TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

Several times in the past I have talked about the problems I have with the novel 1984 and its place in American education and culture. It is by no means a bad piece of required reading for high school students, but I believe it reflects the ways in which Americans are afraid of the wrong things in politics and society. It depicts the straw man enemy against which most Liberty loving Americans think they must do battle: the all-powerful, oppressive government controlling the flow of information with monopoly power and armies of jackbooted thugs. For my money, Brave New World did a far superior job of predicting the problems we would face in the future. Important information is available, but it is drowned out in a cacophony of nonsense. And we're all too busy entertaining ourselves with meaningless diversions to bother looking for the truth. But I digress.

The point is that Americans are thoroughly paranoid about government and specifically its attempts to influence the flow of information. Hell, the founders wrote the press into the Constitution specifically to guarantee that The Government could not maintain a monopoly on information. Unfortunately, people concerned about the freedom of ideas and information today are vigilant against the wrong enemy. While they keep a wary eye on government's alleged desire to become Big Brother, the actual threats to the free exchange of information are running wild in the private sector.

Several internet outlets have reported that Yahoo! appears to have censored emails about the "Occupy Wall Street" protests in New York City. While emails to groups such as Tea Party Patriots could be sent without issue, emails containing the name of the Wall Street group were blocked for "suspicious activity." It is fair to note that there could (at least plausibly) be a benign explanation. A sudden surge of outgoing emails with a specific phrase could trigger some kind of spam blocker. However, the protest hardly seems large enough to have generated the high volume of emails presumably required to raise that red flag. Yahoo's mea culpa announcement relied on a vague spam filter-related explanation, which in their phrasing sounded only slightly more believable than the BTN's explanation that Old Bailey collapsed due to a premature but planned demolition in V for Vendetta.

An objective analysis of our current information/media environment would conclude that there's absolutely no reason for Big Government to censor us; the private sector, to which the airwaves and cables have been handed over in their entirety, is doing a perfectly fine job of that on its own. When we're oppressed by governments there is at least recourse in theory if not in practice. When the eventual abandonment of things like postal mail, books, and printed documents leaves us entirely at the mercy of Google and the other information giants, we will realize what "censorship" really is only when it is too late to reverse our course. This one example should not be blown out of proportion, but it is a stark reminder of the direction in which we're heading. While we stand guard against the government boogeyman, massive telecommunication and internet concerns are slowly developing a stranglehold on our ability to communicate with one another and access information.

But, uh, I guess the real threat is Barack Obama and the Fairness Doctrine. Or something.

Be Sociable, Share!

39 Responses to “TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES”

  1. mothra Says:

    Aiiiiiiiyeeeeeee!

    Thanks, Ed, for giving me yet another reason to drink. At least I now know that cirrhosis of the liver will lead to my demise. There is some comfort in that.

    Another round, please.

  2. mothra Says:

    Holy shit. I need to go to bed if I am the first–and second–commenter here.

  3. Ed W. Says:

    The worst of all worlds will arrive when Big Government works hand-in-hand with the private sector in the name of "keeping us safe". Did I say arrive? Sorry, I meant it's already here! Fun!

    Maybe I'm just a *little* freaked out by the episode of Frontline about the terrorism-industrial complex that was just on PBS aka Propaganda by Socialists. Serves me right for watching public TV, I probably should have been watching something about the Kardashians . . .

  4. Mackeyser Says:

    This problem is already very wide spread. I was on an Apple tech support forum during the transition from MobileMe before iCloud was launched and it was then that folks found out that Apple was filtering/censoring outgoing mails.

    So, someone typed a pro-Palestinian email about a paragraph long. Nothing really radical and all factual, the kind of thing you'd read in an editorial someplace that allows for pro-Palestinian editorials. He sent the email to himself only, I think his gmail account. Never got there. Sent repeatedly, they kept not sending it through. No denial receipt, no nothing. It just entered the void. All his "test" messages got through just fine. Only the specific emails that triggered the filter were blocked.

    I always figured Google was doing it as well as Yahoo. Apple sort of surprised me, but I'm not sure why.

    The reality is that electronic communication isn't protected communication no matter what the SCOTUS may or may not say or have said about it. Not in reality. There are simply too many ways for providers to obfuscate and too many government and corporate interests on behalf of censorship for government to act on behalf of the people it represents.

