Earlier this month, the most talked about novelist in the English language wasn’t Dan Brown, Stephen King or George R. R. Martin and his Game of Thrones series. It was George Orwell, whose most famous novel, 1984, saw its sales spike by a reported 7,000 per cent.
Of course, this happened after Edward Snowden pulled back the curtain on a massive surveillance program in which the U.S. National Security Agency could scour the data on the cellphone and internet activity of U.S. citizens. Terms like Orwellian and Big Brother became ubiquitous in the media and everyday conversation.
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That came as no surprise to Michael Shelden, a professor of English at Indiana State University and the author of Orwell: The Authorized Biography.
"People realize that this problem of Big Brother watching you is not going to go away," professor Shelden told The Sunday Edition’s guest host, Kevin Sylvester.
"It’s an incredible phrase. I think we’ve taken it for granted for many years, but it probably is one of the most prophetic things said in a novel in the past hundred years."
Orwell, professor Shelden pointed out, is still the reference point whenever stories emerge about surveillance of the public and increasing government controls over civilian populations.
"Orwell is the one who saw this. He’s the one who got it right. Orwell could see how the power would accumulate and would be imposed whether you wanted it imposed or not. There was a certain acquiescence, of course, but he once said, ‘The object of power is power.’"
But after the initial burst of outrage at the growing appetite of governments for surveillance and data on their citizens in the name of fighting terrorism, there’s also a sense that a lot of people are not all that upset. Many people still happily make their private lives very public on social media and pay little heed to the omnipresent security cameras in the public sphere.
And a survey by the Pew Research Centre found that a majority of Americans think that tracking phone records to investigate potential terror threats is more important than the right to privacy.
'"We have a situation now where a lot of people take this kind of intrusion into our private lives increasingly for granted. I don’t think we should.' —Michael Shelden
"We have a situation now where a lot of people take this kind of intrusion into our private lives increasingly for granted. I don’t think we should," said professor Shelden.
"Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning. He felt that if someone didn’t sound the alarm loudly enough, eventually a lot of the freedoms he cherished would be lost, and people would wake up one day and wonder where they’d gone."
You can hear Kevin Sylvester’s full interview with Michael Shelden about the vision and continued relevance of George Orwell on The Sunday Edition's site, or through the link at the top-left of this story.