An Analysis of the Surveillance in 1984 by George Orwell and The Trial by Franz Kafka

Foundations of Surveillance In today’s highly technological, rapidly developing culture, the issue of surveillance is a very relevant and popular topic of discussion. History shows that surveillance is a natural human instinct, and just like everything else, it has progressed as civilization becomes more sophisticated. People, being social creatures, have always kept an eye on each other in one form or another. It used to be open observation in public communities, before people became domesticated, in a sense. Once they started seeking more privacy, eavesdropping and gossip began. (Locke 2010: 17) Now, in a society practically built around technology, surveillance has increased dramatically and had an impact on many areas of everyday life. Surveillance has been a “character” in many books and movies for quite some time, two of the most famous of which are 1984 by George Orwell and The Trial by Franz Kafka. To discover the most important and relevant aspects regarding surveillance, privacy, and their roles in today’s high-tech society, we can carefully evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both 1984 and The Trial in their relations to our current culture of surveillance. George Orwell’s 1984 was written in 1949 and was Orwell’s suggestion of what the future of surveillance could be like; specifically, in the year 1984.

In the story, the entire world has been essentially taken over by the Party and “Big Brother,” the government, which can monitor every move anyone makes in any place. This is possible due to “telescreens” that are in everyone’s houses to track anything they say and do. Most people are so completely brainwashed that they think this all encompassing surveillance is a good thing; in fact, they practically worship Big Brother. However, the main character, Winston Smith, does a dangerous thing. He writes a journal about how much he hates Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police who enforce the laws of the Party. It is illegal to even keep a journal about anything, and it is even more of a crime to so much as think anything negative about Big Brother, so Winston is breaking multiple rules and is aware that he may well be executed if he is found out, and the Thought Police always find out. In the end, they find out about Winston and his lover Julia’s “crimes” and torture them and put them through a reprogramming so that they comply with the Party. This novel was written to make people think about the possibilities and dangers of the direction that surveillance was headed. Another relevant source about the topics of surveillance and privacy is Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. Josef K, the protagonist, is interrupted in his daily life as a banker by visitors at his door informing him he has been arrested.

However, they provide no information, such as what the crime was or who is arresting him. K is supposed to continue with his regular life, but he becomes obsessed with his case and neglects all else. Eventually, he is practically driven to madness and asks two men to kill him, all because of the distress his mysterious arrest has caused him. These two primary sources, although they were both written over 50 years ago, are packed full of modern viewpoints of privacy and surveillance. Daniel Solove, in chapter 3 of his book The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, remarks about 1984, “Big Brother demands complete obedience from its citizens and controls all aspects of their lives… Big Brother’s goal is uniformity and complete discipline, and it attempts to police people to an unrelenting degree… Any trace of individualism is quickly suffocated.” (Solove 2004: 29). In other words, Big Brother’s purpose is to monitor the citizens so that the government can control the people completely, through discipline if need be, and make everyone the same – just pawns in the hands of Big Brother. This control and “legibility” is very much the same for surveillance today, as we will see.

Although our culture has not become exactly like Orwell’s imagined world, the aspects of constant surveillance, extreme power, and loss of individuality are replicated in different ways. Solove goes on to say that part of understanding the relevance of 1984 today is to think critically and look for metaphors paralleling the storyline in today’s world. An obvious similarity to the all-encompassing power of Big Brother in 1984 is the use of the internet today. It is intricate and can produce results for almost anything that anyone wants to find, whether it’s searching for books on Amazon.com or trying to reconnect with an old friend via Facebook. Computer-savvy hackers have ways to find deeply personal information, and metaphorically “watch” every move a person makes, similar to the use of the telescreen in 1984. The government’s ability to track our activities through our social security numbers is a real-life example of “Big Brother” in action, reducing an individual to a number in order to monitor them. James Scott defines this as “legibility” in chapter 2 of his book Seeing Like a State: “[f]or a society to become more legible, that society must eliminate ‘local monopolies of information’ while also opening a flow of information that is uniform through ‘codes, identities, statistics, regulations, and measures” (Scott 78).

Just as Big Brother sought to simplify society and make everyone alike in 1984, social security numbers are codes that help the government track people, but at the same time are somewhat dehumanizing. In these ways, the mindsets of “Big Brother” and constant surveillance by others are very relevant in our current culture. However, Solove also points out a weakness of 1984 when comparing it to today’s world of surveillance: “Big Brother employs a coercive power that is designed to dominate and oppress. Power, however, is not merely prohibitive; as illustrated by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, it composes our very lives and culture. Huxley describes a different form of totalitarian society—one controlled not by force, but by entertainment and pleasure. The population is addicted to a drug called Soma, which is administered by the government as a political tool to sedate the people. Huxley presents a narrative about a society controlled not by a despotic coercive government like Big Brother, but by manipulation and consumption, where people participate in their own enslavement. The government achieves obedience through social conditioning, propaganda, and other forms of indoctrination. It does not use the crude coercive techniques of violence and force, but instead employs a more subtle scientific method of control—through genetic engineering, psychology, and drugs.

