Orwell’s 1984: Surveillance and Privacy

In a recent survey of famous books that people claimed to have read but hadn’t, 1984 was in the top three. The other two were understandably there – Ulysses (too difficult); War and Peace (too long). But why 1984, which is neither difficult or long, and which in any case is superficially known by everyone? This report prompted me to explore 1984 in more detail, with the aim of examining what it has to say to us today, particularly about surveillance and privacy.

The world in 1984 is divided into three super-states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, which are permanently at war with each other. The novel is set in a decayed London, the capital of Airstrip One, a province of Oceania. Society consists mainly of the Party, hierarchically divided between the Inner and Outer Party. Outside the Party there are the Proles, who do not count politically. Life under the Party is directed towards one thing, ideological orthodoxy according to the doctrines of English Socialism – Ingsoc in the language of 1984, Newspeak.

Because doctrinal and behavioural orthodoxy are the aims of organised social and political life, Thoughtcrime is the only crime that matters. The Thought Police is the premier and most feared agency of Airstrip One, and the Ministry of Love, responsible for law and order, the principle institution. Big Brother is the ultimate icon of Orthodoxy. Surveillance is adopted by the Thought Police to monitor ideological orthodoxy and detect Thoughtcrime, either through the omnipresent Telescreen, or by pervasive informing.

The Ministry of Truth supports orthodoxy by implementing a regime of organised lying to suit the most recent pronouncements of the Party, and by rewriting History to ensure that the record confirms that the Party and Big Brother are always right. Objective reality is what the Party says it is.

The central character of 1984 is Winston Smith, a reluctant middle-aged member of the Outer Party, and official at the Ministry of Truth, where he works on revising past newspaper articles to meet the requirements of the present. Winston pursues his own inclinations (Ownlife in Newspeak, Private life in ours), which are inevitably unorthodox. He becomes erotically involved with the younger Julia, also a member of the outer party, and makes contact (he believes) with the subversive underground movement led by Emmanuel Goldstein. Eventually he and Julia are picked up by the Thought Police, when it turns out they had been under surveillance all along.

Winston is then removed to the Ministry of Love where, supervised by O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party, who had earlier apparently supported Winston in his rebellion, he is forced, by a process of humiliation, the undermining of his belief in objective reality, and physical torture, to abandon and betray everything and everyone. His integrity as a private person is destroyed.

But Winston’s reconstruction is not complete until the final scenes of the novel, where, destroyed and defeated after his ordeals, he makes the final adjustment required by the regime. Weeping tears of gratitude, he realises that at last he loves Big Brother. Winston has won the Victory over himself; he is ready for the bullet in his brain, which he awaits with pleasurable anticipation.

1984 is more complex than it appears, and perhaps this summary will encourage Datonomy readers to visit or revisit the text. In my next post I will explore what this text, a combination of literary naturalism, documentary record, and Swiftian satire, has to say about privacy and surveillance today. But one has firstly to know the structure and details of the novel to understand what surveillance is for in 1984, so we can see whether that corresponds to what surveillance is for today.

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