    I know… we are all shocked and surprised.

    I'd tell you all about it in an email, but…well…

  5. ConcernedCitizen Says:

    1984 is indeed a straw man if you digest it literally. Telescreens in every home? Pah! But if you read the book the way (I think) Orwell intended – as an exploration of the totalitarian ideal – it is much more powerful. If you focus on themes, the idea of a constantly vigilant Big Brother is, frankly, one of the weaker ones in the book; it's just not practical. I can't understand why people latch onto it, as if it were the only warning to heed. After all, he touches on far more familiar subjects: mindless, soul crushing labor, perpetual global conflict, the indoctrination of children and – more abstract and yet more chilling – the disavowal of objective reality and history. "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."

    I never finished reading A Brave New World, so I don't have a good basis for comparison. But if 1984 is straw man fiction then Aldous Huxley's book is wild fantasy. Social engineering taken to the extreme – whoop-de-doo!

    Anyway, just thought I'd throw in my two cents worth of literary criticism. And I am worried about the growing influence of telecom companies – good post.

  6. Nunya Bidness Says:

    I have a feeling the previous commenters have not read "1984" or "Brave New World."

    I have has this discussion numerous times and I couldn't agree with you more. The oppressive government we always imagined the Soviets to be failed but the Soma popping class loyal dolts scatter the countryside looking for the next tickle of their pleasure centers from watching the Honey Badger Anthem (actually pretty funny) on YouTube.

    The new enemies are those lazy good-fer-nuthin' freeloading unemployed people. Hating people who can't really threaten you has always been popular and the GOP has this shit down to a science.

    In the end, with access to more information, knowledge and wisdom than any person has had in the history of the world, most of is will occupy ourselves with Gonzo porn and MMA knockout footage.

    God Bless 'Merica!

  7. Middle Seaman Says:

    The fine point between government controlled information and oligarchs controlled information escapes me. After all, the executive, congressional and judicial branches of government are fully controlled by the oligarchs.

    It makes little difference whether the year long fight in Wisconsin is not reported on because Obama couldn't care less about the elimination of workers bargaining rights, government by the Koch brothers and hoodlums in control of a state (all of which is sadly the case) or it is done by the Koch brothers and their hoodlums gangs.

    Nothing that bothers either the oligarchs or their tools, i.e. Bush and Obama, can see the light of day. Whether these are coffins returning from Iraq or Wall Street occupation by our better inner selves.

    So, go ahead, everywhere where Big Brother is mentioned write instead Koch brothers and brother Obama. (Just ask Cornell West.)

  8. wetcasements Says:

    ConcernedCitizen beat me to it. You're blaming _1984_ for not having sufficient descriptive power for what's happening in post 9/11 America but really, Orwell was describing the very real rise of totalitarianism masquerading as Communism in Europe (lots of people forget he published it _after_ Hitler had died).

    And really, the whole concept of "Newspeak" does speak to our current situation. But maybe a short essay like "Politics and the English Language" is more direct and fruitful for students to read (if they still know what books are).

    But I agree _Brave New World_ doesn't get enough attention these days.

    _Catcher in the Rye_ continues to get too much attention, however. Jesus, talk about upper middle class white self-pity. If adults actually went back and read it they'd realize it's crap, and it should be inflicted on high school students ca. 2011.

  9. Major Kong Says:

    I'm not sure if our future is going to more closely resemble "A Handmaid's Tale" or "Mad Max".

  10. negative 1 Says:

    Don't worry, Ed W. We're going to stop that PBS thing post haste! Because nothing says freedom like corporate news from corporate views!
    But, you know, they definitely have a liberal bias.

  11. Arslan Says:

    One thing you have to remember about Orwell and 1984 is that it was basically Trotskyite propaganda. Some Trots in Spain explained to him their version of Soviet history and he bought it hook,line, and sinker. He then became some kind of expert on the USSR despite never having visited there. Despite his claims of being a socialist, Orwell was in fact a passive-aggressive apologist for the system. The general idea is "this system is really terrible", but all the alternatives were worse!! He seems to have had a very superficial understanding of socialism.

