essays and articles by david g allen

In 1984, Tom Brokaw Smiled At The Telescreen

When he closed the last NBC Evening Newscast of 1984, toothsome Tom Brokaw smiled and told his audience that Orwell’s prediction for 1984 had not happened.  Though he never said it, his subliminal message to viewers on that New Year’s Eve was: Party like it’s 1999!  And then the peacock did its thing.

In the minds of peacocks and anchormen, Brokaw’s observation was true.  In practical terms, Big Brother was already firmly in charge of the American public’s behavior.

George Orwell began writing "1984" in 1947, the same year that commercial television broadcasting began in America.  In this classic novel, human behavior is controlled by the telescreen which functions not only as a television but also as an all-seeing camera.  Telescreens were located everywhere, and the denizens of Oceania could not escape surveillance.

On this side of the pond, and almost simultaneously with Orwell, Marshall McLuhan offered his concern about the power of television.  McLuhan, however, stressed that television need not have camera capability to control the public’s behavior.  He predicted that televised images would be so powerful that behavior could be controlled just by programming options.

McLuhan was right.  Within a decade, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Recently, the History Channel selected Elvis’ impact on American youth for one of the episodes in "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America."  I do find it ironic that the History Channel would say that Elvis Presley’s television appearances "unexpectedly" changed America. Did they not read Orwell or McLuhan?

A week or so ago, my local television newscast ran a story about a man who claimed that his car had been burglarized while parked at a shopping mall.  Like Oceania, the mall’s parking lot is saturated with surveillance cameras.  The police watched the videotape and determined that no burglary had taken place.

You might be quick to approve of the surveillance cameras in this instance because they solved a case of insurance fraud.  But have you given any thought to the fact that the shopping mall is collecting huge volumes of demographic and economic data about its shoppers?  It does not take a genius to decipher the tapes and determine when the rich people shop and when the poor people shop or the ratio between the two.

As it stands now, one television ad can persuade one thousand random shoppers to line up at 5 a.m. on Black Friday to vie for 100 computers being sold for $99 each when the store opens at 6 a.m.  In the future, the combination of data from surveillance cameras (indoor and out), the data on your personal "store" card, and targeted television ads will have a powerful manipulative effect on each class of shoppers.  And the price of goods will change throughout the day and on each weekday to maximize sales to the rich, the poor, the bargain hunters, and the always-desirable impulse buyers.  Technology will make it so, but you will only be aware of the targeted ad that persuaded you to shop at a certain time or on a certain day.

Your car’s computer chip might well hold the entire driving history of the vehicle.  If your car has a GPS locator, you can be tracked everywhere you go.  And if it doesn’t, your cell phone is a beacon.  If you were to go on the lam, you’d be tracked by your credit card or ATM swipes.  Your credit history is a secret only to you.  You have to prove who you are to get a copy of your birth certificate.  Will the new border fences hold us in?  Or as we are told, keep them out?

Face it:  We have fallen a long, long way since we voluntarily gave up our constitutional protection from unreasonable searches at the airport thirty years ago.

It will only get worse, this technological totalitarianism.  Today’s grade-schoolers have been conditioned to surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and searches by the K-9 corps.  Unlike you and me, they will never know any different life.

If the future depresses you, just remember Tom Brokaw’s smile in 1984 and his reassuring assessment that none of this ever happened.  That’s pretty much what Winston Smith did in "1984."

David G. Allen
Clarksburg, WV

   "In 1984, Tom Brokaw Smiled At The Telescreen" originally appeared in the May 5, 2006 issue of the West Virginia "State Journal", and was reprinted in the May 8, 2006 issue of the (Clarksburg) "Sunday Exponent-Telegram."




Copyright 1990-2006  David G. Allen