Big Brother: state or capitalist

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a future characterized by total surveillance (with telescreens observing people in their own homes, even monitoring their heartbeat and recognizing their facial expression). This surveillance is carried out by the state and its helpers. Corporations play no role in it.

In fact, corporations and capitalism are a thing of the past in Nineteen Eighty-Four, for private property has been abolished. A children’s book explains that capitalists were rich, ugly men wearing top hats. The Party constantly emphasizes how terrible conditions were before the Revolution and how much better they are today. But the main character, Winston Smith, can’t help but wonder if things had been really that bad in the past and if capitalists had really been such terrible creatures.

The suggestion is clear: the state is using capitalists as a scapegoat to mask its own failings (in fact, if I were a member of today’s whining one percent, I'd claim that Orwell had predicted the current «rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent»).

Today, thirty years after 1984, private property hasn’t been abolished, but we are approaching a level of surveillance pretty close to what Orwell described. When we try to explain what’s going on, we frequently use the term Big Brother. But when we do, are we referring to the state, as Orwell did, or do we have capitalists in mind?

To explore this matter, I looked up how often newspaper articles mention Big Brother in combination with either the names of government agencies, or the names Google and Facebook (of course I should have included Apple, notwithstanding their smart privacy patent, but I left them out for practical reasons explained below). The results are shown in the graph below. For the non-Dutch: NRC is a Dutch newspaper and AIVD is the Dutch intelligence service.

It appears that Google and Facebook turn up in combination with Big Brother far more often than government agencies like the CIA, MI5 or AIVD. However, as the red bars show, this has changed since the revelations of Edward Snowden. Since May last year, the NSA has been mentioned in combination with Big Brother more often than Google or Facebook (in the Guardian, the same applies to the GCHQ).

So Orwell didn’t foresee the role of corporations in mass surveillance, and we used to have a blind spot for the role of the state - but Snowden seems to have fixed that.


I used the Guardian and New York Times APIs to look up how often names of selected state agencies and corporations have appeared in combination with Big Brother in articles over the past ten years. I removed the results from the Guardian media section to get rid of most references to the Big Brother TV show. I wanted to include Apple, but unfortunately, the newspaper APIs don’t distinguish between apple and Apple. I thought searching for iPhone might be a practical solution, but the Guardian results included articles containing ‘I phone’. The NRC doesn’t have an API so I looked up the terms manually; the timeline to the right of the search results makes it quite easy to count the number of post Snowden occurences. In all cases, the method to search the newspaper archives is imperfect in that it yields some unwanted results (e.g. articles mentioning somebody’s big brother which have nothing to do with Big Brother).