Revisiting ‘1984’ in the Age of Snowden, the NSA and Mass Data Collection

By Blake Baxter

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This time last year, Edward Snowden was finishing up a stint as a no-name government worker. Specifically, he was a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was a soon to be ex-employee of Dell, a private contractor of the National Security Agency (NSA). But in more general terms, he was just one of the 4.2 million people in the country whom had access to classified government information. By summer, Edward Snowden had become one of the most discussed, vilified and praised people in the world. On June 5, The Guardian and Washington Post published classified government documents that implicated the NSA in conducting massive data collection of American citizens, among other things. The documents were leaked to the press in a deliberate, premeditated manner by Snowden, who, it turned out, had stolen thousands of documents from the NSA.

Since then, a torrent of opinions has been unleashed on both the man who unlawfully obtained the documents and the agency that unlawfully conducted global surveillance. He’s been called a “whistleblower” and a “hero” by those who champion privacy and government transparency, and a “criminal” and a “traitor” by those who think he jeopardized a vital cause (keeping the American people safe), — and just about everything else in between. Regardless of how you feel about the leaker or the government, it is indisputable that the former’s revelations of the latter’s actions have brought on a very important national discussion about government surveillance and citizens’ rights to privacy. In the process, it has also renewed the relevance and interest of one of the most famous and influential novels of the 20th century.

On December 16, U.S. Federal Judge Richard Leon ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records is unconstitutional. His ruling featured a litany of eye-catching adjectives that he used to describe the NSA’s programs. “I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen,” he wrote. He also memorably said that James Madison would be “aghast” at the findings, and, perhaps most evocative of all, referred to the mass data collection as “almost Orwellian” in its scope. (In January, the U.S. Justice Department announced they were appealing the ruling.) On Christmas Day, Snowden himself stated that the government surveillance of George Orwell’s 1984 is “nothing compared to what we have available today”. The assertions of both Snowden and Judge Leon are damning to such an extreme degree that it can be difficult to process. The majority of Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the term “Orwellian”, but it’s likely that many are far removed from actually reading the novel in which it originated.

Born as Eric Blair in India in 1903, George Orwell was an English novelist, writer, journalist and critic. He was a precocious learner and a critical thinker from an early age, but rarely took his studies seriously. After his education at Eton College, he was served for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. After his service, Blair took up the pen name “George Orwell” and dove into writing. He lived an eventful life, vehemently defending myriads of causes, including his support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War in which he was wounded in the throat by a sniper’s bullet. Orwell was a stubborn, opinionated man, and he was never one to let the opinion of the general public affect the things he said, did, or wrote. He wrote a scathing satire of the events leading up to the Russian Revolution at a time when the U.K. had a strong alliance with the Soviet Union and the British people generally thought highly of Joseph Stalin. It was called Animal Farm, and it’s one of Orwell’s most striking, enduring and celebrated works, but he struggled to get it published at the time. In 1949, while suffering from tuberculosis, Orwell published what’s widely considered to he his magnum opus, 1984. 

As previously alluded, people generally know the themes, premise, and terms of 1984 – effects of totalitarian government, dystopian society,  “Big Brother,” “thoughtcrime,” etc. but a significantly less amount of people know the specifics of the story. In 1984, it is the year 1984, or at least it might be; the totalitarian government has rendered the traditional calendar obsolete, among many other things. Winston Smith, the protagonist of the novel, is a citizen of Airstrip One (more commonly known to us as London), a province of Oceania (more commonly known to us as Great Britain but also many other territories). He is a member of the Outer Party, the middle class of a strictly divided caste system. His occupation is essentially professional propagandist and historical revisionist. In Oceania, every line of information and news must back up the word of the Party. Everything the Party says is the indisputable, gospel, objective truth, even when it isn’t.

Winston knows that this is deeply problematic but he dares not say it aloud.  The modern world is one of invasive, indiscriminate surveillance. There are telescreens – ubiquitous TV screens that dictate, watch and listen, and cannot be turned off – microphones and Thought Police everywhere. “Big Brother is Watching You,” read the posters on the streets, constantly reminding the citizens of their precarious state. “Big Brother” is the supposed leader of the government. Everyone knows and reveres the face, yet no one knows the man, because, well, there isn’t a lot of evidence that he actually exists. It’s much more likely that he doesn’t and that he’s just a figurehead, a symbol of the Party’s self-defeating and nonsensical mantras: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. It is through those slogans that the totalitarian government rules, manipulates and controls its citizens.

