention in front of the telescreen, upon which the image of a youngish woman, scrawny but muscular, dressed in tunic and gym-shoes, had already appeared.


‘Smith!’ screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. ‘6079 Smith W! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You’re not trying. Lower, please! That’s better, comrade.

Even with that further description of 1984, many students continued to argue that the U.S. government, while perhaps not as extreme as Big Brother, did many of the things described in the book.

What do you think?


One Response to Big Brother?

  1. Joan says:

    Very interesting. Cool things to consider.

    NPR had a story this week about The Mall of America. They have their own team of anti-terror police. It seems that they watch and detain people that seem suspicious. Walking too fast, too slow, pacing, Staring. Writing in notebooks. Taking pictures.

    There is a jail and an interrogation area in the basement. Some of the people are turned over to the police and the FBI. They highlighted some of the cases that seemed absurd. Even if nothing is proven, their “suspicious person” files remain active. Most of the accused were people of color.

    It gave me a very sick feeling.

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