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Bigger Brother is watching

25 November 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, is more famous than ever today for its predictions of political surveillance, censorship and disinformation. Despite its prescience, Peter Marks, Professor of English at the University of Sydney, argues that the novel should not be read as a despairing dystopia but as a universal “go-to resistance text”.

Marks has been interested in the English writer and journalist since doing his PhD on Orwell’s essays – “his best work” – at the University of Edinburgh. In 2011 he published George Orwell the Essayist: Literature, Politics and the Periodical Culture (Continuum). However, he said, most people read Nineteen Eighty-Four at high school and his earlier novels of the 1930s are not as good, so Orwell is not much taught at universities.

Growing up in New Zealand, Marks did not expect to have an academic career. At 20 he moved to Australia and worked in factories and warehouses until becoming “bored out of my scone”. At the University of New South Wales he did a combined Arts degree in English and Political Science and then went to Edinburgh on a scholarship. 

George Orwell the Essayist: Literature, Politics and the Periodical Culture (Continuum)

George Orwell the Essayist: Literature, Politics and the Periodical Culture (Continuum)

“I was a late starter but I escaped into academe, for which I’m forever grateful,” he said in an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC). 

Although he was never “down and out” as Orwell was when he wrote about poverty in Paris and London, Marks washed dishes in Edinburgh after his scholarship money ran out. He taught at the University of Hull and joined Sydney University as an associate lecturer in the 1990s, was promoted to Professor in 2017 and has been Chair of the English Department.

His research covers literature and cinema, including a book on British filmmaker and comedian Terry Gilliam and Imagining Surveillance: Eutopian and Dystopian Literature and Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2015).  

While teaching an English course on utopias and dystopias in the early 2000s, he read a chapter about Orwell in The Electronic Eye by David Lyon, a sociologist who runs the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada. Lyon saw Nineteen Eighty-Four as a pessimistic portrayal of a society in which Big Brother crushed its citizens by controlling every thought and action. Marks disagreed with this common interpretation through the lens of surveillance theory.

Nowhere to hide in a perfect world

“My argument was that Orwell wasn’t saying ‘Give up’; that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a despairing book in the sense that it’s a dark book, but if you give up then the book has no purchase. In fact, it’s the go-to resistance text and makes people say, ‘We don’t want this to happen so let’s fight against it’.

“Orwell gives you this negative projection that you can use for positive action, anti-surveillance action. In my reading it’s a liberating book, it's a call to arms, and that’s the way that it’s usually taken. Most people don’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four and say, ‘That sounds pretty good, roll on the day’. They read it and think, ‘God, I don’t want CCTV cameras in my street’, so it’s an activating book rather than a pacifying book.”

Lyon’s chapter alerted Marks that every text he was teaching on utopias and dystopias represented some degree of surveillance. In Thomas More’s Utopia, the genre-creating text published in 1516, the island Utopia has no private spaces, because in this perfect world everyone is good and has no need for secret meetings. More consciously and provocatively pushes that idea to breaking point: is a world without privacy one in which we would want to live?

In The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood drew on Orwell’s model to create a totalitarian state in which secret police known as “the Eyes of God” punish women, and her Oryx and Crake in 2003 envisioned a vicious form of online surveillance (as well as bioengineering and a global pandemic).

TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Photo: Hulu  

Most people outside academia come to understand surveillance through popular culture, Marks said, in works such as Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report and the television series based on The Handmaid’s Tale, which brought the 1985 novel back to the bestseller list as the rise of evangelical Christianity and the Me Too movement gave it new relevance.

“The book resonated in a different way in 2019 than it did in 1985, so it speaks to the power of literature that survives its moment and can still be useful in understanding the contemporary world. Ninety Eighty-Four continues to give us ways of looking at our contemporary world even though the world of the novel doesn’t have computers and visual surveillance is the key, whereas data is the thing that’s monitored more these days.”

Ninety Eighty-Four has topped American bestseller lists several times during the Trump presidency, boosted by his adviser Kellyanne Conway speaking of “alternative facts” and a growing sense that politicians, journalists, social media and search engines can’t be trusted. 

The terror of not being watched

Marks also believes, like most of us, that there are positive sides to surveillance. He uses Skype to speak to his parents in New Zealand, but he covers the camera lens in his computer with a sticker when he is not using it, following the example of Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook. He does not use social media, mainly because he finds the minutiae of other people’s lives (and his own) uninteresting. Much of today’s surveillance is for commercial rather than political reasons and we are complicit in handing our data to the big tech companies in exchange for convenience.

Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“In Orwell’s world the great terror was that you were being watched. In our world the great terror is that you are not being watched,” he said. “This is the argument that [Aldous Huxley’s novel] Brave New World is closer to our reality, that we’re pacified by drugs and sex and pleasure and that keeps us inert.” Citing a 2018 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, he summarised her argument as “we’re not producers, we’re not even consumers, we’re the product”.

Marks’s book Imagining Surveillance took into account 21st-century developments, including increased security after September 11, 2001, and Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified material about US surveillance to the media in 2013. 

In 2018 he organised a SSSHARC-funded Huddle on “Surveillance in cultural, political and social realms in terms of contemporary life and possible futures”. Keen for the stimulus of a collaborative project, which he finds rare in the Humanities, he brought together a small group from other departments. Art historian Donna Brett spoke on the Stasi’s use of photography and political scientist John Keane on the interaction of democracy and surveillance; others from Media and Communications (MECO) looked at the way surveillance is built into the design of cities and houses; a PhD student addressed the use of surveillance in refugee migration.

Gavin Smith, a sociologist at the ANU, gave an up-to-date view on the sociology of surveillance and a critique of the work being done in Sydney. “That was a really valuable part of the Huddle, to have an outsider willing to give advice and suggestions,” Marks said.

The collaboration has continued since that one-day workshop. In 2019 David Lyon came from Canada to the University of Sydney on a visiting scholar program. Another day-long event ended with a Sydney Ideas panel featuring a talk by Lyon, discussion with Marks, Dr Benedetta Brevini from MECO, and the audience that packed the Charles Perkins Centre.

“David was trying to give the broader view of the positives and negatives and how surveillance is morphing all the time; the creep of technology that starts off with one purpose and becomes repurposed for another,” Marks said. “It’s so much part of our life, we don’t think of the phone as a tracker and how we’re taking a photo that might be used in a criminal action against us.”

Why Americans don’t get Orwell

Marks applied for a grant from the Australian Research Centre to continue his work on surveillance but missed out in “the crap shoot” of funding. Nick Enfield, the director of SSSHARC, convinced him to apply again to pursue his interest in “The International Orwell” – successfully this time.

“For me it’s transformational,” Marks said. The grant gives him time off and a research assistant. In his pre-Covid plans, there were annual conferences in Sydney on Orwell’s impact in East Asia, Eurasia and Oceania, and travel to Orwell archives in London and the United States.

“The Americans don’t get Orwell,” he said. “He survived the Cold War because the CIA wanted him as an anti-Communist, so they were happy to help publish translations of his books.” A CIA-funded cartoon version of Animal Farm changed the ending so that the animals revolted and brought down the pigs (who take over in the novel). A 1990s animatronics version was “such an adulteration” that at the end the rotten system collapsed and human control was reinstated. Even now, some Americans tend to “think of socialism as Stalin and so they read Orwell as a neocon”.

Orwell wrote Animal Farm as a warning satire of the Soviet Union but Marks understands the book as a more complex and subtle critique of history that is endlessly applicable to political excess. Hence its continuing popularity and controversy.

Still banned in many places, “Orwell is an international marker of the liberalisation of a totalitarian country”, Marks said. The Soviet Union under Gorbachev published Nineteen Eighty-Four as a signal that the Cold War was over. When Myanmar began to open up, members of the Orwell Society went there to give talks and hand out Nineteen Eighty-Four, Burmese Days and Animal Farm. In China the phrase “Animal Farm” was recently banned, “partly because people were making negative references to China becoming like Animal Farm and therefore Xi Jinping was Napoleon and so on”.

Orwell died in 1950, six months after Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared. “So he never lived to be the international figure he is today,” Marks said. Now he is a global reference point and people often wonder, what he would say now? “For everyone who uses that line, the answer is, ‘he would be me’, because there is a moral stature to his reputation. He was willing to say the politically incorrect thing if it meant getting to the truth. He fought against blinkered thinking and tried to open things up.”

The SSSHARC Huddle on “Surveillance in cultural, political and social realms in terms of contemporary life and possible futures” was held on Friday November 17, 2017.

Listen to the Sydney Ideas event “Why surveillance capitalism has crept up on us” held on March 7, 2019.  

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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