RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
George Orwell's Big Brother is watching us. It's truer now than it was when Orwell wrote the novel "1984" more than 60 years ago simply because we have the technology. Now we can go watch Big Brother. The London stage adaptation, which was a sold out hit, is on tour in the U.S. and is in Cambridge, Mass. this weekend at the American Repertory Theater. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR finds Orwell's dystopian tale eerily relevant for today's audiences.
ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Yeah, you're probably thinking NSA wire-tapping, FBI iPhone intrusion, cameras on inner-city streets, cyber security or insecurity. Sure, "1984" is as relevant as ever. But consider this.
MATTHEW SPENCER: So much of kind of surveillance is self-surveillance - selfies of where you are or whatever. I've definitely kind of become more aware of monitoring that (laughter) a little bit.
SHEA: Getting paranoid? Actor Matthew Spencer says his eyes have been opened a little wider since being cast in "1984." For one, he's started rethinking those incessant location requests on his iPhone.
SPENCER: No one's forcing you to give that. (Laughter) You know, you can choose to have that on and off, and most people go, yeah, I'm fine with that.
SHEA: Spencer plays the main character in Orwell's cautionary tale. Winston Smith, or Comrade 6079, lives in a bleak world where an inner party controls everything. It's slogan? War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Independent thinking is called thoughtcrime, and Winston commits it knowing full well the act is punishable by death.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "1984")
SPENCER: (As Winston Smith) I'm writing a diary, an account - evidence - that in all this insanity, one person held tight to the truth. I can see what the future will look like, a future free of the party, people free to talk and think. All this will change. It has to change.
SHEA: While the parallels to our current world might be obvious, Jonathan Zittrain says times are different from when George Orwell created his novel in the years following World War II.
JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: The kind of effort you would need to place lots of people under 24-hour surveillance could only be in the hands of a totalitarian state. And today, it's quite trivial, which means there can be multiple states engaging in that kind of surveillance. There can companies engaging in that kind of surveillance. There can be TMZ engaging in that kind of surveillance.
SHEA: Zittrain is a law professor and founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, so he was eager to see the play. He was struck by the large screen above the stage showing the action below. It made him think about how we experience so much of our real lives through screens. And while technology may give us a certain sense of freedom, Zittrain cautions -
ZITTRAIN: That freedom shouldn't make us complacent about the ways in which our perceptions still are shaped quite subtly by what a search engine chooses to offer up when we search for something.
SHEA: There's something for everyone to worry about in "1984," says 29-year-old theater director Robert Icke, who helped adapt the novel for the London stage.
ROBERT ICKE: At every period of history, a different bit of it has come into focus, which I suppose is in some way characteristic of great art, but, I think particularly now our fears about being recorded, about the way we sign away our privacy, about what liberty means, but also about the distrust of the systems which govern.
SHEA: Icke says both liberals and conservatives embrace "1984"'s story for their own reasons. And after all, actor Matthew Spencer says, everyone's read it, right?
SPENCER: It's one of those books that I think everyone thinks they've read or says they've read. I thought oh yeah, I must have read that as school at some point, but I actually hadn't.
SHEA: Well now, fortunately or not, this actor gives to live with Big Brother every night.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "1984")
SPENCER: (As Winston Smith) I thought I was writing for the future, for the unborn. But now I think I'm writing for you.
SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.
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