Big Brother Is Browsing
Our fearless informationographer unearths the final word on information, work, and technology
So rapidly has business technology evolved that even the entertainment media cannot keep up. There are business movies and criminal movies and criminal-business movies and Internet movies. But there has yet to be a movie, a country-and-western song, or even a country-house home-office mystery about the emerging world of work in the information society.
Lawyers have Perry Mason novels; neurologists have Oliver Sacks. The romances of paleontologists and primatologists are the subject of best-sellers by Michael Crichton. But where am I -- a mere informationographer -- on the reading lists of my children? Where is the swashbuckling virtual guy? Who stars in the multimedia noir?
For people like me, it basically comes down to one science-fiction novel written in the 1940s. Yes, digital denizens, there is a book that describes our life in the workplace.
In my crumbling paperback edition of this brilliant prediction of change in the way we do business, the hero starts his day with an exercise program on interactive television. Then he heads off to his media job in a concrete pyramid, where he sits in a cubicle at a workstation that functions remarkably like my own.
On some technological details, the book is still ahead of what we have today. For example, the hero has complete voice-actuated word processing -- no keyboard -- technology that is still a few years down the infopike for most of us, I suspect.
In other predictions about the semipaperless office, the book is a bit off target. For example, the hero uses a pneumatic tube for jobs that now call for a fax machine. But the general portrait of the automated office and its routines and politics is unsurpassed, even though this novel was written in the days of carbon paper.
The hero begins his workday by unrolling his pneumatic "faxes," just as I start every day by scrolling through my E-mail. He then uses a networked computer to call up documents that are "tubed" right to his desk "after only a few minutes' delay." In science fiction, it is rare to find an author who knows that annoying pauses will always be part of the human/machine interface. Yet this book was written even before Bill Gates was born.
Next the character quickly corrects some discrepancies in his employer's public statements -- Yes, son, this is what Daddy does in his office some days -- and marks the updated documents for publication on shared-document sites on three continents.
And so off to lunch in the company cafeteria, where fellow mid-level employees discuss what they want to buy next and brag about what their children are doing -- while the television blares on. The on-screen plot concerns an office romance that is discovered. The lovers are arrested by the Thought Police and tortured. They betray each other, and . . .
Of course, many of you have already recognized the opening scenes and technological predictions of George Orwell's 1984. And some of you are probably getting a little annoyed. After all, Orwell's political prophesies pretty much evaporated only a few years after the eponymous date. Communism is dead, and the idea of an elite's turning its ability to manipulate information into the totalitarian control of millions of people is universally regarded as a nonstarter except in China and a few odd corners of the world.
And Orwell's vaunted theory of language -- including the idea that an elite would control thought by promulgating a jargon with fewer words and con-cepts -- well, history sure has put the kibosh on that one.
Today the English language has more words than ever, including bazillions of computer terms that only nerds can understand, like cool, uncool, way-cool, and, of course, kewl.
Orwell foresaw a world in which Big Brother had a mustache, the government tried to keep people from enjoying sex, mysterious bombs went off in big cities, parents were sent to jail on the testimony of their children, politicians changed their records and no one noticed, newspapers altered established facts, a decrease one day in the amount of chocolate in a candy bar was announced as an increase the next day, and the exercise leader on TV could actually see that you weren't touching your toes.
Heck, nobody gets that upset about Jane Fonda anymore. And you've seen the ads in every newspaper and magazine: Does Bill Gates have a mustache? He does not have any such thing.
So I have to admit that Orwell's predictions about politics, language, culture, and home life were all wet. At best we could say that his warnings were heeded, that he prophesied himself out of a job. Orwell died right after he finished writing 1984, so he never knew that his book wouldn't play on the talk-show circuit -- which he also failed to predict, by the way. (Actually, there are entertainments very similar to talk shows in 1984, but with topics like "Ingsoc in Relation to Chess," they really can't be credited with predicting "The Oprah Winfrey Show.")
But though Orwell failed as a prophet of political trends, he was a prescient forecaster of business culture. Even if literature is further downsized in the coming years, 1984 will rise to become the canonical text about information, work, and technology.
Much of the horror early readers felt about the world of 1984 had to do with the monstrous and continuous rewriting of history -- the job of the hero, Winston Smith. Of course, with Watergate, the Iran-contra affair, and Whitewater, the government isn't rewriting history anymore. Nowadays, that's being done in the private sector.
If Orwell were writing today, he would have to convey the mentality of a functionary in a flexible multinational corporation, with total-quality-management training and pretax tuition benefits, rewriting corporate history. Could Orwell do it?
Consider the following:
Wrote Orwell: "With a faint feeling of satisfaction Winston laid the fourth message aside. It was an intricate and responsible job and had better be dealt with last. The other three were routine matters, though the second one would probably mean some tedious wading through lists of figures."
What was that "fourth message" again? "Reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling."
If your newspeak is a little rusty, let me help. The message was about a year-old newspaper article that quoted Big Brother talking about people who were (as we would now put it) "no longer with the company." Winston's job was to rewrite the article to eliminate the "discrepancy," have his superiors check out the new version, and republish the article.
Now, maybe my company isn't quite like yours. Or maybe it is, and you too have had some officers who maybe, say, had to leave before the usual retirement age. And maybe there had been a big to-do when they joined the company. And maybe you've ended up -- as I have twice in the last six months -- editing some old press releases to eliminate "doubleplusungood refs unpersons."
I don't know about you, but when I did it, I felt a little queasy morally. Still, I was fascinated by the power of the job. Winston Smith did his "rewrite fullwise" with a "speak-write" (computer) printout and pneumatic tubes that directed a print shop to forge a new edition of the London Times and librarians to burn all the old copies. I did my little deeds with electronic files and a much-mirrored site on the World Wide Web.
The technology has changed, but the feelings are the same. If George Orwell came back today, he wouldn't pass an audition for "Washington Week in Review," but he'd probably be a regular on "Wall Street Week." He'd get out of that risky futurism and settle in as a business author.
Look how clearly his spirit turns up even in a pioneering work like Virtual Corporation, by William H. Davidow and Michael S. Malone. Those authors were wise to see the essence of the modern company, not in its use of advanced technology, but in its deep alliances with suppliers, employees, and customers: "Customers who are unwilling to be trained, not forthcoming with necessary information, or not willing to participate in a shared future must be quickly culled out or they will become a heavy financial burden."
Good advice for 1992, but Orwell had it all down in 1948: "You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him; you must love him."* * *
Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing company.