BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In Orwell’s autobiographical essay about his boarding school days, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he tells of a formative experience. It’s slightly embarrassing, as many of our childhood memories are.
He’d been sent on an errand in town and made an unauthorized trip to a sweet shop to buy chocolates. The detour to the shop wasn’t the only illicit part of his adventure. The few pennies in his pocket, although his, were supposed to have been “paid in” to the school’s headmaster.
This practice of “paying in” was allegedly for the safekeeping of money, but it was really to deny the poorer boys the freedom to spend as they pleased. When young Eric Blair would ask for any of his funds (once, to buy a model airplane), the headmaster would demur, telling Blair the object of his desire was not the “kind of thing” a boy of his station should be buying.
But buy the chocolates young Blair did. He was taking an enormous risk. At school he had already been beaten violently with a cane, for a mere classroom blunder. Blair was now crossing the line into real crime, as he understood it. His pulse quickened. Then, Orwell relates
As I came out of the shop I saw on the opposite pavement a small sharpfaced man who seemed to be staring very hard at my school cap. Instantly a horrible fear went through me. There could be no doubt as to who the man was. He was a spy placed there by [the headmaster]! I turned away unconcernedly, and then, as though my legs were doing it of their own accord, broke into a clumsy run. But when I got round the next corner I forced myself to walk again, for to run was a sign of guilt, and obviously there would be other spies posted here and there about the town. All that day and the next I waited for the summons to the study, and was surprised when it did not come.
A few sentences later, Orwell releases himself from the grip of this childhood vision of terror. It was a silly thing to believe. Of course, he observes, there were no networks of spies scouring every street for guilty-looking little boys, trying to catch them breaking the rules. But the headmaster had already got inside young Blair’s head and taught him to believe this paranoid fantasy, or at least to suspect it.
Did Orwell ever let go of this suspicion?
In the opening chapter of 1984, Winston Smith dutifully presents himself to the Telescreen when summoned. Later he tries to hide from it. He wants to admire a diary he had bought recently, an item he knows is contraband. He sneaks around a corner, out of view of the Telescreen, and does his best to stay utterly silent as he gazes on the diary’s beautiful, creamy-white pages. He can’t help himself: he writes out the first few words of his rebellion. Did the Telescreen hear his pencilscratch? He doesn’t know.
In time the reader comes to understand that the agents manning the Telescreen can also monitor people’s heart rate and perspiration. Big Brother can know much more about the people of Oceania then they think they are revealing. Today we would call these kinds of tells “biometric signatures.” The oldest biometric in the book is the fingerprint; it identifies a person uniquely. New sensing and computing technology have evolved other signatures. Added to the list are: gait, pupil dilation, face- and voice recognition, and who knows what else. They can all tell some agent on the other side of the Telescreen who you are as you walk down the street, and probably much more.
Furthermore, biometric signatures can be cross-referenced with other data points that we constantly ooze into the information ecosystem, such as phone metadata, online purchases, social media posts, home address, tax- and police records, car registration, and–again–who knows what else. Are you starting to see a theme?
Orwell saw it. Faced with the unknowable power of Big Brother’s surveillance agents, he has Winston reflect, “It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.”
Orwell is right back on that street in the England of his boyhood. His fear of the sharpfaced man was not so silly after all.
The sentence that fixes Winston in this spy-watched world is one I have vastly under-appreciated, and I have spent a decade actively appreciating the sentences in Orwell’s books. In 1984, Winston doesn’t know that Big Brother’s agents are all-seeing. But his reasonable suspicion is enough. He lives his life, Orwell writes, as if they are “watching everybody all the time,” and he bends his thoughts to accommodate this fear.
I was about to close this post by writing that it “hardly needs saying” that we live in a society shaped by the very condition young Eric Blair imagined and about which the mature Orwell wrote. The sharpfaced man really is who we thought he was. We are watched all the time by agents capable of discovering an indefinitely large body of information about us. But as Orwell also wrote, it sometimes takes effort to see what is right in front of our nose. So it needs saying: the power we have given to companies and governments to watch us and learn about us has not just eroded privacy (as we often read it is doing). It has plainly revoked a certain amount of privacy. In so doing, it has changed who we are. We are the kind of people who live with the suspicion that “they watch everybody all the time.” Maybe this is our God now, slightly less than omniscient but still doing the most invasive part of his job.
I have to a great extent fallen off line in the last few months. This was mostly because I was busy. And, no, I am not about to announce my departure from the grid. The world is a social place, and I live in it. Part of who I am is online, is out there in the information ecosystem, vulnerable to all kinds of surveillance. I don’t honestly believe I will ever walk down a street and have my gait, voice, or face linked to my online identity, but it could happen. We’ve created that condition; we’ve allowed it to happen.
If I could think my way in to young Eric Blair’s thoughts and rerun that scene outside the sweetshop, this is what I would have him say to the sharpfaced man: “Fuck off, I’m just buying chocolates here.” It might have worked in 1915 England. But it wouldn’t work today. The sharpfaced man is an offscreen nobody, and he already knows how much money we have, what we spend it on, what kind of chocolates we like, and that we’re supposed to be in school, not out on a lark. We’ve already told him all that. It’s conceivable he watches us all the time.