与《美丽新世界》一样，奥威尔也设计了“天降救星”（deux ex machina）的情节：温斯顿•史密斯有着不知来自何处的孤单灵魂，他反抗着那个与自己人生理念背道而驰的国家。然而掌握一切情况的统治者却通过折磨和说理双重手段改造温斯顿的思想，使其符合英社党的世界观。
Cambridge Analytica and Dystopias
It’s today’s liberal struggle in microcosm: the precocious young George Orwell, defending the blind, stooping Aldous Huxley from a rabble of tormenting schoolboys. As told by MinooDinshaw in his biography of the historian Steve Runciman (himself a contemporary of Orwell’s at Eton College, where Huxley was a master), “it is a neat image: the prophet of Brave New World shielded by the creator of 1984”. Following Brexit, Trump, and Cambridge Analytica, this is (is) a scene often invoked by Western commentators: the values of liberal individualism, rained down upon by demagoguery and stupidity. But, as Dinshaw concludes, it is “perhaps a little too neat”.
In its masterful reporting of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, The Observer referred to the unfolding events, on multiple occasions, as ‘dystopian’. Just as Dinshaw rightly calls into question the veracity of that which Runciman supposedly saw as a schoolboy during the First World War, we must scrutinize the assumptions upon which all coverage of Cambridge Analytica’s recent activity has been made. Is it dystopian? And if so, is there anything wrong with that?
To understand the West, you must understand their dystopias. The greatest and most prescient of these are Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. These novels articulate the desires and discontents of modern liberalism. At their heaving centres is a shared anxiety: can we retain individual freedom in all its persistently revolutionary glory without compromising on our demand for order and security, which can seemingly be provided only by power and hierarchy? Any student of modern history would be forgiven for thinking the two to be mutually exclusive.
Through the enforcement of brainwashing and a caste system founded on genetic engineering, the state in Brave New World succeeds in creating boundless consumption. This pacifies the world’s one state and gives them security, but this is at the expense of liberty. Like all others before it, this society has been forged off the backs of a population of slaves. However, vast technological changes have enabled this underclass to be exploited not out of violent coercion, but love for their servitude. When an outsider (who becomes known as Mr Savage) arrives from a society that has not experienced such technological, and therefore spiritual upheaval, Huxley confronts us with the question of whether we want to be free or happy.
In 1984, the state enforces order through a much harsher totalitarianism, based on widespread state-sponsored killing, and mass surveillance. ‘The Party’ of Oceania does not pursue any positive vision. It exercises power for its own sake, enforcing this through the destruction of language, memory, and desire as vehicles for thought. One of the ways in which it has achieved this is through the outlawing of ‘thoughtcrime’ – dissident views are sniffed out before they are expressed. The other is ‘doublethink’, the practice of believing in two contradictory truths – knowing them both to be false, yet cleaving to them. As in Brave New World, the plot device used is the deus ex machina – out of nowhere, a seemingly solitary soul, Winston Smith, confronts the state diametrically opposed to his own philosophy. His opposition is snared, and through a combination of torture and reasoned argument, ‘The Party’ aims to win him around to their own worldview.
Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics firm, to which many (not just the liberal left, but the company themselves) have attributed the marginal electoral victories of the Brexit campaigners, and Donald Trump. By analyzing an individual’s private data, mostly Facebook likes, Cambridge Analytica claimed to be able to group people not by demographics, but by personality traits – of which they had 253 models.
Although their precise role in the two election campaigns is unclear, such information would allow a political message to be tailored for the intended recipient. As former Cambridge Analytica director of research Christopher Wylie explained, “conscientious people like structure, so for them, a solution to immigration should be orderly, and a wall embodied that. You can create messaging that doesn’t make sense to some people but makes so much sense to other people”. With 70 likes, Cambridge Analytica would know you better than a friend; with 150 likes, a parent; and with 300, a spouse.
Cambridge Analytica shut down in May following the negative press coverage. However, those in the public and private sector that continue their practices (such as Data Propria and Emerdata) will, like Huxley and Orwell, go some way in providing a solution to the great riddle of liberalism. The genius of introducing artificial intelligence into liberal democracy is that it gives voters the sensation of liberty we so dearly want, whilst reinforcing the order we so desperately need.
