In the modern world, the technology to monitor your every movement and action is imminently feasible. No one doubts the ability of an omni-government to monitor people; hence GDPR.

But Orwell posited such a controlling government in Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949.

What is the earliest point in human history that a government (of any sized society) could achieve a Nineteen Eighty-Four-like control of its population?

Here are some relevant attributes of the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four; with spoiler tags because I'm sensitive to those who have put off reading the book for 69 years.

  • Constant surveillance of the population (through 'telescreens', possibly)

  • The ability to project a fictitious but omni-present leader, Big Brother, who 'always' rules no matter who rules behind the scenes

  • The apparent high-probability chance of detecting rebels before they even act

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 21 '18 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ I would say, 1984. East Germany had a well developed spy network (watch 'The Lives of Others') and Max Headroom was a 'virtual' talking head introduced in 1984. It's not hard to imagine if a government devoted its full resources it could achieve what's described in the book. (However I don't believe it would be sustainable.) $\endgroup$ – Chloe Sep 21 '18 at 15:55

11 Answers 11


If you forego the 'telescreens' I'd say it was feasible at the end of the industrial revolution.

Take the former GDR (German Democratic Republic) as example and adjust some historical facts to an extreme.

  • There was an personality cult in the GDR idolizing the political leaders beyond any reason. Replace a human leader with an avatar of some kind and The Great Leader will never die.
  • The Stasi ("Staatssicherheit", former intelligence agency) employed thousands of so-called "inofficial collaborators". These were ordinary citizens who reported deviant behavior of every person they encountered in their daily lives to the Stasi. Most of them actually thought they did the right thing, protecting their country and their lives against intruders and attackers from outside. In extreme cases, the Stasi turned family members against each other or infiltrated a family by sending an undercover agent playing the lover.
  • Propaganda! There was propaganda everywhere, every day. Todays "fake news" are laughable peanuts compared to the propaganda in the GDR. You must brainwash your people to let them believe in the political system and perceive outside influences (like the absurd idea of democracy) as dangerous and harmfull.
  • You need to start brainwashing the smallest children to let them grow up into the role of the loyal citizen. Produce cartoon shows and text books teaching them from early age about their beloved Big Brother. Adapt curriculums to lead them into the direction you want. Give away Big Brother plushies to be embraced in the hearts of the smallest. One day, they grow up, but Big Brother will have an eternal place in their hearts.

Why did I set the time frame for the governmental control to the industrial revolution?

The GDR proved that you don't need digital surveillance to control the population. You can do it with the right tools and manpower.

You need:

  • A cheap and endless supply of paper.

  • A filing structure that made it possible to retrieve and connect massive amounts of information.

  • A literacy rate of approx. 70-80% of the population to find enough suitable people to employ as inofficial collaborators.

  • A concept of the enemy or bogeyman. Somehow you have to explain why all this supervision is necessary.

  • A few decades of carefull propaganda and political indoctrination. The second generation growing up under Big Brother's watchfull eye will be brainwashed from birth.

  • A stable economy. The downfall of the GDR was the bad financial situation. Single cells of rebels never had any big impact on the GDR, it took the mass of the general population dissatisfied with their life circumstances to bring the system down.

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    $\begingroup$ Right. "Todays "fake news" are laughable peanuts compared to the propaganda in the GDR." Quite so. Again, the fundamental confusion here seems to be, not realizing that "1984" was, quite simply, ABOUT "the Soviet Union" - that was the whole point. (And, moreover, Huxley astutely realized that "we were just as bad and en route to the same place".) $\endgroup$ – Fattie Sep 19 '18 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Huxely? Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World. 1984 was written by George Orwell. Both books posit a dystopian future and are often compared critically, so the confusion is understandable... $\endgroup$ – Oscar Bravo Sep 20 '18 at 13:46
  • $\begingroup$ Same comment as on the other GDR answer: The Stasi was heavily reliant on (at the time) modern technology for its surveillance. So I’m not sure that how proves that it could be done without. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Sep 21 '18 at 15:08

In the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) a system very similar to Big Brother was in place, though not relying on technology, but using human informants only.

It was set up by the Stasi:

Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants (the extensiveness of any surveillance largely depended on how valuable a product was to the economy) and one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo). Spies reported every relative or friend who stayed the night at another's apartment. Tiny holes were drilled in apartment and hotel room walls through which Stasi agents filmed citizens with special video cameras. Schools, universities, and hospitals were extensively infiltrated.

