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Roger Clarke's 'Future Trace on Dataveillance'

A 'Future Trace' on Dataveillance:
The Anti-Utopian and Cyberpunk Literary Genres

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 9 March 1993, with some revisions on 7 January, 20 February and 5 October 2000 and 8 May 2005

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In addition to formal analyses, two literary genres assist in understanding dataveillance and privacy. The first of these is the anti-utopian novels of (roughly speaking) the middle 50 years of the twentieth century. The second is the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, which emerged in the 1980s.



There is a popular belief that art anticipates reality. If so, then it may pay to assess developments in the attitude of fiction authors to data surveillance matters. This is most apparent in two segments of the fictional literature.

The first is anti-utopian or dystopian fiction, in which a future is described which is repugnant to humanity: the dominance of the State over the citizen.

The logical descendant of anti-utopian novels is a branch of science fiction called cyberpunk, which deals with near-future, IT-impregnated society. The State's power is assumed to have diminished, that of corporations has grown, and many people live outside official society, in the successor to what we currently call 'the grey economy'.

The following is this author's impressionistic interpretation of these two genres, and their import. It is based on a sketchy knowledge of the novels of the period, and not at all on the lit crit literature. I'd appreciate suggestions for further reading!

The Dystopian Novels

A brief note on the meaning of 'utopian', 'anti-utopian' and 'dystopian' is provided below.

Inserted 8 May 2005: Founders of the genre are Butler's 'Erewhon' (1872) (in which the fear is expressed that machines could rapidly evolve and take over the world), and Forster's 'The Machine Stops' (1909), (in which they already had).

The defining work is Eugene Zamyatin's 'We' (1922). Others that followed included:

Zamyatin and Orwell established the classic picture of information-rich government maintaining hegemony over the citizen's actions and thoughts.

In Zamyatin's work, the vehicle of repression was 'the Guardians', who were dressed like all other numbers, so that they melded into the population and kept a close eye on activities. Special 'membranes' (listening devices) were mounted on all streets. In addition, the Guardians rode aeros trailing long black observation tubes.

Huxley reflected developments in the biological technologies, and linked the State's dominance to the application of genetic engineering, and control of people by neural conditioning with mind-altering drugs and manipulative media. In Orwell's '1984', ubiquitous observation was enabled by wall-mounted, two-way 'telescreen' displays, supplemented by physical observation, conducted, as it was in 'We', from helicoptors. Bradbury speculated on the denial of information to the public. Atwood's much later work provided a feminist perspective.

In most instances of this family of fiction, the State wins, and the individual is crushed: if death comes, it is as a release or relief, rather than a dreaded climax. Some of the novellists have left open a chink, however. The clearest is Atwood, because in her dominant State, the first signs of decadence are already appearing, the underground appears to be surviving, and there are other countries which have not succumbed to the oppressive ideology. This is small comfort, of course, to those who have to endure the period of greatest oppression.

The surveillance culture has subsequently been given philosophical under-pinning by Foucault (1977), using the metaphors of the prison and Bentham's 'panopticon'. It has been described and its implications drawn in such works as Burnham (1983), Laudon (1986) and Clarke (1988). Its elements have been summarised (Agre 1993) as:

The Turning Point

The fictional literature underwent a transition sometime in the 1960s and 1970s. The book that evidences the turning-point is John Brunner's 'The Shockwave Rider' (1975), whose author acknowledged a debt to Alvin Toffler's 'Future Shock' (1971).

For much of the novel, the hero appears to be putting up a brave fight against inevitable defeat by the State. By turning the power of the net against its presumed sponsors, the hero galvanises the incipient feelings of opposition to the State by many other people and discovers other pockets of surviving resistance. The book ends on an ambiguous, but optimistic, note.

Cyberpunk Novels

More recent novels have adopted a quite different pattern. In William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984), and the 'cyberpunk' genre that this book spawned, the State has become much less influential.

People are prosthetic-enhanced cyborgs, plug directly into the net, and induce their 'highs' through a mix of drugs and cyberspace. More importantly for the argument being pursued here, the hypercorps (successors to the transnational corporations) are responsible for the organised economic activity, and have associated with them polite society (the successor to the corporation man), the majority of the net and a great deal of information. Outside the official levels of society skulk large numbers of people, in communities in which formal law and order have broken down, and tribal patterns have re-emerged. Official society sustains a belief in the extent to which it is exercising control, but the tendency is towards ungovernability.

Willian Gibson has written several further cyberpunk novels since 'Neuromancer'. Another sci-fi author, Bruce Sterling (1988, 1991), has written several novels, short stories, together with literary criticism that makes the genre more readily accessible. Sterling refers to Alvin Toffler's 'The Third Wave' (1981) as a bible for many of the new wave of 'cyberpunk' authors.