    As for totalitarianism, the very belief in this nonsense buzzword helps fuel the suspicion and paranoia towards government. Totalitarianism is defined as: "a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible"

    It's very obvious that in this definition, the idea that private interests can exercise authority is totally absent. It also fails because it assumes that the state is something divorced from private interests, i.e. class interests. Totalitarianism was a boon to the Cold War imperialists because it allowed them to find superficial commonalities between Fascists and Communist regimes and lump them in together as one. Not only did this mean that Communists were equated with Fascists, but the crimes of Fascists "didn't count" as crimes of capitalism.

    So next time you make fun of a Tea Partier waving a sign accusing Obama of being a Commie-Nazi, just remember that liberals made that possible via the popularization of the term "totalitarianism."

  12. c u n d gulag Says:

    But, but, but, these large corporations are PEOPLE!
    And 'people" are free to say and do as they want.

    And that large telecommunication's company?
    Well, it's like your Wicked Stepmother. It's ok when she wants to gossip, she can talk all day – but don't YOU dare.!
    She'll cut you off, and you'll lose your cell and text and internet priveldges for at least a month.

    Also, too – why should the Govenrment get involved in censorship when their corporate partners can do it for them?
    And the Roberts SCOTUS will be happy to give corporations all the cover they'd ever want or need.
    The game's over, folks…

  13. Mr. Prosser Says:

    I think every book mentioned here is too dated and too specific. The best descriptions of our present and our near future, including the losing middle class, the censoring of information and use of labor and control through misdirection, come out of William Gibson's trilogies.

  14. Major Kong Says:

    I'll believe corporations are people when I see Texas execute one.

  15. kama Says:

    @Major Kong

    Hear, Hear.

  16. acer Says:

    If no one had to attend public school or pay any taxes, we could all have our OWN internet companies! And nightly Penn & Teller shows in our living rooms!

  17. Arslan Says:

    Why stop there, acer, WE COULD ALL BE LAS VEGAS ENTERTAINERS!!!

  18. Paul Sherrard Says:

    I appreciate the point about 1984 vs Brave New World. I've been saying it for years but never find anyone who agrees with me. The Bill of Rights will be subverted, not while we're rallying for Big Brother, but while we're playing centrifugal bumble-puppy.

  19. Danthelawyer Says:

    Hey Ed: As a poli sci professor, you must know the work of Gramsci, right? I believe he had some interesting things to say about the way folks buy into (and are compelled to buy into) the regime.

  20. M. N. Says:

    I find it surprising that no one's yet brought up Amusing Ourselves to Death. Part of it — a comparison between Huxley and Orwell — has been made into a little bite-sized editorial cartoon floating around the net.

    http://www.recombinantrecords.net/docs/2009-05-Amusing-Ourselves-to-Death.html

  21. Nathan Says:

    I usually agree with what you have to say, but I think you are totally wrong here. It doesn't even take too much thought to be able to see lots of things from 1984 that hold true today.

    Permanent war against undefined and ever changing enemies? Check.

    A government that can change the past? Check. (I think I just read that the army is saying that there was a connection between Bin Laden and Saddam.)

    Constant monitoring of communication? Check. (Wasn't it big news a few years ago when ALL communications through AT&T were going to the NSA?)

    Torturing malcontents? Check. (Doesn't Bradley Manning's treatment remind you AT ALL of how Winston was treated? Kept in a room with the lights on all the time?

    Thoughtcrime? Check. (Do I really even need to explain this one? We go after people for having "terrorist" thoughts.)

    A privileged upper class that is above the above rules? Check.

    Now I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of things from Brave New World that are also extremely relevant. But if you are on the internet for any period of time you find a ton of people saying exactly what you have said here. 1984 is overrated, Brave New World is where it is at, as if you have to choose an either or.

    Maybe, and this does require a bit of subtlety in thought which the Internet isn't always great at, they are both relevant, and we are actually getting the worst of both.

  22. Corey Says:

    I think the Yahoo complaint is maybe a bit overstated – keep in mind that Anonymous activists (including a not-insignificant number of script kiddies) were a part of the Wall St. protests. One could imagine those folks abusing Yahoo's e-mail servers, even if for a good cause.

  23. Matthew Poirier Says:

    @Nathan: But I often see these books set in opposition to each other as if one did have to choose. And if I were to choose one to heed more–one which I feel describes the greater danger–I would pick Brave New World. The message of 1984 is, to me, less subtle on the surface and easier to translate into a modern context, because, as you said, many of the things it describes have actually come true. But Brave New World describes a lot of exotic activities and things that don't exist in any immediately recognizable form today. Yes, we have in-vitro fertilization but not at all in the way it is presented in BNW. We are a lot more open about sex and the ingestion of mind-altering substances but there isn't a clear one-to-one correspondence between that and the way we let vapid reality TV and bobble-head politicians, for instance, overwhelm us with this great empty message and obfuscate critical, rational thinking.

