When I tell people that I am studying surveillance, and in particular investigating the ways that our personal details are stored in computer databases, the most common reaction is to invoke George Orwell; 'This must be the study of 'Big Brother'. A perfectly understandable response, given that Nineteen Eighty-Four is about a state that uses a huge bureaucratic apparatus, 'thought police', and the figure of 'Big Brother' on the ever-present telescreen to intervene in the smallest details of its citizens' daily lives.
Back in the early 1970s, computer enthusiasts James Martin and Adrian Norman noted that 'a surprising amount of what George Orwell imagined now looks plausible'.1 Such sentiments were repeated routinely by both the complacent and the concerned. Political scientist Theodore Lowi warned that 'a Nineteen Eighty-Four type of scenario will be the most likely outcome if things are let go at the present rate and no attention is paid to the information revolution'.
As we have already seen, in the 1990s Judge Love worries about the 'Orwellian' aspects of his electronic tags for offenders. Within sociological analysis proper, James Rule's work on surveillance also takes its cues from Orwell. Starting from a 'total surveillance society', he argues that the only limits to the present day realization of the Orwellian, nightmare lie in the level of available 'surveillance capacities'. Those capacities are massively augmented by information technology. Some qualitative differences to surveillance come in the train of new technology. Does this bring Nineteen Eighty-Four closer?
Apart from the obvious - but banal - rejoinder that 1984 is now well past, others have begun to question how relevant is the image of Big Brother for the analysis of contemporary electronic surveillance. For instance, Roger Clarke's work indicates that 'dataveillance is technically and economically superior' to the ubiquitous two-way television of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Total control in Oceania was also made possible by centralization. Now, it is true that the governmental and commercial 'centres' of contemporary states still have access to files on major populations, but extensive computer networking also decentralizes operations. Indeed, the old dichotomy between decen- tralization and centralization is itself now questionable. Today's surveil- lance society certainly needs nothing as cumbersome as the administrative machinery of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
I argue that, while Nineteen Eighty-Four has in many ways been superseded technologically, limited but important aspects of its account of a surveillance society still remain relevant today. The eye in the sky is getting even better at its job and we ask ourselves has it undergone laser eye surgery? At the same time, Orwell never imagined how rapidly surveillance would extend its global reach, nor did he conceive of a situation where anything but the state would be its chief perpetrator. Today, surveillance is both a globalizing phenomenon and one that has as much to do with consumers as with citizens.