Did Orwell predict the surveillance society of 2021?

Emma McGowan 1 Dec 2021

Announcing the re-release of the sci-fi dystopian classic to highlight the complexities and dangers of online surveillance in today’s society

George Orwell’s classic book, 1984 — written in 1949 — envisioned a dystopian future in which human beings are constantly monitored and surveilled. In the novel, Great Britain - known as Air Strip One - is  ruled by a totalitarian government which attempts to control not just the actions, but even the thoughts of the populace.

By the time the year 1984 actually rolled around, Orwell’s dystopia hadn’t quite come to fruition. Thirty-five years later, however, it looks like he might have hit the mark — just a few years off. Because while we might not have an official “Big Brother” or “Thought Police” yet, digital citizens in 2021 are all-too familiar with what it feels like to live in a surveillance society. 

That’s the reasoning behind a recent revision and re-release of this sci-fi dystopian classic, released this year. Titled 2021, the book has been re-released by cybersecurity and privacy experts at Avast to contextualise the novel into a modern setting and to highlight the complexities and dangers of online surveillance in today’s society. The newly drafted version replaces any mention of 1984 with 2021 and comes with a new cover, designed by acclaimed illustrator and artist Rodrigo Corral. 

“2021 has been a year that has seen internet services dominating many aspects of our lives, and has been a year that has seen big tech profit’s hit an all time high,” Avast’s Chief Privacy Officer Shane McNamee says. “It felt like the perfect time to thrust the novel back into the spotlight by re-releasing the book as 2021, encouraging digital citizens to consider the disparity between what kind and level of surveillance we accept as normal in the digital world when compared to the analogue world, and introducing a new generation to the brilliant story in the process.”

British actor Matt Smith — known for his roles in Doctor Who and The Crown — will be voicing the accompanying audiobook. Smith tells Avast that his initial re-read of the classic book was more for nostalgia, but that it soon became clear how relevant it still is today. 

“Anyone who reads the book will be able to see the striking similarities between then and now,” Smith says. “When you start to look into the extent of how technology is woven into our everyday lives you realise that a lot of what we do is tracked and monitored, and whilst some of this is innocent, it can be a slippery slope and people can end up exposing more of their personal data than intended, making them vulnerable online.”

But the goal of 2021 is not to cause despair. While both Smith and McNamee — and many contemporary readers of the book — note similarities between the world Orwell envisioned and the one in which we live today, it’s also clear that things aren’t that bad — yet. 

Further reading:
Take back your privacy from eavesdroppers
What do security cameras know about you?
Do these three things to keep stalkerware at bay

While the populace is undeniably being “watched” through ever-present screens, that “watching” is primarily done by private companies, in order to sell us things, not government, in order to imprison us. (And, to be clear, governments are certainly using the internet to monitor and then imprison people in many parts of the world.) But, as privacy experts consistently warn, it’s a slippery slope from data tracking to targeted ads to data tracking for suspected terrorism, for example. 

“The digital world is now an inextricable part of all of our lives and we want to give people the power to control their online footprint and digital data sharing,” McNamee says. “That way, we will prevent 1984 from becoming a reality.”

So while Orwell didn’t quite predict the surveillance society of 2021, the similarities are too close for comfort. 2021, then, is a reminder: The threat of Big Brother still looms. But we have the power to stop it. 

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