Winston is old enough to know that the government, the world, the wars, the enemies, the allies, and the conditions have not always been the same; even though the Party insists that it’s so. If Oceania is at war with Eurasia, then it has always been at war with Eurasia, according to the Party. To suggest otherwise is akin to asking to be vaporized. To do anything that is against the wishes of the Party is certain death, no doubt, but it goes further than that. If it is detected that if one is even thinking about committing actions against the Party, against Big Brother then they are guilty of thoughtcrime. Yet Winston cannot resist it. Early in the novel, Winston obtains a rare antique notebook that he assumes would be frowned upon for him to even own. “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” Winston writes, despite himself. “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: Thoughtcrime IS death,” he later adds. Although Winston knows that this will lead to his demise, he doesn’t know the full extent of its consequences. This will not end well. But the seeds of rebellion are already planted.

The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part, there is a lot to take in and process. There’s the structure of the government, the technology, the jargon, and even an entirely new language, full of false dichotomies and contradictions that the Party uses to limit the vocabulary, and by extension, the thoughts of its citizens. There are rituals like the daily Two Minute Hate in which the people are forced to celebrate the victories of the soldiers that are in perpetual war, but moreover, the defeats of its enemies. Some of it, as bleak as it is, is humorous, like the hypocritical names of the four ministries of the government, “The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts” (i.e. propaganda), “The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war,” “The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order” (by way of fear mongering and brutality), and “The Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs” (i.e. extreme rationing of sparse goods and resources). But the hopelessness never overshadows the vivid and immersive world that Orwell is expertly and meticulously crafting.

In the second part of the story, the tension and the energy heighten considerably. As Winston struggles to maintain his mask of stoicism to conceal his secret, incriminating thoughts, he runs into an unexpected development. He falls madly in love and begins an illicit love affair with a younger woman named Julia, a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League. The love affair is illicit (and ill advised) because the Party strictly forbids non-marital sex. In the year 1984, all forms of pleasure are considered immoral. In Julia, Winston finds an unlikely companion who also loathes the Party, but for different reasons. Whereas Winston’s discontent stems from knowing that that the party is ruthless, untruthful and hypocritical, Julia just doesn’t like being told what to do. It’s primarily due to their difference in age. Julia is in her mid twenties; she grew up with the Party in control. Her dissidence is typical youthful rebellion, not revolutionary radicalism. Winston is 39; he knows that the world wasn’t always this way. At first glance, Winston, like many who subsist off of black bread, small portions of chocolate and copious amounts of gin (Winston is also an alcoholic), is just another physically decaying, seemingly diligent member of the Party. Julia, though, sees through his façade and finds a good heart and a (relatively) like mind.

Together the lovers begin going on semi-regular promiscuous adventures in secluded hideouts, undetected by all-seeing telescreens and unknown to the ever-snooping Thought Police and their vigilant cronies. But as time goes on, Winston and Julia stray further and further away from the mandates of the Party, to the point that they join a loosely organized underground resistance. There is a growing excitement as their actions grow bolder, but it is followed everywhere by a shadow of paranoia. During this part of the novel, the story begins to feel a little bit like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Though in reality, the conditions of Oceania make those of the 12 Districts look bright by comparison. It starts to feel pretty fun, until the final act of the story, that is; once the Party catches the two rebels, the novel goes from rough but hopeful to horrifying but fascinating.

The curtain is finally pulled back, and the reader gets a closer look at the rationale of the monsters that machinate such world-shaping calamities. But what the reader – and Winston – finds is that delusion fuels the machine just as much as malice.  As Winston finds out, you can’t reason with delusion deep enough to convince people that society is better off when two plus two makes something other than four. The third section of the story begins with the sentence, “He did not know where he was,” a rather ominous start. By the last sentence, Winston knows where he is, and it’s a very disturbing place; devastating, in fact.

Reading 1984 in 2014 is much different than reading it in 1949, or really any other time since then, for that matter. Before, it was a novel about the future based on the dark pasts of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. But it was more than that too, because it was a warning to Orwell’s generation and every one after that that is what could happen if people stop thinking for themselves and let the government’s powers go unchecked. Now, though, it’s impossible to read without comparing it to current events.

I recently read the novel with these ideas in mind, to determine just how “Orwellian” this day and age really is, and whether or not Judge Leon and Snowden were exaggerating. But as I read I became less concerned with how close to the mark it was (though, for the record, I did find at least Snowden’s claims to be a bit overreaching), and more interested in what Orwell would make of the NSA and Edward Snowden. Regardless of yours or my opinion of the man who stole and leaked thousands of government documents, I think it’s safe to say Orwell would regard Edward Snowden as someone who refused to accept that 2 + 2 = 5. And he definitely wouldn’t care if anyone agreed with him or not.

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Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

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