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RM Issue #030704

Orwell that ends well - Bill Gates and the sunny side of Nineteen Eighty-Four

by Shane Schick
Thursday, July 03, 2003

George Orwell may be dead, but Winston Smith lives on in enterprises everywhere.

The protagonist of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel for which Orwell is best known, Smith was described as a quiet man in his thirties who desperately wants to break out of the overly structured, highly

industrialized society in which he is trapped. Technology powers the culture that surrounded him, but it also keeps people in a perpetual state of uncertainty over how it might be used to cause harm. The use of surveillance and the manipulation of language -- usually conveyed via mass communications systems -- erodes Smith's sense of well-being. He lives knowing he lacks an appropriate degree of personal privacy. He has to accept that the government uses information to safeguard its own interests and that of other established powers.

Many people would no doubt see the parallels between Orwell's world in Nineteen Eighty-Four and our own, but not Bill Gates. Despite the Microsoft chief software architect's unique position to understand where technology has taken us, Gates told a Washington event commemorating the 100th anniversary of Orwell's birth this week that technology can only do good in the world. "Orwell's vision didn't come true, and I don't believe it will," he said. "This technology can make our country more secure and prevent the nightmare vision of George Orwell at the same time."

The naivete of these sentiments would be charming if they didn't fly in the face of recent developments at the airport. On Thursday the U.S. Transportation Security Administration released a photograph of a "backscatter" machine that bounces X-rays off the skin, producing a black-and-white image. To the eye, a woman in the picture is dressed in a skirt and blazer in dark, businesslike colors. On the monitor she is naked, except for the gun and bomb that she has hidden under her outfit. The photograph, which would have chilled Orwell had he lived to see it, represents the iconography of paranoia better than any images of Big Brother on a giant video screen.

Given Orwell's dystopian concerns, it's interesting to imagine how he might have conducted himself in the "information age" -- an appellation, by the way, he would have assumed was a joke. He would have been very interested in encryption, but terrified of biometrics. He would have fought against the use of technical buzz-words to mask technology's shortfalls (though Nineteen Eighty-Four's doublespeak failed in its parody of jargon). He would have championed open source but feared the divisions between various camps that could hurt Linux's chances of becoming a more viable alternative to Windows. He would have pointed out that the retribution faced by file-sharing companies like Napster was both inevitable and sad.

This is assuming that Orwell would learn enough about these technologies to have an opinion, but I think he would. He was not merely a novelist scribbling away in his bedroom but a widely travelled journalist who was engaged with the world in a very direct way. What Gates doesn't see is what Orwell's best readers recognized long ago: Nineteen Eighty-Four was not a "vision," it was a warning. We still have time to take heed.

sschick@itbusiness.ca



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