1984 on a sunny Auckland day…

It’s  2  o’clock on  a day so sunny that it confounds Aucklanders accustomed to their city’s moodiness. There’s not a cloud to be seen and on the Waterfront Viaduct, families stroll, gorge on takeaways or just sit and, over a drink, watch the passing parade. Not far  away something much darker is on show in the stunning ASB Theatre. It holds  680  –  and is close to capacity. On this tempting day of summer days the audience is here for  something less than Utopian – the production of George Orwell’s 1984. 

Orwell – his name and his work have been co-opted by our language with stock phrases like Orwellian, Big Brother, and Newspeak (though more recently that has morphed into management-speak).  The book was published in 1949. By 1989, it has been translated into 65 languages, more than any other novel in English until then, according to Wikipedia.

So we  knew what we would be getting – this time in stage form. But still… Auckland, the waterfront, that glorious day versus this dystopia….  Why?  Perhaps an answer lies partly in our awareness that we are not just edging towards Orwell’s surveillance state but, courtesy of modern technology are hurtling towards it. Not exactly helpless, but certainly forced to bend to its everyday demands.

But then why worry about technology when we have our own police running a so-called checkpoint in Lower Hutt. They were really there to   get details of euthanasia supporters. Unlawful, ruled the police watchdog.  And leaving the boys in blue, what about government departments which hire private investigators to spy on disgruntled Christchurch earthquake claimants for post-quake thoughtcrimes?

A few days later in Auckland’s Ellen Melville Hall the room was full, as a lunchtime panel, including Inspector General of Intelligence and Security Cheryl Gwyn, debated issues arising from Orwell’s book, and outlined some of the threats to privacy.

Usually, Aucklanders would rather reach for their beach towels than confront something as boring as an issue, but the message from the ASB Theatre and the Ellen Melville Hall seemed clear. People are increasingly aware and concerned about surveillance, whichever way it’s carried out.

Orwell’s predictions are uncomfortably close, but so too are those in other books like Brave New World,  A Clockwork Orange and others in which the authors foresaw rights exchanged for the soothing drug, soma – today’s entertainment?; the growth of thuggery – and clinical retribution. It’s a smorgasbord of dystopias out there if you feel a need to look.  Just as well it’s another sunny day in Auckland.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.