The Stasi had formal categorizations of each type of informant, and had official guidelines on how to extract information from, and control, those with whom they came into contact. The Stasi infiltrated almost every aspect of GDR life. In the mid-1980s, a network of IMs began growing in both German states; by the time that East Germany collapsed in 1989, the Stasi employed 91,015 employees and 173,081 informants. About one out of every 63 East Germans collaborated with the Stasi. By at least one estimate, the Stasi maintained greater surveillance over its own people than any secret police force in history.

They also had something closely similar to the psycho-police:

The Stasi perfected the technique of psychological harassment of perceived enemies known as Zersetzung (pronounced [ʦɛɐ̯ˈzɛtsʊŋ]) – a term borrowed from chemistry which literally means "decomposition". Tactics employed under Zersetzung generally involved the disruption of the victim's private or family life. This often included psychological attacks, such as breaking into homes and subtly manipulating the contents, in a form of gaslighting – moving furniture, altering the timing of an alarm, removing pictures from walls or replacing one variety of tea with another. Other practices included property damage, sabotage of cars, purposely incorrect medical treatment, smear campaigns including sending falsified compromising photos or documents to the victim's family, denunciation, provocation, psychological warfare, psychological subversion, wiretapping, bugging, mysterious phone calls or unnecessary deliveries, even including sending a vibrator to a target's wife. Usually, victims had no idea that the Stasi were responsible. Many thought that they were losing their minds, and mental breakdowns and suicide could result.

Considering that the Stasi could rely on the experience developed in the USSR, I would say that anticipating its creation at the beginning of the XX century would be entirely plausible.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Sep 22 '18 at 3:08

A small enough community can achieve this level of surveilance with simple observation

You need...

  • An insecure leader willing to dominate the tribe with violence.
  • Sycophantic members of the tribe willing to narc on their neighbors.

This could be achieved with the first chieftan-oriented tribal social structures, which occured in the Neolithic period (10,000 BC).

However, this same behavior could just as easily be familial (a father tyranically watching over his brood), which means you can achieve your goal as early as 300,000 BC.


You don't define what you mean by "constant surveillance." If by that you mean "somebody else has eyes and ears on you 24/7" then I predict it will come available sometime around year 2150. We can monitor communications, some viewing habits, some transit, and we have cameras in many places, but the reality is that we can't monitor the general population 24/7 today.


The goal could be achieved by...

  • Family units as early as 300,000 BC (possibly earlier).
  • Tribal units as early as 10,000 BC.
  • Unless you really mean "complete surveillance," then it won't happen IMO until about 2150.


A couple of commenters have suggested that we can achieve complete surveillance today. It's true that we have the technology to make cameras and microphones... but that's not actually the problem.

We have such a deluge of data right now that people are actually contemplating using magnetic tape to try and handle the data flow (Spectrum, IEEE, 09/2018) and complete surveillance would require increasing that data flow 10,000 fold (at least 10,000 fold. How many houses and businesses have cameras in every room today? Answer: almost none. [35.7M houses in the U.S. alone, what, average 7 rooms + garage per house? That's probably small... 300 million new cameras+mics, just in the houses... just in the U.S.... And that's just houses....).

People who think this is achievable with today's tech haven't thought the entire problem through. That data needs to be captured, transmitted, stored, evaluated... ugh (you'd need a third the country's population just to review all this data in a timely manner, the computational power to evaluate that much data realtime is appreciable). We're no where near the ability to handle that much second-by-second dataflow.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that all the technology we need for electronic mass surveillance already exists today. Micro cameras and microphones, automatic voice and face recognition, the big data processing technology to mine it all... everything available commercially over the shelf. The only reason we don't have 24/7 surveillance is because there isn't the political will to do it. What additional technological breakthrough do you think would be needed to not make it happen until 2150? $\endgroup$ – Philipp Sep 20 '18 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid you're underestimating the technology we have now in place. There are already tools predicting behaviour based on the live camera footage, machine deep learning solutions that enable improve algorithms without creators realising what actually the computer is doing, big data mining to provide data for deep learning and all the technology needed to make a 24/7 surveillance (i.e. recording/monitoring everything that is going on in every single home and in the streets). We're actually better at this than what was suggested in Orwell's novel. $\endgroup$ – Ister Sep 20 '18 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ The real limit on 24/7 surveillance is the cost and the amount of data produced- just too much irrelevant data to sort through. The Chinese Government would love to surveillance 24/7 but they are coming close is with the Social Rating judge you and your family on standards that their leaders breach all the time and blanket online and camera coverage. $\endgroup$ – user2617804 Sep 22 '18 at 8:52

I personally think you could pull this off even as early as the Bronze age if you are dedicated enough to it. Granted it will make the whole process less centralized and efficient, but you didn't make that one of the requirements.

