Privacy In Art: Orwell's 1984

1984_headerAround the world, we use symbols, analogies and imagery as shorthand to engage the topics of privacy and surveillance. Perhaps none is used more than the character of “Big Brother,” introduced by George Orwell in his book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s dystopian fiction explored, in part, the coercive effect of persistent surveillance.

Since the first edition was published in 1949, there have been many hundreds of versions of Orwell’s book published in dozens of languages. There have also been multiple stage adaptations and a handful of movies based on the book. For each of these efforts, a graphic designer was confronted with the challenge of presenting the themes of the book in an accessible and compelling way. The resulting work—representing more than 60 years of artistic interpretations of the themes of privacy, surveillance, and political and social coercion—provides a fascinating view of the shifting perceptions of privacy.

In 2015, the International Association of Privacy Professionals acquired a large collection of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and ephemera related to the book. For IAPP members and staff, this collection, comprising more than 400 total items, is a great treasure. To be clear, the IAPP is making no political or policy statement in presenting these works. Rather, we are happy to introduce yet another lens through which we can explore the complexity and challenge of the issue of privacy in society.

The IAPP's welcome reception at the 2015 Data Protection Commissioners Conference

View a pdf of the show catalogue from the reception here.

Within this collection you will find many symbols of surveillance that will seem cliché. Eyes, locks, doors and windows are all used as symbols of surveillance. But look for the evolution of these symbols over time and you will see versions that span mid-century modernism to futuristic views of the 1960s to grim imagery of decay from the 1980s and 1990s. You will also see reflections of the eras in which each book was published. There are pulp- fiction covers that focus on the sexuality in Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are versions that focus on authoritarian power.

1.91Perhaps my favorite cover is one that presents a painted image, taken from the perspective of a person looking into the messy backyard of a neighbor. The suggestion of the artist seems clear: We live in societies where observing each other is part of the fabric that stitches us together. How we balance the use of that information against the need for individuals to find safety, sanctuary and repose—that is the place in which we, and prior generations, have found the debate over privacy to exist. This is also the place in which privacy professionals work every day.

J. Trevor Hughes
President and CEO, IAPP
September 2015

Take a look at some of our collection below.