    I believe Ed wrote a little bit ago about remembering history correctly. I think a lot of people who read 1984, especially because it's such common school reading, are taking the wrong message from it. Of course we should watch out for Big Brother, but we should also watch for the insidious ways in which it might install itself and the change in culture which might bring it about. Brave New World seems to take more work to bring it into a modern context, and through that, forces the reader to pay closer attention.

    For these scattered reasons, I think BNW is of more use for reflecting the big dangers that face us now and in the future.

    P.S. I second Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Great read and it describes this better than I think anyone here can. (Especially me, I guess.)

  24. Evan Burke Says:

    Come on, Ed. Speculation about censorship at this point is no better than much of the political silliness which you're so fond of decrying – the facts clearly show what happened, and censorship has nothing to do with it. I commented on the original ThinkProgress article due to my experience with spam filtering; at the time, details were short, but here's what we know now:

    - The domain 'occupywallst.org' was detected in significant volumes of email sent to "spamtrap" addresses – nonexistent addresses, or those which had been invalid for several years – by Spamhaus, and as a result, the domain was automatically added to their DBL (domain block list). Doesn't matter who sent it – if it shows up in enough email to spamtraps, it gets listed. The exact source of these spamtrap hits is harder to pinpoint, but it wouldn't take more than a couple political organizations with large, poorly-collected lists of email addresses sending out a message like this to cause a listing.

    - Yahoo operates automated outbound spam prevention mechanisms which, among other things, check body content of messages against several blacklists, including the DBL. Yahoo has an outbound spam problem – you've likely seen Nigerian prince type scam email coming from Yahoo addresses, and they're trying to combat that and similar abuse of their systems. (Not very well, it would seem, but they are making some attempt.)

    - Upon receiving feedback from ThinkProgress and Yahoo mail users, and identifying the root cause of the block, Yahoo manually modified filter settings to prevent this domain from further triggering the warning.

    That's it. End of story. Calling it censorship at this point is, at best, disingenuous.

  25. whetstone Says:

    Gonna have to agree with Evan Burke (and other commenters at the Think Progress thread). It does seem like a false positive.

    As someone who has more experience and currently works in the editorial/user side of digital, may I submit that Yahoo's problem was a doublethink failure: "suspicious activity" is a great phrase to use if you want to freak people out and/or suggest they're being politically censored, and not bringing up troubleshooting options lets people's imaginations run wild.

  26. JohnR Says:

    Forest and trees problem here, I think. Don't get so wrapped up in arguing about the details of a particular point that you lose track of the wider picture. I'd say what Orwell (and Huxley and everybody else of that ilk) feared is basically already here. We have largely thrown away our "inalienable rights" as being somehow too much trouble, and allowed ourselves to be divided and ruled by Nastian fat cats. The root of the problem seems to me that the whole idea of "freedom" is more of an ideal than a real desire for almost all of us. If history tells us anything, it tells us that most people will be perfectly OK being controlled by a monolithic power structure. Sure, people will complain bitterly, and occasionally Winston Smiths will have to be redirected, but in general, being told what to do is fine for most of us. Making our own choices is scary and often painful. Having our choices limited, no matter what the limits are, is infinitely preferable. As long as the rulers are smart enough to allow us to properly rationalize our submissive choices, we're going to be cool with it.
    Anyway, @Major Kong – Mad Max comes long after the Handmaid has had her day. Or maybe they're contemporaries but in different locations, I don't know. I'd say the Handmaid's Tale is already partway through the preface and will soon be into the introduction. Max hasn't even started the Coming Soon trailers yet; we're still watching the ads and waiting for the house lights to go down.

  27. Elder Futhark Says:

    Will someone please take a picture of Congressman John Fleming's asshole, so I can see what a job creator looks like?