Power works internally the government actively molds the private life of its citizens, transforming it into a world of vapid pleasure, mindlessness, and numbness.” (Solove 2004: 40). This “totalitarian society” controlled by “entertainment and pleasure” described in the aforementioned Huxley narrative cited by Solove is much more like the reality of surveillance in our society today than the world depicted in 1984. A perfect example is how people choose to subject themselves to being watched when they use social media or cell phones, just to name a few. This is the fifth “Big Idea” in Supervision, which discusses the interplay of fear and desire when exposing oneself to surveillance (Gilliom and Monahan 2013: 134-136). Aside from the fact that Winston Smith chooses to “surveill❞ himself by writing a journal, there are few mentions or implications in 1984 of the factors of fear and desire in surveillance, partially because there isn’t much of a choice for the people who are being watched. Another weakness of 1984 is the total responsibility placed on the government for surveillance. The third “Big Idea” in Supervision asserts that the majority of surveillance programs and systems are being encouraged and enforced by corporations rather than the government, although they also often team up, and this is not so in 1984 (Gilliom and Monahan 2013: 8).

Clearly, the society pictured in 1984 is lacking in a few areas when evaluating it in relation to surveillance today. Thinking critically about the popular issues of privacy and surveillance is summed up best in the first of the “Ten Big Ideas” of surveillance in the book Supervision. Gilliom and Monahan suggest that the world of surveillance has become much more complicated and is no longer adequately described by the terms and reasoning of things like “Big Brother” and privacy alone. These ideas are still important, but no longer sufficient in and of themselves. “A smarter way to think about today’s surveillance begins with a fresh reckoning of the nature and implications of a rapidly changing array of technologies and policies. It means looking at how surveillance is really used, who’s using it, and how it affects our world. It means understanding surveillance as a form of power and governance woven into the fabric of our lives. Surveillance is no longer a brief intrusion or a scary idea from a movie, it’s a way of life. It’s our way of life.” (Gilliom and Monahan 2013: 7-8). To paraphrase, what this idea is saying is that surveillance is no longer about concepts from books such as 1984, which are maybe exaggerated or only true in some parts of life, but now surveillance is everywhere. In order to think critically about the presence of surveillance in our everyday lives, we have to examine the “nature and implications” of new technologies – what are they, what are the underlying reasons for them, what effects do they have on people? It also takes a discerning mind to pick out subtle forms of surveillance disguised in our normal activities, and requires that people recognize the power of influence that surveillance now holds.

For me personally, this means recognizing the power of social media sites. I understand that any information I share online is widely available to millions of people, including potential employers or people that I may not want to know about my personal life. For these reasons, I keep my Facebook settings very private, and I don’t have an Instagram, Twitter, or Foursquare. After researching these sites, I decided that the reasons for them are not important enough for me to create a profile, due to the possible effects on my reputation. This is just one example of the type of proposed changes in thinking that Gilliom and Monahan suggest in order for people to think critically about surveillance in our world today. When thinking critically about surveillance and privacy in The Trial and its implications today, Supervision’s fifth and tenth “Big Ideas” are extremely enlightening. The fifth idea is that people play an active part in allowing their own surveillance (Gilliom and Monahan 2013: 8-9). This is certainly true for K, who is permitted to continue on with his regular life but insists upon exposing himself to further surveillance by persistently returning to court to understand more about his “arrest.” This curiosity ties To paraphrase, what this idea is saying is that surveillance is no longer about concepts from books such as 1984, which are maybe exaggerated or only true in some parts of life, but now surveillance is everywhere.

In order to think critically about the presence of surveillance in our everyday lives, we have to examine the “nature and implications” of new technologies – what are they, what are the underlying reasons for them, what effects do they have on people? It also takes a discerning mind to pick out subtle forms of surveillance disguised in our normal activities, and requires that people recognize the power of influence that surveillance now holds. For me personally, this means recognizing the power of social media sites. I understand that any information I share online is widely available to millions of people, including potential employers or people that I may not want to know about my personal life. For these reasons, I keep my Facebook settings very private, and I don’t have an Instagram, Twitter, or Foursquare. After researching these sites, I decided that the reasons for them are not important enough for me to create a profile, due to the possible effects on my reputation. This is just one example of the type of proposed changes in thinking that Gilliom and Monahan suggest in order for people to think critically about surveillance in our world today. When thinking critically about surveillance and privacy in The Trial and its implications today, Supervision’s fifth and tenth “Big Ideas” are extremely enlightening.

The fifth idea is that people play an active part in allowing their own surveillance (Gilliom and Monahan 2013: 8-9). This is certainly true for K, who is permitted to continue on with his regular life but insists upon exposing himself to further surveillance by persistently returning to court to understand more about his “arrest.” This curiosity ties into the tenth “Big Idea,” that “scientific rationalism is the dominant mentality of our time, leading to an insatiable hunger for information…governments, corporations, courts, and individuals all seek more information so they can make smart choices.” (Gilliom and Monahan 2013: 9). K has a pressing desire to acquire more information about his arrest in order to decide what he should do about it. He could have had the same amount of privacy as before, but decided to trade in his privacy for information. These situations in The Trial are perfect examples of how the novel is applicable today when studying surveillance. In conclusion, Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial both contain fascinating food for thought and have helped define some important things that are at play in today’s culture of technological surveillance.

1984 introduces the concept of a dehumanizing surveillance system, similar to today’s social security numbers, and Big Brother is a metaphorical parallel to the internet. But the book fails to portray the significant role of corporations and individuals (in addition to the government) in surveillance, or the concept that fear and desire are factors that sometimes cause people to choose to be surveilled. The Trial does a good job of showing an individual’s choice in seeking surveillance, but does not have much to do with technology, so the implications in today’s world are a little harder to discover. Both sources could be evaluated on much deeper levels, but it is safe to say that they are wonderful foundations for understanding the complexities involved in surveillance in our high-tech society, with plenty of opportunities to branch off into further discussion and implications.

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