In his classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell famously wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” This striking image served as a potent symbol for totalitarianism in the 20th Century. But as Caylan Ford recently observed, with the advent of digital health passports in the emerging biomedical security state, the new symbol of totalitarian repression is “not a boot, but an algorithm in the cloud: emotionless, impervious to appeal, silently shaping the biomass.” The new forms of repression will be no less real for being virtual rather than physical.
These new digital surveillance and control mechanisms will be no less oppressive for being virtual rather than physical. Contact tracing apps, for example, have proliferated with at least 120 different apps in used in 71 different states, and 60 other digital contact-tracing measures have been used across 38 countries. There is currently no evidence that contact tracing apps or other methods of digital surveillance have helped to slow the spread of covid; but as with so many of our pandemic policies, this does not seem to have deterred their use.
Other advanced technologies were deployed in what one writer has called, with a nod to Orwell, “the stomp reflex,” to describe governments’ propensity to abuse emergency powers. Twenty-two countries used surveillance drones to monitor their populations for covid rule-breakers, others deployed facial recognition technologies, twenty-eight countries used internet censorship and thirteen countries resorted to internet shutdowns to manage populations during covid. A total of thirty-two countries have used militaries or military ordnances to enforce rules, which has included casualties. In Angola, for example, police shot and killed several citizens while imposing a lockdown.
Orwell explored the power of language to shape our thinking, including the power of sloppy or degraded language to distort thought. He articulated these concerns not only in his novels Animal Farm and 1984 but in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” where he argues that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
The totalitarian regime depicted in 1984 requires citizens to communicate in Newspeak, a carefully controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual’s ability to think or articulate subversive concepts such as personal identity, self-expression, and free will. With this bastardization of language, complete thoughts are reduced to simple terms conveying only simplistic meaning.