What's to prevent for example the Assyrian king from setting up a Stasi like system? What does he need? A bureacracy capable of handling the information? I think it's possible.

There was less literacy in those times, but there are also factors that allow that to be a non-issue. For example the spies don't have to be literate, only the people penning down and processing the information have to be. The area to be monitored is also smaller since most people live in or close to cities.

All the Assyrian king has to do is set up a spy system in every city with a loyal guy in charge. It's of course less efficient, but there are also factors that make it harder to revolt in ancient times.


It depends I guess.

If the telescreens are a mandatory attribute, this would put the earliest possible time somewhere in the beginning of the 20th century, when television and a lot of other needed or supporting technology (like transistor tubes) were invented. A nice read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_television

The projection of a fictitious but omnipresent leader would have been possible by any society that was able to inform their subjects that there was a leader in the first place. The lack of modern (mass) media would make such a feat easier, not harder. It is in fact easier for us to ascertain that Julius Caesar was real than it ever was for Roman commoners living in the outskirts of the empire. A cynic could even argue that any society that has religion has this very ability. Denying the existence of [enter religious leader/prophet/messiah here] will in some places in the world lead to the same result as doubting big brother in Orwell's 1984. This can be observed throughout history.

The last one is a hard one as it touches on a system of mass surveillance and a huge network of informants. Surely in 1984 (the year) they had this down to an art in the DDR. This was an (on a whole) analogue, paper based system, that could have been contrived by any civilization that had literacy and a bureaucracy. To what extend this was achievable in practice is hard to tell (for me at least), it would be a nice question for history.se I would think.


The purpose of surveillance is control of population/society....

The "Big Brother" has been around for all of human history.

Tree/Cave/Tribal chiefs/shamans provided a social/dogma code to control/master the population and derive benefits shells/stones/bronze...gold, food/security... procreation....

Political, religious, economic... dogma-affect of individuals will effect social position/etiquette... of individuals. Dogma-affect always provides persons with justifications for life/death, inclusion/exclusion, believe/ignore, value/valueless....

From this "Big Brother" perspective of Fear Uncertainty Doubt Obfuscation (FUDO...?), all dogma is a model for surveillance based on a primitive FUDO model used by all social systems that seek to oppress individual expression, authenticity, creativity, curiosity.... The implied; human society, though understanding the iniquity of disparity, remains lethally and terminally unchanged for about 1,000,000 years.

So; Remaining under surveillance, in the stone-age, iron-age, tech-age... by BigBrother-FUDO, remains persistently in control of life and evolution for people & society. BigBrother-FUDO dogma assures primitives survival, human tragedy, and eventually extinction.

Humanity can evolve only after humanity learns to govern BigBrother-FUDO globally. New political, economic, social, personal... life models can be used a/o evolved, but require an end of BigBrother-FUDO oppression of the individual expression, authenticity, creativity, curiosity....

Start with ending national government political, religious, economic, social... reactionary dogmas, then end economic disparity, and provide minimum income levels, free healthcare & education.... Humanity no longer needs BigBrother-FUDO BabaYaga, PèreMalfait, Satan... for survival & evolution.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! Good job on this answer, +1. My question is, would an early society be able to use constant surveillance, in a world before cameras, GPS, and microphones? I think it would be difficult to monitor everything people are doing without electronics. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Sep 19 '18 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ Constant surveillance is like perfect security, it never can happen. Humanity will out. Humans are not born dogma affected sheeple, nurture forced comply with the accepted dogma reality, which is never actuality. $\endgroup$ – user22501 Sep 20 '18 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ So you are saying 1984 will never happen to the level where surveillance is constant? I would tend to disagree, regimes already force people to comply, and a lot of human history has involved forcing people to do stuff against their will. Humans don't have to know about the surveillance anyway. In 1984 people might think that the telescreens were recording them, but there was never any proof. People aren't going to revolt against surveillance they don't know about. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Sep 20 '18 at 11:37

I'm going to say 1086. That's when William the Conqueror compiled the Domesday Book listing every piece of land and every land-owning family in the whole of England. Rebel against him, and he knew who you were, where you lived, and where your family and serfs lived. Stay loyal to him, and he (or his taxmen) knew to the penny how much you owed him and what your commitments were to his army.

