“Big brother is watching you.”
That was the pervasive punch line in British writer George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, after considerable conflict, gives the colorful capitalist an opportunity to change the notoriously dictatorial social media giant.
Mr. Orwell, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, was a committed socialist. Unlike many on the left today, however, he had personal involvement with working people, because he was one. He stressed egalitarianism, while warning about dangers of concentrated power in government as well as corporations.
Technologies now provide unprecedented power to gather personal information about individuals. Today, technology also vastly expands individual freedom to communicate, learn and publish.
South African Musk is a magnet for controversy. He fought to acquire Twitter, in part to terminate its active but selective heavy-handed censorship.
Twitter’s now departed leaders reacted to criticism with shock, and not in the cynical “Casablanca” sense. In that classic movie, Capt. Renault expresses artificial outrage about gambling going on in Rick’s Café.
Twitter’s sanctimonious censors actually believe in their bullying. People they banned include former President Donald Trump, who though now out of office remains Public Enemy No. 1 for mainstream “news” and infotainment media.
Simultaneously, Twitter has ignored truly evil hate. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei regularly calls for destruction of Israel, referred to as “a cancerous growth.” In Twitterland, that has been acceptable while Mr. Trump causes “harm.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs fiercely defended free speech and privacy. In 2011, he emphasized protecting customer privacy in announcing a new version of the iPhone.
In 2016, Apple resisted U.S. government efforts to secure cell phone data. The phone belonged to a married couple who carried out a horrific mass murder in San Bernardino.
The FBI eventually broke the encryption, with outside tech help. That agency should focus on improving internal skills.
The enormous concentration of capital, data collection and surveillance capabilities of today’s social media and communications corporations underscores the importance of government oversight as well as restraint.
Mr. Musk also is pioneering space exploration, using business-government cooperation, now strongly established. Here, President John F. Kennedy deserves unreceived credit. In 1962, he insisted the new Communications Satellite Corp. be privately chartered, not a government agency, angering Democratic Party liberals.
We recognize J.F.K.’s role in reaching the moon. Collectively, we almost universally ignore his leadership in creating the global satellite-based communications network vital to our work and life today.
A wit quipped that “1984” was really about 1948, a reference to the Soviet Union. In the 1940s and into the 1950s, intense anti-communism seriously distorted U.S. domestic politics and our wider society.
Leftwing and other intellectuals found their careers damaged and destroyed. Blacklisting of writers became a feature of this intimidation. That era passed, but concentrated power remains dangerous.
In our fascinating, fantastic global information revolution, institutions committed to following the law and protecting personal privacy deserve our support. Here, nonprofits are particularly important.
Mr. Jobs, Mr. Musk and other entrepreneurs who resist concentrated arrogant censorship also deserve support. Unfortunately, Apple today cooperates closely with China’s government to maintain tight domestic censorship and control.
In all countries, snoops try to meddle, and bullies try to intimidate, now as through history, but today control unprecedented technologies. We the people collectively also have unprecedented access to information. The absolute control of 20th century totalitarianism is no longer possible.
But today’s tyrants, fueled by avarice and power, are dangerous enough.
Vigilance requires more than tweets and sound bites.
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War — American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at email@example.com.