  28. J. Dryden Says:

    As often as Ed has criticized 1984, I've leaped to its defense. I continue to do so. It's a product of its time in that it (rightly) perceived what the main-streaming of totalitarianism across multiple cultures meant about the human character. Such defense in no way comes at the cost of my admiration for Huxley. But Brave New World is not what we're careening towards, nor is Oceania. Both worlds are completely, repressively and efficiently *organized.* In both novels, there is a serious *system* in place by ruthless, highly intelligent people (and in Huxley's world, these are people who are genuinely well-meaning–they want people to be *happy*, even if that happiness has to be mass-produced and artificial, because happy people are, well, better off in the long run.) I see no such masterminds in our world. Corporations and governments are not being run by evil geniuses–there are no geniuses. No, I'm going with the Mad Max voters here–just the first movie–where society and laws exist but people have pretty much realized that eh, they're really only as effective as the men who enforce them, and such men are dwindling in number, and were never very effective to begin with. The breakdown comes from too *little* government/authority, not too *much*…

  29. eau Says:

    Part of the problem is the way people read of SF in general. Prognostication is part of SF, and an important part at that. It's what draws many of us to the genre in the first place. But SF needs to be read, like all fiction, as a reflection of contemporary trends and preoccupations. Vonnegut's 'canary in the mine' isn't dying because of what's coming, it's dying because of what's already all around us, but we haven't yet noticed.

    BNW is superior in the extrapolation of technological & societal trends (of the time), and it also asks the Western audience to look at themselves. This makes it a much better fit for the tradition of dystopic SF, while 1984 at it's heart is just another pulpy thriller that utilises the menacing Other of Communism & Totalitarianism (or – as per Aslan – the comporary audience's flawed conception of same) as boogeyman. In this, at least, it should be rightly be compared with V for Vendetta, which is truly a piece of right-wing, wish-fulfilment, vigilante-fantasy shit polished to a lustrous, style-over-substance gleam.

  30. Southern Beale Says:

    The point is that Americans are thoroughly paranoid about government and specifically its attempts to influence the flow of information.

    I've seen a lot of Tweets this evening accusing Twitter of blocking Troy Davis from being a trending topic. However, it's not true. It's just that the trending topic algorithm favors any recent uptick in Twitter activity, i.e. favoring novelty over popularity. Hence it's a "trend" or shiny-sparkly topic.

    It gets annoying after a while.

  31. Xynzee Says:

    I sort of have agree w Middle's analysis: what's the difference?

    BNW seems to be the means by which discourse has been co-opted. The best example of this historically was how the S&L scandal was pushed under the carpet by Thomas/Bryant. Even that was a red herring for what has proved a highly suspect nomination. Surely that he could be bought would have been apparent earlier? Why? Because people can understand sex better, or so someone I know said at the time.

    As for tech, think abt how the North African revolts occurred and gained momentum. Video phones, fb, YouTube etc. The iPhone 5 may contain a feature to prevent the phones from recording such events in the future… YouTube and fb also were known to remove some videos of these events. So the revolution may happen, but no one will show up because they won't know abt it.

    While the current situation is much closer to "All Tomorrow's Parties". Government is ineffective, corporations rule, and people are too stressed, self absorbed, disenfranchised and focussed on survival to bother organising to do something about it. As long as the authorities/corporate thugs aren't after me, who cares. There is *no* middle class, you've either got it or you don't and what you've got you're about to lose. You're just one bank merger away from having all your money disappearing, oops sorry. Welcome to the future according to Queen Ayn.

  32. Scepticus Says:

    What I never liked about 1984 is that Orwell presented it as a warning, but Republicans read it as an instruction manual.

  33. Effin' Effie Says:

    Hey, I'm late to this party, but what the? Chris Hedges has written that first comes Brave New World, where we entertain ourselves to death, then while we're all distracted, ka-bam! here comes 1984.

    Also, having re-read both books recently – BNW is a lame excuse for a novel whereas 1984 is a bad-ass book. Orwell could write!

    We can argue the details forever, but fer cryin out loud, doesn't it scare the bejeebus out of you that the only intense relationship allowed under Big Brother is the one O'Brien has with Winston? He chooses Winston, gives him a book that sets his head spinning, then captures him, alternating torture with affection, until Winston is broken and "loves" Big Brother. Very creepy.

  34. krissy Says:

    Yahoo does this to me all the time when I try to email my senators on an issue. Then because of "suspicious activity" I can't send emails for days. Then they bombard me with news propaganda worthy of glen beck. I guess free email isn't really free.