…are we living Orwell, or Kafka? Either way, it’s freedom that is lost.
1984 and the Surveillance State
by SARAH SKWIRE
George Orwell. 1984. New York: Plume,  2003. 323 pages.In the kind of horrifying coincidence that surely would have prompted one of his more acerbic essays, the news that various U.S. government surveillance agencies have been gathering data from millions of citizens’ phones, email accounts, and web searches broke during the week of the 64th publication anniversary of George Orwell’s 1984. As the news reports poured in, and as sales of 1984 surged by an astonishing 6,884 percent, a friend asked me whether the PRISM story strikes me as more Orwellian or more Kafkaesque.
My response? We’d better hope it’s Kafkaesque.
No one wants to inhabit a Franz Kafka novel. But the surveillance states he describes do have one thing going for them—incompetence. In Kafka’s stories, important forms get lost, permits are unattainable, and bureaucrats fail to do their jobs. Like the main character in Kafka’s unfinished story, “The Castle,” if you were trapped in Kafka’s world you could live your whole life doing nothing but waiting for a permit. But at least you could live. Incompetence creates a little space.
What is terrifying about Orwell’s 1984 is the complete competence of the surveillance state. Winston Smith begins the novel by believing he is in an awful, but Kafkaesque world where there is still some slippage in the state’s absolute control, and still some room for private action. Winston says that Oceania’s world of telescreens and Thought Police means that there are “always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape.” But he follows that by saying, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” He also believes that while the diary he keeps will inevitably be discovered, the small alcove in his apartment where he writes his diary puts him “out of the range of the telescreen.”