Has Orwell’s “Big Brother” done justice to portray the complexity of today’s mass surveillance?

Seven decades since George Orwell’s “1984”, the omniscient ruler known as “Big Brother” remains a universal epitome with power over mass surveillance and intrusive control towards freedom of thoughts. Yet, “Big Brother” is in fact intangible in its nature. The quote-on-quote “character” was rather a figure of speech to delineate a powerful entity. Ironically enough, the novel rose to fame as a sci-fi novella in 1949 when it was first published to portray a tragic reality of a world without individual freedom. Orwell proclaimed that “Big Brother” could come to life once society becomes unaware of the assault on their freedom and neglect their fundamental rights of free thoughts. Thus, “1984” is not a prophetic proclamation, rather a realistic admonition to humankind. 

As surveillance technology continuously advances, its pace of complexity has blinded human’s awareness of its potential threats. In shaping common knowledge, figures of speech can certainly over-dramatised things. Yet, the path we are on, the future of surveillance might cause a far greater assault of privacy that the metaphor “Big Brother” can capture. Today, on the threshold of the tech era, we ask ourselves how much did Orwell’s fictional world foresee our present. In his “1984”, Orwell’s “Big Brother” instilled a sense of loyalty through fear in its populace, opting to gain power to control the flow of knowledge in society and individual’s points of view in approaching certain events and issues in life. In our version of “1984”, Orwell was right about several things, including the assault on freedom through violation of privacy. In a substantial part of our world, the relevance became more vivid through the management of media and censorship of news and knowledge, which severely controlled individual thoughts and its ability of wander freely beyond “fed facts”.

Today, the pace of media management has reached the point where commercial institutions optimise partnership with tech agencies to track down information on our online activity history, opting to filter information and show individuals exactly what they want them to see at a specific time frame. For this reason, a large portion of our population may be left unaware of the tendencies that our social media often pops up random ads, which altogether are similar to our “interests”. Unconsciously, we often choose to ignore how social media institutions gather insights on our personal interests, if not by breaking through our online search pattern history. Today, more people tend to underestimate the inevitable fact that online activities are transparent on the internet. Thus, this further clarifies the relevance of Orwell’s fictional world in the present society – if institutions have access to our private life as far as online activity history, then what possible information is in fact unattainable.

The notion of power, too, makes common use of the Orwellian perspective. Unnecessarily within the context of institutional power, this notion refers to the power of media bias and misinterpreted truth to manipulate mass knowledge. We stagger under the filtered and even manipulated version of reality from the media, reclaiming that the media shows us exactly what they want us to see and believe. There is an inevitable truth that various scandals and biased versions of historical events remained unacknowledged to erase certain memories in society. As goes Churchill’s famous saying “history is written by the victors”, implying that history as we know now is in fact a forced narrative manipulated by the victors to prevail one-sided perspective of the past. In discussion of prominent historical events such as World War 2, a substantial part of society directly triggers the classification of heroes and villains, as the Allies and Axis sequentially. Though the fact of the matter is both sides inflicted and bore a nearly equal burden of casualties in society. Yet, history as we know fed facts that unconsciously trigger society to justify all acts of the heroes as noble and heroic, and the contrary goes for the villains.

It is merely the vigilance of the people that could prevent the coming to life and spread of power of the “Big Brother” regime. A French philosopher, Montesquieu, quoted two centuries before “1984”, he said “it is not always important that individuals reason well, it is sufficient that they reason; from their individual thought, freedom is born”. Now that there, is what we need.


Sources: The New York Times, Science Direct, Research Gate, Britannica, Human Right Watch

Words by: Tamara Rosa Anatolia Simarmata