by Peter Huber
National Review, 15 August 1994
"From the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink - Greetings!" These words were written in 1948 by a lonely, iconoclastic genius of English letters. He was 44 years old and was dying of tuberculosis. He chose as the title of his book the year in which he wrote it, with the last two digits interchanged.
1984 was an instant, huge success. To this day, Orwell's vision is invoked in every major debate about electronic technology and telecommunications. Big Brother. The Thought Police. Newspeak. Doublethink. These are all Orwell's creations. Orwell achieved something that very few writers ever do: he added his own name to the English language. Whether you know it or not, your thinking about how communications technology will shape society has itself been shaped by Orwell's unforgettably dystopic vision.
And the trouble with that is that Orwell was wrong. Not wrong in the details - he was in fact remarkably prescient about what technology in our day would accomplish. But wrong in his most fundamental logic. The gargoyles in 1984 are magnificent. But the architecture beneath is rotten. Orwell despised machines of every kind, but he despised the machines of telecommunications the most. His other big obsession was the Ministry - big government. He was a passionate socialist and looked forward to a government takeover of all major industries. He was certain that complex machines required centralized management. But he also loathed the radio propaganda of Goebbels and hated government censorship. The Orwellian future in 1984 is simply the magnificent synthesis of Orwell's own schizophrenic beliefs. In 1984, he foresees an evil machine, controlled by an evil Ministry.
Orwell's machine, which he calls the telescreen, is a two-way television. In 1984, telescreens are bolted to every wall; they hang on every street corner and in every living room, even in the lavatories - and there is no way to shut them off. The telescreen displays nothing but mendacious propaganda from the Ministry of Truth. And it sends back sound and pictures to the iniquitous and hateful Ministry of Love. Linked by telescreen to everyone, everywhere, the ministries tower over central London, "vast and white above the grimy landscape." Big Brother has never been seen in the flesh. He is what Orwell in other writings called a "brain in a bottle." Big Brother is the communicating machine incarnate. He is the telescreen.
From a strictly technological perspective, we are today very close to having in hand exactly the gadgets Orwell described. Broadcasting, cable television, telephony, and computers are fast converging, just as Orwell expected. And yet Orwell was wrong - dismally wrong - about the social and political consequences. "Telescreens" have turned out to be what Ithiel de Sola Pool called the Technologies of Freedom.
Begin with a fundamental engineering fact that Orwell completely missed: a network with the capabilities that he imagined simply cannot converge at a single large central ministry. The network must instead be dispersed, fragmented, and connected at many points. Really powerful communications networks are not and cannot be built to look like the pyramid of Cheops, with a single, all-powerful controller at the pinnacle. They must look more like a geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller.
Why? To transmit large amounts of information, to and from large numbers of people, efficiently, flexibly, and reliably, you must use many switches, many points of interconnection. Your telescreens must be linked as one technological peer to the next, with each unit more or less equally powerful. Unless you disperse the power, the system just won't perform. The bottlenecks will throttle the cataracts of bits. It is as simple as that.
Thus, the centralized mainframe computer is being broken apart and spread out into hundreds of desktop machines. The large, central telephone exchange is being replaced by distributed switches with multiple levels of interconnection among them. We are building networks of networks - one for conventional telephone, several for cellular telephone, several for data transport, several for video transport, all interlinked and interconnected like the ribs and spines of a geodesic dome.
This technological imperative has profound social and political consequences. Consider first the most basic social problem of all, the problem of unity. All great achievements of civilization are creations of communities. People build families, religions, scientific disciplines, only when they join together and cooperate. Until recently there was only one efficient way for many people to cooperate, and that was to surrender their freedom. They appointed a king, or handed over authority to a small council of elite rulers. Leaders assembled in some centralized citadel, castle, ministry, or executive suite. Information traveled one way only, from the rulers to the ruled. People accepted this because they gained more from empowering a central authority than they lost in submitting to its will. They lost freedom, but they gained the strength of numbers and unity. Communication technology was too primitive to support any other political structure.
Now we have telescreens - instruments of almost perfect, instantaneous, costless communication. Now people can form communities and alliances almost at will, over any distance. For the first time in history, it is becoming possible to have brotherhood without Big Brother.
Where is that likely to lead? Start with the marketplace. The single most important thing that's ever traded in the market is not a cow or a blanket; it's information. The infrastructure of the free market is the communication system. Communication brings together buyer and seller. Communication transmits and records promises - contracts - so that trades begun today can be consummated tomorrow. By distributing information, communication creates memory, which maintains records, which are in fact the foundation of all private property. Dialogue and communication, promises and memories, trust and loyalty: these are the essential ingredients of a free market, the essentials on which all else is constructed. And the networks we are building today are the most powerful communicating machines that the world has ever seen.
Yesterday's giant, monolithic corporations are doomed, at least in their old structures. The old corporation operated in the image of Big Brother - an oversized, homogeneous, collectivist, bureaucratic autocracy. The megacorporation worked only because the alternatives were even less efficient: it was difficult to coordinate secretaries and clerks and typists and managers and machinists without resorting to centralized authority.
