Rethinking Orwell

Surveillance today goes far beyond the big brother state.

When Orwell first penned 1984 way back in 1948, he could not have imagined some of the technological advances that would be in place today nor the societal changes that would be created as a result.

Those who saw the recent theatre production of 1984 were slapped in the face with Orwell’s conception of Big Brother. Drawing attention to the dangers of data-mining and state control is always worthwhile (although “puking and fainting” in theatre is a bit of a faux-pas), but perhaps there are holes in our conception of what a surveillance society looks like.

Social media is a  technological invention that was out of Orwell’s reach, and one that has particularly altered notions of personal privacy. When reading 1984, we all wince at thought of the tele-screens hanging above Winston that “could never be dimmed” — what injustice, we think. But today, we never want to dim the screens that live in our pockets.  

Beyond our addiction to these platforms, however, lies a far more sinister issue. Professor Peter Marks, an expert in 1984 and dystopian, utopian and surveillance-focused literature, warns that uploading photos, tagging and sharing locations of ourselves and our friends via social media has quickly altered our perception of what is public and what, if anything, should remain private.

“What is different with the world we live in is that people are comfortable with making themselves available to an infinite number of viewers, and that is something that would have surprised Orwell,” he says.

But if how we conceive privacy has altered, and what should traditionally be private is now public, what does surveillance look like today?

The panopticon —  a building designed with an observation tower in the centre to create a sense of being constantly watched in order to foster greater obedience — perhaps provides us with an answer.

The effects of social media mimic the panopticon with a scary accuracy. Social media acts as an invisible mechanism of social control; we are in a state of both knowing and not quite knowing what its capabilities to monitor us are.

After a recent failed lawsuit in the United States concerning Facebook’s culpability over reading users’ private messages, the state of flux we are in doesn’t seem like it will change soon. But this fits perfectly with one of Foucault’s main rules: “one must never know whether he is being looked at, at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so”. Today’s landscape has flipped the traditional idea of surveillance on its head, precisely because we can and do use this technology on ourselves. “We take photos of our friends, films of our friends and put them on Facebook, and they know that we are doing it, and so in a sense we can control each other,” says Marks.

Knowing that the information we put out there is public, do we alter our behaviour like those in Orwell’s dystopian world do? Inventing a “digital identity” is a practice that many of us partake in when we login online. A large component  of the social media realm is manipulated — we act, pose, and decide what to say to achieve the most traction. These factors may seem voluntary, but simultaneously, are created due to this “gaze” of our peers.

The modern reality of surveillance does not have the gore and guts that would make a great theatrical performance, nor does it feature a “Big Brother” on every street corner. It is has advanced, and created what privacy and media scholar Jake Nevrla argues are “little brothers” — peers monitoring peers. Perhaps this is what makes the new concept of surveillance so terrifying, it is almost unrecognisable.