Do you really agree to the terms and conditions?
COVID-19’s train of disruptions and devastations continues to barrel its way through continents. The pandemic’s deadly toll on health and economic well-being has necessitated a slew of revised societal protocols and technological intrusions: the common human touch became taboo and a thermometer gun to the forehead the standard greeting. However, with the promise of vaccines, the world is rebooting *terms and conditions apply. As humanity enters this uncharted new world, more data is now being gathered given the widespread use of contact tracing. Number, name and address — our fingers all too common with these commands. Our data is readily handed over to corporations and governments, raising the unavoidable question: are we sacrificing privacy at the altar of safety and security? As we lend our ears to updates from public health officials, obey guidance from our premiers, and seek help from national leaders, one can clearly see “big government” in ascendency.
These current dynamics of power and control between the individual and institution manifest in Oliver Stone’s Snowden and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. While belonging to different times, both the works offer acute insights into the interplay of governance and technology: how the promise of a safe and secure society can easily slip into draconian social control.
Penned during America’s McCarthy era, Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451, explores the relationship between citizens and their totalitarian government. The dystopian novel describes the transformation of Guy Montag, a book-burning fireman turned book-reading rebel.
A somewhat similar ‘man versus government’ theme is taken up by the acclaimed US film director Oliver Stone in his 2016 biopic Snowden. This docu-drama covers the titular Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — an American whistle-blower on the run from the US with classified government information. As an NSA and CIA operative, Snowden is alarmed to discover the mass surveillance of everyday American civilians being carried out by these institutions. Both, Fahrenheit 451 and Snowden distinctly position readers to view institutions, specifically governments, as having unfettered power and control over individuals.
The docu-drama by Stone teases out this theme by exposing the complete power and control wielded by the US Government’s digital mass surveillance program. Whilst undertaking a diplomatic mission in Geneva, Snowden is assigned with the field task of converting an executive banker into a CIA asset. After befriending the target, Snowden attempts to manipulate him into becoming an informant.
While digging for dirt, Snowden stumbles across several chilling government programs. One scene shows Snowden’s newfound acquaintance Gabriel Sol (Ben Schnetzer) — using a program dubbed ‘Optic Nerve’ that facilitates undercover evidence gathering — remotely activating a camera to voyeuristically spy on a woman undressing.
Stone underscores this overreach by a government who regards privacy is a mere irritant in the path of ensuring national security. Snowden’s colleague Sol also uses a secret government search engine ‘XKEYSCORE’ that can dig deep to effortlessly access anyone’s private information. Using such shockingly intrusive internet tools, Snowden himself discovers that the boyfriend of the banker’s daughter is in the country illegally. Pressure point found. Task accomplished.
However, after years of using such programs, the penny drops, and Snowden comes to a profound realisation about the totalitarian nature of the government’s data collection, undermining the very freedoms that he was constitutionally tasked with preserving. Dramatising this awakened conscience of the digital spy, the film shows an animated montage of digital surveillance linked to a complex neural network. As photos whizz by, a machine learning system dissects trillions of bytes of data to analyse the ‘private’ lives of millions of people around the world, including the very citizens whom they are charged with protecting and whose taxes — unbeknownst to them — fund the nefarious operation.
In a calm voiceover, juxtaposed against the frenzied feeding of machine scanning tools, Snowden notes that, “no matter who you are, every day of your life you are sitting in a database, just ready to be looked at.” Then, as the camera zooms out, the animated digital images mesh into each other to transform into the diabolical Orwellian symbol of surveillance: a disembodied human eye. Snowden is cinematically shown to be caught in this digital iris of the government’s information web. As the data multiplies, it represents both the complexity of the network and the weight of information inexorably piling on Snowden’s conscience.
Such scenes provoke the unuttered but obvious question: have we ourselves fallen victim to such invasive surveillance? Through visualisation of the frightening reach of these emerging technological claws, Stone exposes the inherently oppressive nature of such intrusive apparatus, no matter how noble their security goals.
