Americans seem all to grasp the plot of 1984 and other dystopian depictions of the omniscient surveillance state while, unsurprisingly, learning entirely the wrong lesson from them. That has contributed more than anything else to the modern dilemma of how to get the benefits of using the available technologies without surrendering our privacy to unregulated non-governmental entities.
A moron, or someone who knows what it is about but has never actually read it, uses 1984 to illustrate the point that we must be absolutely vigilant against any attempt by The Government to limit our precious freedoms. Yet these same people willingly, even eagerly, endorse the growth of an unregulated data scraping colossus dressed in the platitudes of the libertarian wet dream of a free market.
I have written many times that I don't express any outrage over things like Facebook, Google, our smartphones, etc collecting data about us because from the beginning I had no expectation that those entities would respect my privacy and information. Only a dolt would use Facebook without assuming that every single thing on the site is collected, sifted, and sold. That's how they're making money. I don't lie awake at night paranoid that my iPhone is spying on me, but I also expect that every task I perform with it is similarly creating bits of User Data somewhere. I don't enjoy or approve of it, but I recognize it as a tradeoff I am making. I reap the benefits of this technology and in return the companies behind it profit from using my habits to target ads at me or to sell to third-party marketers. Simply put, I'm not upset because I have always known it was happening.
The thing that people in general, and right-wingers in particular, have always misunderstood about the value of the sci-fi dystopia genre is that it was never going to be The Government here in real life. We'd never have a government forcing us to install listening devices in our house (as, famously, in the TVs in 1984). It was always going to be Big Business. And they were never going to force anything on us. They were going to make us want to do it, and to pay them for the privilege. So while Uncle Freedom and the middle aged patriots were putting on stupid tri-cornered hats and waving guns around to protest Big Government, the free market quietly began to do every single thing the evil government was purported to be planning.
Surveillance? No government could ever devise a system that tracks and monitors us as effectively as the one we've happily chosen for ourselves. Invasion of privacy? For the right price, every word you've ever typed in an email or anywhere on the internet has left a trace that can be unearthed. Control of the news? Look at what the President does with a simple, free Twitter account to lead the media around by the nose, or how state-sponsored propaganda networks like RT and Fox News have come to dominate the landscape.
Imagine the blood-curdling outrage that would result from the government forcing every news network to recite some kind of creed during every broadcast; yet when a company called Sinclair does it, well that's fine. Because it's not the government. And as long as it's not the government, the deluded logic goes, our Freedom really isn't at risk.
It is enough to make me skeptical that the right was ever really worried about Freedom and Privacy and Liberty at all, but merely the idea that the state or anyone else would engage in policies they didn't like. Because when the iron fist of 24 hour surveillance and propaganda comes from the libertarian or nationalist far right and free market – as it most certainly has – they don't seem to mind nearly as much. The First Lady suggests kids eat more vegetables and everybody loses their shit; one unaccountable corporation takes control of a huge share of local media in the U.S. and puts them on a propaganda script and those same vigilant patriots are either silent or downright enthusiastic.
If being oppressed by the state is so frightening, why is being oppressed by private enterprise no real cause for alarm among the fierce freedom advocates on the right? Maybe – just maybe – they're down with totalitarianism as long as there's no risk that it will express even a passing interest in advancing the public good. Perhaps the scariest part of 1984 in their reading was not the surveillance state but that the government fed everyone.