“Follow the Art” posts seek to observe the world of popular culture and the arts to see what our artists are reflecting back to us. This acknowledges the enduring role art has in helping people to ‘make sense’ of their changing world.
One ‘recurring’ theme I have noticed in art and the public conversation lately is references to George Orwell’s book, ‘1984.’
This may represent the populations increased awareness of and unease about the way information technology can be used. There was the UK newspaper phone hacking scandal; Edward Snowden‘s revelations that the US NSA was monitoring its population; and there are the recurrent US-China spying accusations – like this one published this week on corporate espionage. The issue is pervasive; it is a day-to-day #1stworldproblem to guard against computer viruses; internet ‘trolls’; or computer hackers who steal people’s credit card details and even identities. It is no wonder people are becoming anxious about the issue and are seeking some form of reliable moral compass to help them navigate this new reality.
In the wake of the NSA scandal, Deji Olukotun conducted a study on the way in which this incident was reported upon in the media; specifically looking at what metaphors were used. In his article, Mapping Metaphors to Fight Surveillance, Olukotun writes: “Yet we have also learned that George Orwell’s novel 1984 continues to dominate literary metaphors with respect to surveillance; indeed, it was the only book referenced in our study.” Olukotun notes that ‘1984’ may not be the ‘best’ metaphor, and cautions for a need to be selective and careful about which metaphors are used, given that a ‘metaphor’ – like a mini-story – helps shape a world-view. Although various literary experts suggest that alternate and more appropriate metaphors exist, Olukotun reports that nonetheless, it is consistently Orwellian metaphors that people return to. As he writes, “Orwell is the reigning king of the surveillance state.”
Olukotun’s study, plus the general prevalence of the ‘1984’ / Big Brother‘ concept prompted one journalist (Atlantic newspaper) to write: “Stop Comparing the NSA to 1984”. He argued that comparing NSA spying to George Orwell’s book “ends up functioning as a distortion by metaphor”.
Yet the public desire to re-explore Orwell doesn’t seem to be abating. Observing my own local environment, over May-June 2014, I attended a local theatre performance in a small nearby town: Queanbeyan Q Theatre’s performance of 1984. Looking globally, on 19th May 2014, a young musician, M.I.A, went against her record companies instructions and launched a music video on You-Tube which depicts ‘1984 is now” spray-painted on walls.
Hollywood is also getting in on it: it has recently been announced there will be a re-make of the film, starring Kirsten Stewart. (However, the film will not be called, ‘1984’ – it will be re-named ‘Equals’.) You may notice sprinklings of reference to Orwellian concepts entering media-political debates; phrases such as ‘Ministry of Truth‘; ‘double-think‘ or ‘history is written by the winners’.
Orwell’s ‘1984’ warns about the dangers associated with loss of freedom of speech and expression; how surveillance tools can be used in the worst way. In the book, the result is that people lose that intangible notion of ‘freedom’.
Freedom has always been a critical human concern: many wars have been fought over this issue and many have died seeking to protect ‘freedom’. The current heightened attention to this book reflects a population that is alert to these dangers. This is positive: it helps to ensure that a slide towards a ‘1984’ type world is prevented.