“To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone − to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone: From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink − greetings!” − Character Winston Smith in George Orwell’s book, 1984.
Winston Smith was saddled with a demanding job in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. He worked eighteen hours a day revising documents that no longer aligned with the current version of history. Books, newspapers, pamphlets, films and photographs were constantly recalled and modified to ensure that no conflicting information existed to potentially discredit the actions of Big Brother. Was Oceania always at war with Eurasia? All existing documents said yes, but Winston seemed to recall differently. Was the chocolate ration always twenty grams per week, or was there a celebration when it was “increased” from thirty grams?
In the world of Winston Smith and his fellow proles, history was like a liquid: Without form and substance, sticking to some surfaces, running off of others, always changing shape. Memory had not only become a useless human faculty but a dangerous one. After all, the Thought Police were certain to bring any prole who uttered dissenting opinions to the Ministry of Love for severe punishment, perhaps execution.
The Records Department had a monumental task on its hands. The tracking, recalling, upgrading and re-distributions of all the books, newspapers and films that were “superseded” and needed updating necessitated an enormous bureaucracy that worked night and day. The biggest hurdle was the fact that the media had physical form. Physical media required bureaucrats to locate it, transport it and then physically modify it before it was transported back to its original location. Overall, it was a time-consuming, costly and error-prone effort.
Imagine how much easier it would have been for the Records Department if all those historically “inaccurate” documents had not been in physical form, but rather, in electronic form − perhaps entries in databases that could be remotely accessed and modified by programmers at the Ministry of Truth. What if all communications between proles had been via electronic messages such as texts, emails and social media threads? That way, even conversations between individuals could have been modified to ensure that their content remained politically acceptable. What if the Thought Police had been given the tools to intercept, decode and classify all electronic transmissions so that any “inaccurate” content could have been flagged and perpetrators immediately brought in for interrogation?
The elimination of paper, pens and pencils would have not only conserved scarce natural resources, but poor Winston would not have been able to surreptitiously document his Thought Crimes in a diary. His dissenting electronic entries could have been immediately identified and his rehabilitation started earlier, possibly preventing a trip to the infamous Room 101.
What Big Brother needed was the Cloud. The “Cloud” is nothing more than a collection of personal and business files stored on remote computers called “servers”. The Cloud may not have existed in George Orwell’s imaginary world of 1984, but it does exist for us today. The Cloud has been made possible through an increasingly inexpensive and higher-performance Internet. Petabytes of information now flow each year between computer clients (e.g., your computer at home or work) and the servers operated by the likes of Microsoft and Apple.
The convenience of the Cloud for proles like us is appealing. Not only can all emails and social conservations be stored remotely (and forever with back-ups), but so can letters, business plans, spreadsheets, homework assignments, pictures, payroll details, government taxes and health records. There is no longer a need for a filing cabinet for the storage of heaps of paper. Furthermore, the Cloud is helping to facilitate the elimination of cash by virtue of the servers operated by banks, credit card companies and intermediaries.
The benefits of the Cloud for Big Brother are even more enticing. With most everything moving to the Cloud and the consequent disappearance of written form, there is now the possibility of enabling the revising of history in a speedy, efficient and accurate manner that the employees of the Records Department could have only dreamed about. Mature computer algorithms promise advanced “search and replace” of any phrase in any document on any server, or the rewriting of entire books and reconstruction of pictures and the editing of films − done while us proles sleep. Every day could reveal a fresh history that coincides with the new prevailing views. Were we always at war with Russia, or was there a time when they were our allies? One will never know if the algorithms get it right.
The algorithms currently employed by Facebook and Twitter to censor views and conversations that run contrary to political correctness are only a starting point. It will soon be possible to edit everything in real time so that only Goodthink prevails, and to have the Thought Police arrest those who defy the norm before they have finished pressing “submit” on their new article or comment. The software run by Fusion Centers that aims to arrest those who commit “pre-crime” is also in its infancy. The Cloud will help to accelerate and advance the ability to pick those who pose a future threat to public peace.
The Cloud will make history a thing of the present rather than the past. The word “memory” will apply only to the ever-changing petabytes of information stored in the Cloud rather than that increasingly unnecessary artifact of the human mind. History will be what Cloud managers want it to be. It will be like a liquid poured from one container to another, never taking concrete form.
Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery. War is peace.
It was always that way, wasn’t it? Let me log on and check.