George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was possibly the most important book of the 20th Century. Now in the 21st, it seems more prescient than ever. Here, Dunnico explains why we can’t talk about security and surveillance without using the language of George Orwell.

Orwell’s last book was published in 1949 and has been in print ever since. It has sold 70 million copies and been translated into over 70 languages. He described the book as a parody, not a prediction, yet each new generation of readers is struck by how his ideas deal with the biggest questions of the world they are living in.

Early readers read 1984 as a political satire of events of the day, so much so that the original New York Times review of 1949 wondered if “its greatness is only immediate, its power for us alone, now, in this generation, this decade, this year, that it is doomed to be the pawn.”

That, of course, did not happen. 20 years after its publication, during the tumultuous political upheavals of 1968, when revolution seemed a real possibility in France, and mass protests and government crackdowns were taking place all over the world, 1984 seemed chillingly prescient. Novelist Jonathan Raban had to remind people that the book was not about the present or the future, but the past. It held, he said, “A distorting mirror, not to some distant and theoretical future, but to the politics and social life of the immediate postwar period”.

Orwell had explained how he had drawn events of his time to their ultimate conclusion, writing, “This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time…” In many ways, his conclusions did not come to pass, but he did describe a world where superpowers wage a continuous, unwinnable war. They swap sides to suit political expediency, using the war as a pretext to suppress individual freedoms, and most notably, keep the population under constant surveillance, while the proles (poor urban working class) are distracted and pacified by popular culture. It’s a scenario that fits the Cold War (a phrase actually coined by Orwell) as well as it fits today’s War On Terror.

The actor John Hurt recalled reading the book in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a nuclear war seemed imminent. In 1984, Orwell mentions such a war had taken place. By the time the actual year 1984 came, Hurt was starring in Michael Radford’s film version, and many were surprised that the real world hadn’t become more like the book. But the book had already “…changed the world by representing the past and the present so as to modify people’s expectations of the future…” according to William Steinhoff in George Orwell and the Origins of 1984. He went on, “Momentous events in the actual world were of course the cause, but these are so remarkably crystallised in Nineteen Eighty-Four that literature and the world since then have been different.”

‘Double think’, ‘thought crime’ and ‘Big Brother’, have entered our everyday language, and the adjective ‘Orwellian’ is in the dictionary. It is almost impossible to discuss concerns about freedom, surveillance and security without using Orwell’s language. When the revelations about US torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay came out, many thought instantly of ‘Room 101’. The recent documentary Citizen Four, about the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, shows how truly Orwellian the routine surveillance of whole populations has become and how technology has made surveillance possible in ways Orwell, writing in a bleak, post-war world of austerity, rationing and card indexes could not have imagined. The similarities between the ideas in 1984 and our world are most clearly shown when Snowden talks about how people limit their own thoughts and words in case they think someone might be being listening to them – a phenomena Orwell had described 65 years earlier as ‘crime stop’.

1984 Penguin Paperback

1984 very nearly wasn’t 1984. Orwell was going to call the work The Last Man in Europe, but as publication neared, he flipped around the last two digits of the current year and 1948 became 1984 (Orwell himself preferred to write the title as Nineteen Eighty-Four). A year after publication, he died from complications resulting from TB. The effort of writing the book, which he did in primitive conditions on the remote Scottish island of Jura, is thought to have exacerbated his condition. He lived long enough to see the book be a success, but was not entirely happy with it as a book. He wrote to a friend, “I ballsed it up rather, partly owing to being so ill while I was writing it, but I think some of the ideas might interest you.”

Those ideas have held the interest of millions of people ever since and still help us understand events in the past, present and maybe even the future. We would do well to remember that Orwell intended the book to be a warning and recall Big Brother’s slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past”.

Documentary photographer David Dunnico has built up a collection of ephemera related to the book, which is being exhibited in Amsterdam at a conference for European Union Privacy Commissioners.

David Dunnico