June 11, 2019

Orwell’s 1984 was published seventy years ago, a Harvard academic asks if he got it right


Our relationship with technology is quickly becoming one of the most discussed topics of our time. Whether it be the inevitability of AI or social media’s turn to consumerism, the veil is lifting on how technology and the Internet are finding ways to mine us for information. For TIME magazine, author Shoshana Zuboff revisits George Orwell’s classic 1984 and points out what he missed in his prophetic book, seventy years after its publication.

Known for her academic research on “the digital revolution,” Zuboff sees Orwell’s work as only half-done. While 1984 certainly helped society at large understand the implications of totalitarian and state rule via the use of technology, he did not foresee the insidious and capitalistic nature technology would take in the 21st century.

She writes: “Since 1984’s publication, we have assumed with Orwell that the dangers of mass surveillance and social control could only originate in the state. We were wrong. This error has left us unprotected from an equally pernicious but profoundly different threat to freedom and democracy.”

Zuboff claims that we no longer have the state to fear when it comes to that specific kind of mind control, but Google. Named “surveillance capitalism,” it’s what we’ve only recently been woken up to through the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearings, Russian hackers and the 2016 election. Through consumerism and “global social connection,” social media and brand marketing companies are  changing the power dynamics in our society. As Zuboff says, it’s not Big Brother, but Big Other.

Take her explanation of the wildly popular game Pokémon Go:

Augmented reality game Pokémon Go, developed at Google and released in 2016 by a Google spinoff, took the challenge of mass behavioral modification to a new level. Business customers from McDonalds to Starbucks paid for “footfall” to their establishments on a “cost per visit” basis, just as online advertisers pay for “cost per click.” The game engineers learned how to herd people through their towns and cities to destinations that contribute profits, all of it without game players’ knowledge.

Technology does a lot of things, but hopefully after reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing and Cyrus Farivar’s Habeas Data, you might learn a way to fight back!



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.