You could make an argument for the Romans starting it, with their censuses. (Remember why Joseph and Mary were travelling to Bethlehem in the first place.) There wasn't never really a follow-up from the Romans though to use it as a serious means of controlling the people on their lists, whereas the Domesday Book was expressly intended for that purpose, so that William could demand taxes and exercise control across his new kingdom.


Surveillance is possible but not all that feasible with the advent of audio transmission. Controlling and monitoring someone's every move let alone a whole nation or even city would be a herculean task with just analog audio signals or even analog video transmission as it existed in decades past. I would posit that information-era technology and communications is the earliest a ruling power could surveil a large population like in 1984.

The kind of control you reference via big brother is only really possible through mass communication, repeating messaging to a populace until the eventual adoption of those values requires media or communications that can be passed on reliably every day.

Reliably meaning that there is as little loss in translation as possible, the message is exact and indelible. Things such as town criers or other social messaging would make it extremely unlikely for totalitarian social control to be successful.

From this we can assert that everyone hearing/reading/seeing the same message leads to it being self repeating socially, there is no social representative per-se, no messenger just the message at the initial point of contact with society. The message then has a high likelihood of being self-replicating if it is propagandized effectively creating and/or resolving emotions of the populace.

Therefore the only time it enters a likelihood of success is with the following conditions; following the technological advance of our own history this is the earliest point at which this type of social control can be enforced.

The following technological states need to be true at a minimum for a high chance of succeeding:

1) The printing press exists

2) Most of the population dwells in cities or easy-to-govern population centers

3) Industrial production is on track to become the majority of the labor force

The following civic and social conditions need to be true:

1) The population has a basic literacy

2) The printing press is efficiently controlled by the ruling power

3) Ownership over print media is strictly controlled

4) Populace has sufficient access to food

Enforcing education to a state standard is not absolutely necessary, without it the populace needs only limited education and constant access to food and comforts. If they are 'comfortable enough' then they can be occupied with non-survival related dilemmas.

Notice that likelihood is the word in all of this, a ruling power can control a population with access to resources in order to fund a policing body large enough to control a population, this of course is much easier with a small population. For example to the latter, a rich and paranoid city-state with the population of renaissance venice and the wealth of Mansa-Musa of Mali.

If you want to know the whole story about this kind of control read Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, there is also a documentary.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you sure that sufficient food and literacy are necessary? If most of the population is illiterate, secret communication is just that much harder. The ability of a small number of elites to read mean they can control those who can't (For example, see Animal Farm, which was also written by Orwell). As for food, in modern dystopias and in books like 1984, much of the population is starving. Is sufficient food needed just to begin taking over ("If you're starving, join our country, we have food", and then you take over and slowly lower food rations), or do you always need sufficient food? $\endgroup$ – John Locke Sep 19 '18 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ Starvation is common throughout most rebellions in history, 'sufficient' food is relative. 'Let them eat cake!' The average caloric intake for people in much older versions of society would be around 1000 calories, whereas by today's standard a man of average height should have an intake of 2000 to maintain current weight. So long as food is always reliably available there should be a lower chance of rebellion. It is also true that having literacy comes with risk of subversion, I maintain that it is a unavoidable flaw for social control output scaling up. $\endgroup$ – J T Sep 20 '18 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think that population-wide literature is necessary for controlling a population in the first place? $\endgroup$ – John Locke Sep 20 '18 at 11:50
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    $\begingroup$ @DaBaum "Monitoring someone's every move... would be a herculean task." You seem to have grasped this better than all of the other answers. "Big Brother" isn't limited by technology or social status, but by the sheer magnitude of man-hours it takes to sift through all of the data generated by an entire population's daily lives! I mean, Winston in the book was caught because he was extremely careless, not because Big Brother kept particularly good tabs on him. $\endgroup$ – Michael W. Sep 20 '18 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Ok, so each person being able to read means they will see the laws, not hear them from word of mouth, which could mix them up. Is that what you're saying? $\endgroup$ – John Locke Sep 21 '18 at 10:35