In Fahrenheit 451, the surveillance regime takes the form of a robotic Mechanical Hound. Man’s best friend is thus turned by the novelist into a mechanical monster — alarmingly foreshadowing the information-sniffing internet machines of the 21st century. As a watchdog for society, the Mechanical Hound snuffs out those who defy the government.
“[The Mechanical Hound had] eight legs [which] spidered under it on rubber-padded paws…[and a plunging] four-inch hollow steel needle [that injected] massive jolts of morphine and procaine.”
Bradbury’s use of harrowing imagery incites fear into readers, forcing a deeper look at ostensibly friend-like control mechanisms put in place by governments to monitor its people.
Both Snowden and Fahrenheit 451 seek to elevate public awareness of the potentially destructive role of information and technology when left unfettered. While Bradbury crafts this brutal mechanical monster, Stone’s insidious depiction of mass surveillance hits closer to home.
In Stone’s docu-drama, Snowden’s CIA mentor Corbin O’Brien (Rhys Ifans) initially comes across as a fatherly figure. The use of closeup shots of Snowden and O’Brian highlight the close camaraderie that existed between the pair. The unsuspecting viewer sees O’Brian as a ‘good guy’ all the way until the masterful filmmaker Stone turns this depiction on its head. The mask comes off in a videocall between the two when the CIA boss interrogates Snowden over a lie detected in a compulsory polygraph. Snowden retorts by exposing O’Brian’s hypocrisy, given he lied to congress regarding the use of intrusive programs. Exploiting Snowden’s vulnerabilities, O’Brian assures that his partner Lindsay (Shailene Woodley) has been loyal to him; indeed, Snowden’s household was not exempt from this monitoring. O’Brian is thus exposed as the Orwellian Big Brother, towering above the smaller silhouetted Snowden.
Stone’s utilisation of low angle camera shots further cements O’Brian’s superiority over Snowden’s diminutive figure. This subtle but sinister representation captures the relationship between the powerful institution and its powerless individual.
In Fahrenheit 451, parallels can be found, where the Fire Department’s Captain Beatty is the archetypal antagonist and embodies the institution. Bradbury weaves Beatty into a complex character, someone who is paradoxically well versed in literature, yet has a passion for book burning. Painted by the novelist as a satanic presence enshrouded in “thunderheads of tobacco smoke,” Beatty is a tyrant par excellence. His authoritarian nature surfaces abruptly when he berates the protagonist Montag and exercises totalitarian control through the unleashing of the Mechanical Hound on Montag’s house.
In Bradbury’s portrayal of a scene where firemen travel to an old woman’s house to burn it, we catch a glimpse of the institutionalised totalitarianism manifesting through Beatty’s character.
The fire chief verbally abuses an old woman who refuses to leave her home, and then resorts to battery when she refuses to answer his questions. Bradbury provokes us to view such government empowered suppression of the individual as a universal phenomenon where unchecked power imbalance is found: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Hence, both Beatty and O’Brian are emblematic of the supremacist institution which oppresses the defenceless individual.
In the end, both the protagonists — Snowden and Montag — end up exiled from the very societies they tried to protect, with those raising voices in their support dismissed as fringe groups by a largely toe the line media. Stone’s Snowden and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 compel their audience to regard unchecked institutional power as an oppressive force.
The concepts explored in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Stone’s Snowden invite us to ponder the downsides of power of those very high institutions that we ourselves create in democratic societies to marshal our combined strengths for the common good. How many personal liberties might we end up unwittingly sacrificing if these envisioned saviours turned instead into our overlord? While the notion of living in a totalitarian state may seem far fetched while we enjoy democratic rights and freedoms, that seems precisely to be the point of the above works: people who start taking their liberties for granted by investing their full trust in a single institution are well on their way towards a totalitarian state that will be democratic only in name.