The Blog

The Ironies Of An Orwellian Facebook Viral

In photography, juxtaposition is a compositional concept that can produce surprising or jarring images. A picture that's 'gone viral' on Facebook in the past week seems like a textbook example. It shows a surveillance camera mounted outside the former residence of George Orwell. At the time of writing, the photo has been shared over 9,000 times. In other words, the irony has not been missed. But has the truth?

Seeing the quaint, west London home of the Nineteen Eighty-Four author fitted with that most omnipresent symbol of the 'surveillance society' - a CCTV camera, complete with a yellow sign warning passers-by they are being recorded 24/7 - seems too ironic to be true. And, as it happens, it is.

A quick search for Orwell's former address on Google Street View (another phenomenon that has been labelled 'Orwellian'), makes it clear that there is no CCTV by his former Portobello Road address. True, Google captured the image back in 2008 so a camera could have been installed since then. But no, the 'viral' image is not real. It's a montage, created by photographer Steve Ullathorne as part of his 'Restyles of the Dead and Famous' series. Ullathorne created a bunch of photoshopped pictures juxtaposing dead people's homes with unreal scenes. In one, a Che Guevara t-shirt flutters outside Karl Marx's former home in Soho. In another, a piano and violin have been shoved into a skip outside Mozart's old digs.

The Orwell picture doing the rounds on Facebook, Ullathorne told me, is not the finished one. 'It looks like the advert I did for the exhibition of the images', he said. He added that 'whoever posted it on Facebook made no mention of where they got it!' The finished image looks much more clearly like a manipulated one.

On Facebook, many did raise suspicions that the image had been 'photoshopped', but many more, it seems, assumed that someone had actually snapped this picture on a London street. It has been widely interpreted as a sign of reality imitating fiction - that 'Big Brother' is watching over the very neighbourhood where the progenitor of that ominous phrase lived. And that is certainly ironic. Because, of course, making a political point by manipulating and distorting reality is in itself very Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Even more ironic is that this commentary on the surveillance society spread on Facebook, which has done more to blur the boundaries between our public and private lives than Orwell could ever imagine was possible when he penned his dystopian novel back in the late 1940s. Where it often seems that our political leaders draw inspiration from the manipulative, thought-controlling, watchful antics of Oceania - the fictional totalitarian society described in Nineteen Eighty-Four - today surveillance is often self-imposed. Today, many of us freely offer up information about ourselves to our friends, acquaintances and even strangers. For instance, anyone can find out where the person who posted Ullathorne's picture lives, who he's friends with and what his interests are. It's all there - on his non-privacy protected Facebook profile page.

CCTV cameras are the most in-your-face tool of privacy intrusion around and we'd be better off if each one of the estimated 1.85million surveillance cameras in the UK was dismounted. That's one camera for every 32 citizens. Brits are filmed by up to 70 different cameras each day, whether they like it or not. But, compared to the personal information gathered on the social networking sites that millions freely sign up to, the footage captured by these cameras is not half as telling.

Any new revelation about the proliferation of surveillance cameras in Britain tends to inspire shock headlines about a Big Brother society, and critics of 'the database state' also tend to evoke images of an Orwellian dystopia. But the rise of the watchful state has been followed closely by the rise of the social networking phenomenon. In fact, in many ways, the surveillance society paved the way for Facebook and the like.

Over the years, state surveillance measures have met surprisingly little resistance. From gargantuan databases to routine criminal records checks for adults working with children, the credo 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear' has been widely accepted as a sensible justification for such schemes. Yes, they are costly, intrusive and instil a paranoid attitude, but that, we are told, is a small price to pay if it means we can catch or deter a few criminals. These kinds of measures have helped propel an attitude that giving up our privacy is not a huge deal compared to the alleged benefits. And the same kind of thinking lies behind the use of sites like Facebook. OK, we give up the rights to our photos and we give people we barely know information about our likes and dislikes, but in return we're connected and entertained and we can promote our work.

Of course, online we have a measure of control that we don't have when it comes to state surveillance. We can restrict the information we put out to our fellow 'internauts' and 'tweeps'. But after all, it's a lot easier to gather information about someone through a few web searches than by trying to gather the footage from the millions of CCTV cameras they might have passed by or the various databases they might be registered on. For instance, through a simple mouse click you can get the names and images of most of the over 700 people who have 'liked' that Orwell picture on Facebook. So, who needs surveillance cameras when everyone's 'checking in' on Foursquare, sharing holiday snaps through Instagram, Tweeting events, and telling Facebook what's on their minds. It's like Big Brother's wet dream.

Today, the idea that you should even want to hide something about yourself, that you should feel uncomfortable about hundreds of people knowing what you're up to, seems more and more alien. We're all each other's Big Brothers now, it seems. And so in light of this, Facebook actually seems an entirely appropriate vehicle for the distortion of Ullathorne's already distorted picture of Orwell's non-CCTV-watched former home. Ironic indeed.