Students of philosophy will undoubtedly raise their eyebrows at the idea of turning to Rousseau, the same thinker who decried man’s “chains”, to justify “the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented”. However, this shows the extent of liberal position creep over the past 250 years. Egalitarian democracy has never been a free-for-all, but a system reliant on the guidance of a deft, invisible hand.
Rousseau wrote his tract on education, Emile, to illustrate what was required of an individual looking to enter into “the social contract”. Casting himself in the star role of the tutor, Rousseau creates a world of ordered freedom and perfect legibility around his eponymous pupil. In scrupulously prepared lessons, the tutor envelops knowledge, attributing a necessity to its sequence. Emile must not know of the ideas deemed beyond his grasp, and ignorant that his knowledge is knowledge. He must also be ignorant of the true nature of his relationship with the tutor. Sound familiar?
Like the tutor Rousseau, our social media news feeds create a world of ordered freedom and perfect legibility. Ordinarily, this would not result in chaos. But in our age, since every citizen’s tutor is slightly different, and only reflects the world back at us, the subjective reality of our own doubts, desires and prejudices is made objective. As a result, we think that every other user on Twitter or Facebook who doesn’t agree with us literally lives on another planet, in an alternate reality, while we – like Winston Smith in 1984 – are alone in speaking truth to power.
The internet’s hyper-subjectivity gives us a lot of liberty, but not much order. The Google chairman Eric Schmidt has described the internet as “the largest experiment involving anarchy in history”. Unsurprisingly, Dr Kissinger saw no merit in this, despairing of the web as a “Hobbesian state of nature”. If Hobbes taught us anything, it is that civilization cannot survive when left to the chaos of the mob. As such, Kissinger did not follow his thinking to its natural conclusion: the internet in its current state is unsustainable. This ‘wild west’ has inevitably left a vacuum for a tyrant. Enter the Leviathan of Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica’s technology offers us the sensation of this hyper-subjectivity, but subtly imposes order since what we are offered is not necessarily a confirmation of our worldview, but an exhortation to our emotions. In the words of former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, “things don’t necessarily need to be true so long as they’re believed”. The whistleblower Christopher Wylie is correct to attack his former boss with the allegation “you are creating truth”.
There is nothing wrong with this - Rousseau showed us that in a democracy, truth may be necessary, but it is a human fiction that should be of the state’s creation. Cambridge Analytica also shares a metaphysical philosophy with ‘the Party’ of 1984: reality is something that only happens in our heads. Like Big Brother, they have made the wise and able decision to use this as a means of keeping order rather than unleashing chaos.
It is often forgotten that 1984 is a feel-good story. Despite the supposed brutality of life in Oceania, Winston notes that the only way in which life has worsened for its ‘proles’, the working class who consist of 85% of the population, is beer’s measurement in litres rather than in pints. ‘The Party’ may artificially lower the standard of living, but this is to avoid an all-out conflict which would worsen it still. Besides, it is offset by the clear sense of pride and identity felt by the working class – something sorely lacking in the West today. This is shared in the book’s happy ending: “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother”. It is when Winston finally conforms that he is liberated.
The only difference between the visions of state education seen in 1984 and Emile is the greater scalability of Orwell’s proposal. Were Rousseau the tutor of all the state’s future citizens, he would be no different from Big Brother. However, the current settlement of millions of individual tutors is unsustainable. Were this to continue, Plato’s assessment of the chaos of egalitarian democracy as one of the final stages in a republic’s demise would be vindicated. Hitherto, liberal democracy in the West has not conformed to Plato’s expectations of egalitarianism. Rather, it has always necessitated a firm, invisible hand steering what Walter Lippmann dubbed the ‘bewildered herd’.
One of the most successful examples of this was Edward Bernays’ “engineering of consent” during the Cold War. This entailed the manipulation of the American population’s fears of Soviet Communnism as a means of safeguarding free market democracy. Contrary to the claims of prominent thinkers such as AC Grayling and Noam Chomsky, what Nix calls “creating truth” is not a threat to liberal democracy, but vital for its survival in the age of cyberspace.
The notion of liberal democracy’s foundation being freely acting rational beings is a dragon that must be slain. At the turn of the century, it began to usurp the stable brand of democracy which had traditionally been so successful. Perhaps Tony Blair’s time as British Prime Minister is the best example of this. His ‘continuous democracy’ resulted in policymaking based on people’s incoherent whims and desires. This precluded any greater vision of how the world could be changed for the better.
