1984: Is George Orwell Still Relevant?

Headlong theatre company's new production of George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984

In light of a new stage adaptation, Fred Johnson analyses present day surveillance and proposes that the reality isn’t as awful as Orwell made it out to be…

George Orwell’s novel 1984, first published in 1949, has become something of a cultural force these days. Everyone seems to have read it; your mum, your dad, your best friend – you couldn’t escape ham-fisted and mildly smug references to Big Brother and Newspeak even if you wanted to.

But of course you don’t; there’s something about 1984 and the terrifying alter-Britain that Orwell presents that has, for decades, captured the public and critical imagination alike, meaning, somewhat suitably, that you can spark up a conversation about the horrors of Room 101 with anyone, from the lowliest prole to the highest member of the inner party.

But while many will insist that Orwell’s future is inevitable and that even now we are unwitting pawns in a great network of thought-control, is this really the case, or have we as an educated culture slipped bashfully and self-consciously into romantic idealism? Are we gorging ourselves intellectually and poetically through gleefully playing the part of the novel’s protagonist Winston, the oppressed symbol of humanity and revolution and the “last man”, pitted tragically against a tyrannical, oppressive and all-too inhuman collective?

“In this age of Facebook, CCTV, and GPS tracking, 1984 and its ideas of totalitarian control are indeed worth worrying about”

Headlong Theatre Company’s new stage performance of 1984, and the uncomfortable Digital Double app released alongside it, helps to answer these questions, and to establish once and for all whether, in this age of Facebook, CCTV, and GPS tracking, 1984 and its ideas of totalitarian control are indeed worth worrying about.

One thing we can be sure of in this day and age is that, despite what the neck-bearded conspiracy theorists may tell us, thought-criminals and revolutionaries aren’t, in Britain at least, being led away and unpersoned. This is a good thing, and means we can all rest easy knowing that we’re not quite in Orwell’s Air Strip One yet. We don’t have to Doublethink to stay sane from day to day, and our vocabulary is still expanding, albeit uncomfortably into the restrictive realms of jargon.

We are, however, under almost constant surveillance, and while it perhaps isn’t as personally invasive as Orwell’s, it is perhaps more pervasive. Britain was famously labelled a “surveillance society” in 2006, and with the recent security scandals courtesy of the NSA and GCHQ, fears are only rising. Google has shown us that cameras needn’t be confined to the Earth; satellite surveillance systems provide the masses with in-depth street views and thousands of interactive satellite photographs.

1984 Digital Double app

The rise of the internet and social media has resulted in millions of people volunteering their personal information into the ether, and it’s got to the point now that your digital footprint is all but impossible to entirely remove.

Headlong’s artistic associate Sarah Grochala, who was responsible for the Digital Double app released alongside the company’s production, adds to the list of seemingly-worrying surveillance examples: “With the new iPhone there’s a thing, I think it’s called ‘favourite locations’, and it’s basically building up a picture of where you like to go and how often you go there and what kind of day you go there.

“If they build up enough data about you they can predict your behaviour and your habits, because they’re accessing all the information through your phone”.

Apple’s system here certainly strikes that Orwellian chord, and those who’ve been lucky enough to see Headlong’s recent production will remember the dreadful moment when Winston’s illusions of hope come crashing down as antagonist O’Brien explains how he’s been watching for longer than Winston could ever know. He predicts Winston’s thoughts, his words, and counters his arguments before they’ve even been made. O’Brien knows the very depths of Winston’s mind through the information he’s gathered and the behaviour he’s observed, and we can see companies like Apple and Google doing similar things today.

“We as a culture are actually quite keen to put as much information about ourselves into public spaces as possible”

Sarah was refreshingly down-to-earth and surprisingly chirpy about the fact that we’re all in some way or another being recorded; whether online, in Government files, or physically taped. Perhaps reacting to our looks of puzzlement, she went on to explain that surveillance need not be as awful as Orwell made it out to be; rather, as exposed by the online-identity revealing Digital Double app, we as a culture are actually quite keen to put as much information about ourselves into public spaces as possible. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram – the list goes on. All these sites are forums wherein people are invited to share the intricacies of their lives with anyone and everyone.

Sarah went on to explain the process, and it’s only when it’s spelled out that you realise how bizarre the entire ritual is. “When you put that data up on social media, or when you send something on Twitter, you are sort of fundamentally shouting it out to the world, and in some ways that is the virtual equivalent of putting a big banner up in a public square with what you were doing this morning”. This then, is a fundamental difference between the surveillance and enforcement in 1984’s Britain and the society we live in today: whereas Orwell’s population are forced to conform and live as observed lab-rats, we volunteer our information freely to a seemingly benevolent and consequence-free public database of overwhelming proportions.

“The internet is great because it has enabled sort of moments of really significant political resistance”, says Sarah, but concedes that “at the same time there’s the way in which we all know the internet is sort of both policing us and gathering information about us that can be used by various parties; whether it’s at one extreme MI5, MI6 or the NSA, or at the other extreme, you know, marketing, which we all know, you see the Google ads following you around the internet – you know that they’re tracking where you’ve been.”

1984 then certainly carries valuable lessons that our generation should be aware of, but perhaps isn’t. To paraphrase Headlong’s Mandi Symonds in her provocative question asked at the end of the company’s production: wouldn’t it be in The Party’s best interest to restructure so as not to be recognised by a post-Orwell society? Are we the blind victims of our own nationwide solipsism? Perhaps O’Brien is right in announcing to a weeping and bloody Winston that “They will not look up from their screens long enough to realise what is happening. The individual is dead”.

And of course you’ve been reading this from a screen; they’re everywhere. Look to your TV, your laptop, your smartphone. Yes, it’s okay to feel uncomfortable.

Fred Johnson

Click here to discover your own Digital Double: digital-double.com/digital-double/

More on 1984 and the new stage production here: headlong.co.uk/work/1984/#details

Posted on 31/10/2013 by thedoublenegative