With modern telecommunicating technology, however, we can now decentralize and unbundle everything. Raw materials, labor, inventory, can all be metered and valued and coordinated with scrupulous precision at any distance, among any number of independent players. A car manufacturer, for example, can become a truly efficient assembler of parts provided by hundreds of independent suppliers. Secretaries, accountants, designers - most of the enterprise's support services - can be replaced by independent outsiders, knitted together into an efficient whole by the network. Every purchase of a pencil or box of cereal can be communicated instantly back up the entire chain of production, back even to the granary, the farmer, or the mine. It is no small irony that the age of the telescreen has witnessed the unbundling of two prime movers of telescreen technology: AT&T and IBM.
Money itself is being unbundled. A dollar bill is nothing but a piece of paper covered with ink - a very primitive medium of communication. The value of money depends on trust and promises on the part of whoever controls the records. That used to mean a central bank. But with sufficiently advanced communication technology, nobody controls the records, or at least no central authority. We already have in circulation today a thousand different private currencies - personal checks, stocks, bonds, credit-card accounts, futures contracts, green stamps, frequent-flier mileage accounts. Private enterprises issue currencies all over the place. The better the network, the more of that there will be. We are moving, in other words, toward the privatization of currency. The government bank is a dying anachronism. Currencies of every imaginable description can now be created by the market itself, just like Nikes or Big Macs. And with the privatization of money, government will lose much of its vast power to tax and spend, inflate, impoverish, and manipulate.
In the age of perfect communication, almost everything that once belonged to Big Brother can be returned to the market. Lighthouses for ships? With advanced communication ships can be tracked and guided privately. Air-traffic control for planes? Planes, like pedestrians, can avoid colliding on their own, if they can see far enough ahead and communicate fast enough. Pollution of the air and water? This too is ultimately a failure of private dialogue and negotiation, as to who is willing to pay how much for air, water, or land. Education for children? Today a school, an entire university, even a great library, can reside on a single desktop.
Law itself is being privatized. What is law, other than information communicated among men and women? Law is a creation of consensus. That is why we speak of the common law, the law created not by legislatures but by the accumulation of custom and contract and adjudication in individual cases. Our ancestors took the criminal and branded a letter on his forehead to communicate to the world that he was a deadbeat or a thief. Today the most important economic policemen we have are already entirely private; they are the credit-reporting companies like Dun and Bradstreet and TRW. An advanced network brands people too, but with infinitely finer calibration than a piece of hot iron. We are developing, in other words, an altogether new body of truly common law, manufactured in the private sector and constantly refreshed through the network.
Consider, finally, our greatest freedoms: freedom of thought and belief, and freedom of speech and association - the freedoms Orwell was most certain would disappear with the rise of the telescreen. What does the telescreen really promise? It gives a man eyes and ears that can see and hear at any distance and a tongue that can speak to anyone on the planet. The telescreen frees his senses and his voice, and thus frees his intellect and his conscious mind. The telescreen gives a man the power to hear, see, and speak, to be heard and seen, in the company of his own choosing, wherever it may be found. With the telescreen, humans can create new cities whenever they need them, in the capacious light beams of the network and the airwaves of the stratosphere.
Do you imagine, as Orwell did, that all of that will destroy privacy? It will create privacy, in greater abundance than ever before. A telescreen lets you live in one place and work, shop, or entertain yourself in another. By overcoming distance, the telescreen contains the power to create as much solitude as any person will ever want.
At the same time, speech in the telescreened society can be freer than ever before imagined. Bulletin boards, auditoriums, theaters, schools, stadia, squares, subway walls can now all exist in the network. The network gives the pamphleteer and soap-box orator not just a place in Speaker's Corner but the whole of Hyde Park. There is room enough now for pacifists, Communists, anarchists, Jehovah's Witnesses, temperance reformers, Trotskyists, and Phesbian Leminists. People can now assemble in any numbers, at any distance, in groups that are infinitely variable. A man may now cry fire whenever he wishes. The theater is no longer crowded.
The telescreened society, in other words, is the complete opposite of Orwell's 1984. It is a world in which the power of communication is decentralized, in which control is dispersed. It is a world in which the Thought Police are driven to distraction by telephones, facsimiles, video cameras, personal computers, Xerox machines, and all the other children and siblings of the telescreen that are materializing around us today.
Orwell imagined the world of Stalin filled with Apple computers and concluded that it would be more horrible than any world ever seen before. He was wrong. Wherever the telescreen advances, the world will grow freer than ever before.
Despots and autocrats pursued communicating machines in the hope that they could use them to police thought itself. But with perfect communication, independent thought is irrepressible. Without the telescreen, there can be no Big Brother, or at least none quite so totalitarian as Orwell imagined. With the telescreen, there can be no Big Brother at all.
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