I have not taught an undergraduate course on the Internet and society for quite some time, but when I did, at USC, I had George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on the required reading list. I remember one of the last classes I taught. It was in 1998. It is memorable because my students – after questioning why they should read a book written in 1948, and published in 1949 (how could it be relevant?) – came into class after seeing Will Smith’s movie, entitled Enemy of the State. The movie was based on Will Smith’s character being chased by the bad guys and all the time aided by satellite surveillance technologies, following a sensor planted on Will. It was: “Professor Dutton. This is exactly like 1984!”
Even in 1998, I had learned the sad news that 1984 had been removed from most required reading lists across high schools in the US. That was one of the reasons I put it on my reading list. I was worried that my students may never have read this book, and I was right.
So it is very heartening to me that 1984 along with other dystopian futures novels are making a strong comeback.* They are indeed still relevant. Some attribute the rise of dystopian novels like 1984 to the election of President Donald Trump, but I believe it goes well beyond any single individual, and is tied to the information revealed by Edward Snowden, particularly around mass surveillance. The technologies envisioned by Orwell, like the telescreen, have been surpassed, but the idea of trying to sense what people are thinking, and not just what they are doing, by their location, movements, and associates, remains very central in understanding contemporary debates over surveillance in the digital age. Even Enemy of the State was trapped in mere surveillance – tracking and capturing Will Smith. But Orwell saw the ultimate objective to discern what a person was thinking, and whether they were about to commit a thought crime.
I first read 1984 in high school, and recall wondering if I would even be alive in 1984 to see if Orwell was a futurist. Long past 1984, I still wonder if Orwell will be proven right in my lifetime, if he has not already captured today’s threat better than any other novelist. It should be must reading for anyone living in today’s digital age.