When it comes to our computers and technology, content may still be king, but information has become God. But all this information has produced a double-edged sword, wrapped in a Catch-22, and stuffed inside a paradox: the more information we possess, the more information we share, the bigger the threat that it can be monitored, used, and stolen. We live in an age of fear: of surveillance, of losing our privacy, of the nebulous world of the web, and maybe, just maybe, of getting caught.
But how do we make sense of it all? Well, throughout history, whenever societies are faced with a fearful conundrum like this one, they turn to the one constant, the one source that can be counted on to reflect our fears, doubts, and uncertainties: literature.
Great literature stands the test of time. But sometimes great literature does more: it captures a time, it reflects a time, or it predicts a time. Much has been said and written about George Orwell's 1984. It is the benchmark of dystopian literature, as Orwell eerily and sagaciously predicts a future where the government and its various institutions control the minds and actions of its citizenry; where privacy is an antiquated ideal, and surveillance is the accepted norm. Sound familiar? The genius of Orwell's altruism, given that the book was written in 1949, is undeniable: as a work of fiction, he pretty much nails it. Big Brother has become a metaphor for the ages.
Like Josef K, we are often left in the dark as to who is watching us, why they are watching us, and when the dreaded knock on the door will come
While 1984 will always remain a vital piece of literature, it is also worth looking at some alternative, equally sagacious literary works that uniquely capture the more-relevant-than-ever themes of privacy, corporate control, and state surveillance.
Written during the fractured chaos of post-war Europe, Franz Kafka's The Trial is a dark, ominous tale of a man's harrowing ordeal with government control and surveillance. Like 1984, The Trial explores the unsettling effects of a totalitarian government through the experiences of one man. But while Orwell's Winston Smith is a (reluctant) participant in the greater, Big Brother-controlled society, and well aware of the "crimes" he increasingly commits, Kafka's Josef K. remains unaware and ignorant of both his crime, and the agency which arrests him, puts him on trial, and eventually kills him. It is a crucial distinction, and one which is increasingly relevant in our young century.
Questions of privacy and surveillance in the rapidly evolving 21st century have moved beyond "are we being watched?" and into the realm of "who is watching us?" and "why"? With that in mind, 1984's portrayal of a society in which everyone knows the rules, and everyone knows they are being watched becomes a tad outdated. Like Winston Smith, we too know we are being watched, but the ambiguity of who is watching us and what are the rules remains increasingly murky. Like Josef K, we are often left in the dark as to who is watching us, why they are watching us, and when the dreaded knock on the door will come. It is this uncertainty which breeds the underlying fear so dominant in our culture.
It is an insular world, where what you wear, how you speak, and how you act is as important as your work performance.
So while we can certainly take joy in watching our latest illegally downloaded movie, that joy is qualified by our guilt, and the fear that we will be caught by someone. That which seems innocuous suddenly becomes much less so in the nebulous world of government and corporate surveillance. It would be easier if we, like Winston Smith, knew for certain that we were being monitored, and by whom. Instead, we live in a Josef K-like world where we are not sure if we are being watched, and if we are, who is doing the watching? Call it meta-fear: who is watching what we are watching and do they care enough to do something about it? Perhaps the answer only comes with a knock on the door.
While Kafka certainly demonstrates that societal fears of government control have a lengthy historical foundation, in The Circle, Dave Eggers adeptly captures those same fears in a modern, more germane 21st century setting: a massive social media corporation. The Circle of the title refers to the name of a company that is has basically subsumed Facebook, Twitter, and Google to become the de facto social media company on the planet. The novel's protagonist, Mae, is a rather innocent girl who starts working in the Circle's "Customer Experience" department. At first, everything seems rosy for Mae: a job at one of the world's biggest companies, a beautiful corporate campus, friendly co-workers. But soon she discovers that things are not necessarily as rosy as they seem.
Within the world of the Circle, there is no privacy, and none is expected. It is an insular world, where what you wear, how you speak, and how you act is as important as your work performance. Everything is monitored, and everything is revealed within the walls of the corporation and outside them. The Circle's mantra is "Privacy is Theft," a modern update of the paradoxical slogans of Big Brother: War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength. Mae is forced to either accept the paradox, or lose her job. It is a paradox with which we are all familiar. We use social media to share ourselves, but then expect to retain a level of privacy. Just as Mae becomes increasingly anxious about who is monitoring her work and her actions, so too do we become anxious about who is monitoring our social media posts. And just like Mae finds it difficult to stop working at the Circle, so too do we find it difficult to stop posting. Sometimes it's just easier to play the game, scary as that might be.
Only in the wonderful world of literature can two novels, written nearly a hundred years apart, thematically capture the struggles of the individual in a larger, regulated society. While Kafka's Josef K falls victim to an unknown government agency, Eggers' Mae falls victim to an all-too-powerful global corporation. While Josef K lives in a world of very little information, Mae lives in a world of too much information. Both novels, and both protagonists, distinctly reflect the world in which we currently live and struggle to understand. And both novels ask the same questions we should be asking ourselves. Is there such a thing as privacy in a world where information is god? Is there a suitable between too little and too much information? Who is watching us? Why are we being watched? And most importantly: Are we safe?