Orwell is drowning in data: the volume problem

In the Orwellian imagination, the fundamental flaw in state intrusion lay in overwhelming layers of bureaucracy. Dom Shaw reveals how late capitalism’s intersection of government administration and corporate interests has solved this ‘volume problem’.

Dom Shaw
24 July 2013

        Bletchley Park. Flickr/R~P~M. Some rights reserved.

During World War II, whilst Bletchley Park laboured in the front line of code breaking, the British Government was employing vast numbers of female operatives to monitor and report on telephone, mail and telegraph communications in and out of the country.

The biggest problem, of course, was volume. Without even the most primitive algorithm to detect key phrases that later were to cause such paranoia amongst the sixties and seventies counterculture, causing a whole generation of drug users to use a wholly unnecessary set of telephone synonyms for their desired substance, the army of women stationed in exchanges around the country was driven to report everything and then pass it on up to those whose job it was to analyse such content for significance.

Orwell’s vision of Big Brother’s omniscience was based upon the same model - vast armies of Winston Smiths monitoring data to ensure discipline and control. He saw a culture of betrayal where every citizen was held accountable for their fellow citizens’ political and moral conformity.

Up until the US Government’s Big Data Research and Development Initiative and the NSA development of the Prism programme, the fault lines always lay in the technology used to collate or collect and the inefficiency or competing interests of the corporate systems and processes that interpreted the information. Not for the first time, the bureaucracy was the citizen’s best bulwark against intrusion.

Now that the algorithms have become more complex and the technology tilted towards passive surveillance through automation, the volume problem becomes less of an obstacle. True data mining starts with the capacity to completely encompass all data in the cloud repositories and across all means of communication. It ends with the filtering tools that segment that data into areas for human analysis. Ex-NSA whistleblower William Binney has confirmed that the algorithms go through the data base looking at everybody.

In order to overcome the volume problems of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, late capitalism elides business interests and government administration. Under the guise of anti-terror measures and efficient delivery of municipal services, more and more information is required on each individual.

The technology for obtaining this information, and indeed the administration of it, is handled by corporations. The Government, driven by the creed that suggests private companies are better administrators than civil servants, has auctioned off the job to a dozen or more favoured corporate giants who are, as always, beholden not only to their shareholders, but to their patrons within the government itself.


       Bletchley Park. Flickr/Innovate360. Some rights reserved.

This method of bypassing bureaucratic barriers enforces a particular kind of ineffectual dissent. Western democracy teaches citizens all of their civil rights and how to exercise them in the same way that it teaches first aid. They use them only in the direst circumstances and seldom more than once in a lifetime. Curiously the most rebellious act of a citizen in today’s society is not to storm Parliament or hang the last priest with the entrails of the last banker. It may simply be to never accept credit, never to shop beyond your immediate needs (and then only in cash), never to appear on a database for any product or service, never to use the internet, never pass before a CCTV camera without disguise and most importantly, never register to vote. The greatest threat to a Bureaucratocracy (a clumsy term invented by leftist sociologists) is not to participate.

This is a deeply unsatisfying mode of dissent because it is so passive, although it would be a pleasing phenomenon for a revolution to be achieved purely by indolence: “Yes, he was a model revolutionary. He wilfully neglected his admin.”

Inevitably, modern capitalism demands more than one method of exploitation and most citizens do not appear to have actively consented (except implicitly) for their personal details, credit record, purchasing choices, health, wealth, secret perversions, criminal records, DNA, sexual preferences and political beliefs to be hawked amongst the corporations as currency. By this method they are approved or denied insurance, employment, housing, benefits, education, health services, transport, passports and patronage of any kind.

At the same time they are touted by the same corporations or their clients for everything from luxury apartments to pile ointment depending on the ‘profile’ the accumulated data procured on them draws in the ether. It was once a civil liberties shibboleth that the frontier of this battle against intrusion and personal liberty lay in the area of identity cards or passports. In fact, the authorities do not need such things. Everything a citizen does or says, every offence committed, every book purchased, every trip taken, every song composed, every article written, every subscription, every Saturday night observed on camera, tells them all they need to know.

The only problem the state had was managing the scale of the information gleaned from so many people in so many forms. Not any more. The volume problem has been overcome.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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