Cambridge Analytica has shown how artificial intelligence can be used to powerful ends. But used within a regulatory vacuum, where nobody can be made accountable, it turns politicians into commodities – a product sold by appealing to people’s emotions. However, this technology could be used to pacify the cyber-mob, or gain support for new policies. In any case, it will appear to be a result of the citizen’s own free thinking. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has explained, “whereas Google helped people find the things they already wanted to buy, Facebook would help them decide what they wanted”.
With the right’s dreams of small government and the liberal left’s fear of authority, any suggestion of power’s use as a positive force is likely to be met by shrill accusations of ‘fascism’ or ‘totalitarianism’. FDR and Roy Jenkins encountered the same problems. But now the situation is more urgent, as we are met with the options of order or destruction. As historian Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the technological revolution most resembling the internet was the invention of the printing press. It heralded 150 years of destruction before the Treaty of Westphalia brought things to a simmer.
Our situation is similar to that which Huxley was confronting when he published Brave New World in 1931. Despite its adoption as one of the canonical anti-totalitarian tracts, Huxley wrote his ‘dystopia’ with more ambivalence. The author was speaking to a Britain reeling in the wake of the Great Depression, a run on sterling, the abandoning of the gold standard, and the formation of an emergency government.The economist JM Keynes had suggested the country’s problems could only be solved by an increase in spending on public works and consumption. Huxley despised this proposal, comparing Keynes to Robespierre. This was not meant kindly.
His world teetering on the brink of chaos, Huxley was torn between an unappetizing economic solution, and an unacceptable, devastating breakdown in public order. As he wrote, “it may be that circumstances compel the humanist to resort to scientific propaganda, just as they compel the liberal to resort to dictatorship. Any form of order is better than chaos”. It is to his credit that in Brave New World, we see Huxley tacitly accept Keynes’ consumerist dictatorship against his convictions, over any sort of destruction. In the novel, everyone has security, and everyone (aside from a handful of the most extraordinary individuals) is happy. They may not be ‘free’ in the modern liberals’ sense of the word, but they consider themselves as such – they are ‘free to be happy’. Made painless by technological development, and given the later terrors of the Blitz, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima, there is nothing even mildly objectionable in Huxley’s ‘dystopia’.
Liberals would do well to study Huxley’s intellectual fortitude. When they describe Cambridge Analytica as ‘dystopian’, they’re not wrong. However, this need not be a bad thing. From Plato’s Republic to Junker’s “ever-closer union”, utopias are best identified by their blind idealism and impracticality. When Sir Thomas More coined the term in his 1516 novel Utopia, he had in mind the Greek for ‘no place’ as much as ‘good place’. One of the most lasting interpretations of the work has been its demonstration of how private property – the foundation of Elizabethan England – could not exist within the perfect commonwealth.Featuring a river whose name translates to ‘nowater’, and a protagonist whose surname means ‘dispenser of nonsent’, More was satirizing the idea of a perfect world. From the Jacobins to the Soviets, this has proven one of the deadliest jokes ever told.
Given the menacing nature of utopias, the dystopian (alternatively known as anti-utopian) label attributed to Cambridge Analytica should be welcomed. If anything, dystopias are best identified by their practicality. They aim to resolve the internal contradictions of ideologies – a welcome antidote to the blind idealism of their utopian brothers. In this respect, the worlds of Brave New World, 1984, and Cambridge Analytica are quite attractive.
Following the revelations about the NSA and the emergence of Cambridge Analytica, Western attitudes towards Chinese surveillance will have to change. Citizens in China and the West enjoy similar levels of privacy, the only difference being that in the latter, both private and public sectors are involved in snooping campaigns.
So when Western analysts lash out against Robin Li’s bold remarks about Chinese netizens’ willingness to exchange privacy for convenience, they ought to consider their own position.
Westerners are now constantly observed, but never knowing by whom or for what reason. We have joined the Chinese in the panopticon. However, contrary to the conventional view, this is not a prison. Our movements are not restricted: we can still go wherever we wish, and are no less capable of free thought. The walls will disappear from view, we will gradually become used to it, and it will be all right. Everything will be all right, the struggle will be finished. We will have won the victory over ourselves. We will love Big Brother.