Others already pointed you to earlier examples of surveillance, but one I find particularly noteworthy is the Puritans in the 17th century colonies. They had a prohibition on anybody living alone, because living alone would allow somebody to remain unobserved.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you have any evidence of that? $\endgroup$ – kingledion Sep 20 '18 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion, "...a recognition of the importance of 'minding one's own business' and not being a busybody served as a check against rigid enforcement of Puritan laws that prohibited, among other things, having sex outside of marriage, swearing, living alone, or dressing ostentatiously." (source]. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 21 '18 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion, Ah... "In fact, Puritans were so concerned about monitoring behavior that they passed laws prohibiting people from living alone." (Source) $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 21 '18 at 3:41

I read a paper sometime ago that compared modern surveillance with the Catholic Church of a few hundred years ago. If you think about it, convincing a large population to confess to their priest and using priests as intelligence agents is an interesting idea.

But nowadays? We are way too smart to tell on ourselves. Right? I mean, if we were told to carry around a small gadget that tracked our every move, and enabled tracking our communications - we'd never do that, would we? And equipping a populace with monitoring gadgets would be so expensive - what government could afford such a thing??? OH I have an idea - let's get the sheeple to pay for the gadgets themselves!


I think lots of people are mentioning Tribalism and the potentials there. For Ideology I will point you to Shang Jun Shu which I have been looking into myself. It is a Legalist text from China, it's about political philosophy, and seems to be extremely well suited/almost the exact same as the ideology of 1984. Note this area also had an inventing of a printing press. It believes in a proletariat who should be concerned with sustaining themselves and the country at large instead of governing, that the best thing is the benefit of the state, and that the state(ruler) should rule by law, that the law should be known by all and simple. The people at the top should be few. It uses fear of defeat in war, dismemberment, and starvation as it's antagonists, that preoccupation with culture and moral goodness will destroy a government and a people.

So it favors pragmatic rule and staying away from decadence but that's not to mean that wicked people shouldn't not govern or be indulged for their service, to the contrary people will love the law and the punishments given, especially to them. It also holds that harsh penalties on any offence keeps people in line which is in line with 1984's disappearances and public executions. So while one might think the ideology needs to exist to keep people in line, or needs to be created after the industrial revolution isn't so, one simply has to keep knowledge of the ideology from the people, teach them that they should not be concerned with politics and focus as much as possible on farming, and instill fear of war, bandits, criminals, and famine laying waste to them.

It appeared during a particular time in history so there is certain environment that leads to this idea's development. Hope this helps you any. I know legalism isn't quite the same as 1984, but it's extremely similar, a real world idea that was practiced, and easier for either a leader or a group to want to implement. True totalitarian governments running on cults of personality didn't survive long due to various reasons after the industrial revolution, but as far as how early, you could get it to last a very long time. Again I hope this inspires you or gives you an answer you were looking for, I hope you do well.

want to point something small out, that Legalism differs from Big Brother's cult of personality in that it expects a ruler to die, and does not have a guise or moral philosophy in front of it's teachings, not that one could not be made, and it's not like a Necrocratic Society could be based around Apotheosis and Ancestor Worship or anything that could be a way to control the people through superstitions and a false religion once the best leader or ancient hero dies. A legendary ruler is a good one to make a religion from, making a temple or the religion as a whole dedicated to Big Brother would be another method of keeping control and maintaining a similar atmosphere. I mean Buddha was successful enough to be worshiped and revered so it's not out of the question. Idols instead of photos on every wall would make sense. Confucius and the author of the Tao Ti Ching are well respected, so the idea of someone making a moral philosophy, attaining a prominent position in society, and being worshiped before or after death isn't out of the question and has a good line of logic.

  • $\begingroup$ My post is a little long, and I want to point something small out, that Legalism differs from Big Brother's cult of personality in that it expects a ruler to die, and does not have a guise or moral philosophy in front of it's teachings, not that one could not be made, and it's not like a Necrocratic Society could be based around Apotheosis and Ancestor Worship or anything that could be a way to control the people through superstitions and a false religion once the best leader or ancient hero dies. $\endgroup$ – BlindingLight Oct 17 '18 at 22:57
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    $\begingroup$ +1 This answer looks good. You might want to break it up into paragraphs for better readability, though, and edit your comment into the answer (comments are frequently deleted so as to not clutter questions, so you don't want to lose that.) $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 18 '18 at 1:45

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