The Ghost of George Orwell


While writing a piece on the intersection of art and privacy, I had an interesting thought: For all the worries about domestic warrantless spying, it feels like no one has mentioned George Orwell in a while.

Was that my imagination?  I remembered in the early oughts, during the George W. era, it seems like every week something was “Orwellian” or “Big Brother” or “1984.” Was that my faulty memory? I turned to Google trends which indexes web references over time, including newspaper articles:

But how could there be fewer Orwell references when it seems like there is a dramatic increase in what might be considered “Orwellian” news?  Was that true? Was I just steeped in radical myopia?

So I charted Orwell against search terms like NSA, FISA, PRISM, domestic spying and so on.

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While references to Orwell have made a steady decline since 2004 (the earliest date Google Trends is available), FISA has held steady. The other search terms dipped slightly around 2010 before shooting through the roof in 2013.

What do we make of this? Everything that the media was telling us was Orwellian and Big Brotherish in 2003 is that much more so in the wake of the Snowden revelations  — which, come on, didn’t we already know if we were paying attention to the steady drone of leaks and whistleblowers since 2001?

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It is hard to sustain crisis, especially when the same crisis goes largely unaddressed and grows increasingly, alarmingly worse. “No really, this is serious, we really mean it this time. We know you didn’t worry last time when we said you should worry, but this is really something worrisome.” In the end, when we know no one is listening, we just keep trying with different words.


Interestingly, in the last year, a few articles have gotten meta with it, writing about writing about George Orwell and Franz Kafka. Ben FitzGerald wrote “Kafka and Orwell: The rest of this headline has been redacted by the NSA”  in Foreign Policy. Kristen Butler wrote “NSA PRISM: George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is flying off the shelves” for United press International.  Roxanne Palmer wrote a short piece for the International Business Times, “Memo To Media: George Orwell Wrote More Than Just ‘1984’.” But perhaps it just sounds trite to label something Orwellian in 2014.

I’ve concluded, that since September 11th 2001, the PATRIOT Acts I and II, domestic spying, blanket wiretaps, FISA court abuses, recent NSA revelations, and so many government and corporate privacy abuses that even the media have grown weary of dragging out George Orwell, a certain Big Brother fatigue.

All I know is that I’m pretty sure we’ve always been at war with Eurasia.

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