The natural successors to Gibson and Sterling are Neal Stephenson's 'Snowcrash' (1992) and 'Cryptonomicon' (1999), which sustain the vision of future society, but integrate additional technologies.


Whether this trend in the fictional literature has direct implications for society as a whole, for government agencies, for corporations, and for information technologists is a matter of judgement, even of belief. However, to the extent that novelists do sense, expand upon and project tendencies which are already in existence, all of us would do well to ponder.

Appendix: Definitions

I'd always assumed that the word 'utopia' was what Plato had used to describe the ideal plane which he regarded as the real reality. The first entry in my main dictionary (the Macquarie, which is the Australian equivalent to the Oxford) is consistent with that, but it doesn't mention Plato.

The second entry says that utopia was "an imaginary island enjoying the utmost perfection in law, politics, etc.", as described in Thomas More's 'Utopia' published in the early 1500s. It implies that the word was coined by More, from the Greek ou (not) and topas (place).

More's work was followed during the next few centuries by further works by other authors, and by attempts by idealists to create such a place. These literary and real-world works were attacked by a number of satirists, who doubted the practicability, and even the desirability, of creating a utopia. Among these was Samuel Butler's 'Erewhon', published in 1872. 'Erewhon' is of course 'nowhere' backwards; and 'nowhere' is a direct translation of the *literal* meaning of 'utopia'. The satirists' work gave rise to the sense of impractical idealism that attaches to the term 'utopian' in its contemporary usage.

For a deeper treatment, see reference works, such as the entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The terms 'anti-utopia' and 'dystopia' are of more recent origin, and appear to be synonyms. Remarkably, neither yet appears in the Macquarie Dictionary or the Britannica, although the Britannica entry on 'utopia' does include this useful paragraph:

"In the 20th century, when the possibility of a planned society became too imminent, a number of bitterly anti-utopian, or dystopian, novels appeared. Among these are The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London, My (1924 ; [sic] We, 1925) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) by George Orwell. The Story of Utopias (1922) by Lewis Mumford is an excellent survey".

I haven't yet run to ground when the prefixes 'anti' (against, opposed to) and 'dys' (hard, bad or unlucky, as in dysfunctional) were first added. They are used to describe a category of literature, and the worlds that they portray, which are the opposite of ideal - at least from the perspective of a humanist.

My associations for the word 'anti-utopian' are clearly with George Orwell's '1984', published in 1948. My guess would be that some literary critic (one of the Waughs, perhaps?) invented it when reviewing that book. It is possible, however, that it was first used in respect of the earlier novels Zamyatin's 'We' (1922) or Huxley's 'Brave New World' (1932).

As regards 'dystopia', my memory (based on a distant acquaintance with literature and lit. crit. works dating back to the late 1960s) is that it was invented by some much later literary critic, perhaps about 1970.


Agre P.E. (1993) 'Articulated Tracking and the Political Economy of Privacy' Proc. CFP'93, Comp. Prof. Soc. Resp., San Francisco, March 9-12 1993, pp.9.3-9.5

Atwood M.P. (1987) 'The Handmaid's Tale', Cape, 1986

Bradbury R. (1953) 'Fahrenheit 451 ... The Temperature at Which Books Burn' Ballantine Books, 1953

Brunner J. (1975) 'The Shockwave Rider' Ballantine, 1975

Burnham D. (1983) 'The Rise of the Computer State' Random House, New York, 1983

Clarke R.A. (1988) 'Information Technology and Dataveillance' Commun. ACM 31,5 (May 1988) 498-512, at

Forster E.M. (1909) 'The Machine Stops' Oxford & Cambridge Rev., 1909, at, accessed 8 May 2005

Foucault M. (1977) 'Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison' Peregrine, London, 1975, trans. 1977

Gibson W. (1984) 'Neuromancer' Grafton/Collins, London, 1984

Huxley A. (1932) 'Brave New World' Penguin Books, New York, 1932, 1975

Laudon K.C. (1986) 'Dossier Society: Value Choices in the Design of National Information Systems' Columbia U.P., 1986

Orwell G. (1948) '1984' Penguin, 1948

Stephenson M. (1992) 'Snowcrash', Bantam Spectra, 1992

Stephenson N. (1999) 'Cryptonomicon', Avon, 1999

Sterling B. (Ed.) (1986) 'Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology' Arbor House, New York, 1986

Sterling B. (1991) 'Islands in the Net', Arbor House, 1989

Toffler A. (1971) 'Future Shock' Bantam Books, New York, 1971

Toffler A. (1981) 'The Third Wave' Bantam Books, New York, 1981

Zamyatin E. (1922) 'We' Penguin, 1922, 1990. A summary is provided by John Garrard

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