The urgency of Orwell’s novel, which is translated into about 65 languages, rests on his depiction of extreme surveillance coupled to extreme government control. While during the Cold War many readers felt the book served as a warning about the advancing Communist movement, it has been reframed over time to focus on government in the U.S. During the “War of Terror,” and especially after the media leaks exposing worldwide surveillance by the NSA, Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Big Brother metaphor have become a chief reference to describe fears that mass spying puts the freedom and autonomy of individuals at risk. While Orwell’s telescreen may not exist, other forms of monitoring seem equally pernicious as government tries to make all things visible to inspection. The novel reminds us that the demands of official “security” can far surpass what seems legitimate and highly developed technological capabilities to watch people must be matched by meaningful regulation as well as by privacy protections.
I propose that Big Brother now exists in parts of the U.S. government, notably, the intelligence agencies (such as the FBI and NSA). However, while surveillance and spying are a mass practice, repression and punishment remain selective. So in this sense, it is possible to say that surveillance in America has become worse than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the security state’s overall conduct is not as severe as appears in Oceania. The situation could deteriorate in the future since very little accountability exists for government spying and few efforts currently restrict the growing trend of enhanced surveillance. As a leading example, when the U.S. Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in 2015 to reform the NSA, it largely ratified mass surveillance by keeping in tact most NSA systems of surveillance. As the idea of Big Brother takes shape on a global level, it is useful to look at the original work of fiction that inspired it to gain insight into the ways that surveillance can become a threat to civil society.