Submitted to New Media and Society.
This is a draft. Please do not quote from it.
Version of 8 August 1999.
These two films, 1984 and Enemy of the State, would seem to make promising objects of study because of their contrasts. Orwell's novel was influential in its day, and remains so. The dystopian society it describes, Oceania, has provided a pattern and metaphor for the interpretation of innumerable issues in public spheres throughout the industrial world, and particularly in English-speaking countries. The focus of Oceania's cult of personality, Big Brother, has become practically synonymous with the invasion of privacy, not least through the INGSOC Party slogan, "Big Brother Is Watching You". Enemy of the State, for its part, claims to identify a new development in state surveillance: the "infection" of a vast range of electronic communications and information processing technologies by the surveillance apparatus of the US National Security Agency (NSA), and by extension its counterparts in other countries. The films were made in different enough contexts that any contrasts between them should be interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, the comparison does promise at least heuristic guidance on changing cultural constructions of privacy.
These notes on 1984 and Enemy of the State are very much a provisional exercise, and I should take care to delimit my ambitions. I do not propose to evaluate the technical plausibility of either film, or the degree to which the depiction of the NSA in Enemy of the State corresponds to the NSA's actual practices or capabilities. I do not propose to evaluate whether Orwell's predictions have come true (cf. Howe 1983). Nor will I take any care to distinguish between Michael Radford's film and George Orwell's book. In particular, I will assume for the sake of simplicity that Radford has accurately represented Orwell's intentions on film -- not only his political intentions but the visual form that Orwell would have imagined for his story as he wrote it in 1948.
2 The films
In genre terms, 1984 and Enemy of the State could hardly be more different. Made in London with a British cast, 1984's leading characters -- Winston Smith, his girlfriend Julia, and the Ministry of Love official O'Brien -- stand out only slightly from a drab and emotionally flat environment. Enemy of the State is a violent and manipulative Hollywood action movie organized around a pair of male buddies -- Robert Dean and an ex-NSA agent living under the pseudonym of Brill. (Dean is played by comedian Will Smith; only his light demeanor prevents the film, with its anxious sound track and relatively restrained melodrama, from straying into the non-Hollywood realm of "political films" along the lines of Constantin Costa-Gavras. Enemy of the State sometimes alludes to an earlier film about surveillance technology, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), and Gene Hackman's role as the eccentric Brill seems to be a lighter version of the character he played in that film, the tormented Harry Caul.)
Each film follows an ordinary man as he struggles against the full power of the state. In 1984, Winston Smith is a functionary in Oceania's Ministry of Truth, responsible for editing newspapers to reflect the Party's current version of history. This task places him in the middle rung of a strict social hierarchy; above him are the members of the Inner Party and below him are the proles. He is socially isolated, as is the norm, but he is haunted by the loss of his mother during the war that gave rise to the dystopia, and because of this disturbance he is unable to subordinate his mind to the dictates of the Party. In Enemy of the State, Robert Dean is a labor lawyer in Washington whose current case involves the mafia's attempt to fix a union election. His wife Carla is an ACLU attorney who rants at government invasions of privacy, but he refuses to take her objections seriously until his life is destroyed by a rogue NSA official after he accidentally comes into possession of evidence linking the official to the murder of a Congressman.
Both films are organized around a dichotomy between a real life -- defined principally in terms of intimate family relationships but secondarily in terms of material prosperity and a subjective sense of normalcy -- and a life that has been subverted by the state. Each man's real life is symbolized by an object -- for Dean, a kitchen blender that is part of his fulfilling daily routine; for Smith, an antique coral paperweight that, he believes, dates to a time before the war. The NSA villains destroy Dean's entire identity by conducting vast research into his vulnerabilities, publicizing fabricated criminal evidence, and leading his wife to believe that he has recommenced an old affair. They also appropriate his blender and prepare drinks with it as they watch his life fall apart. As the chase heats up, he is literally stripped of all his possessions, including his clothes, and reduced to climbing on hotel balconies and running through a sewer in his underwear. Smith begins the film with his life already largely destroyed like everyone else's, and though he tries to build a real life for himself, he only knows about real life through rumors and dreams. Dean succeeds in getting his real life back, and we assume that he will be able to recover his blender from the wreckage of his antagonists' plans. Smith does not succeed; we see the Thought Police break his paperweight against a wall in the rented room where he thought he was hiding from them, whereupon they reduce him to an even more extreme degree of nonpersonhood than Dean's.
On the surface, the two films imagine the technologies of surveillance in different ways. Whereas Enemy of the State enthusiastically demonstrates a tremendous range of technologies that it implicitly claims to be both real and routinely used today, 1984 is plainly yesterday's tomorrow: every technology it depicts would have been readily imaginable to Orwell as he was writing his novel in 1948. Video screens and microphones are central to the architecture of both film's bureaucracies. In Enemy of the State we see the inside of the NSA; visually busy and crammed with people and machines, it is built with glass walls around a cavernous central space that is dominated by a matrix of video monitors whose endless displays of mayhem the film never explains. The NSA's computer screens are likewise busy, with most of the data displayed graphically and dynamically atop several translucent layers of other data.
In 1984, on the other hand, video screens are instruments of both surveillance and propaganda, most particularly the large two-way screen that dominates every dwelling. In 1984 we never see the inside of Big Brother's surveillance organization, but we do see the routine drudgery of the Ministry of Truth, whose crude computer monitors resemble television screens and whose data is transferred both by image databases and by paperwork through pneumatic tubes. The paperwork functions symbolically as well: the Party holds historical memory to reside not in digital media but in newsprint, and part of Smith's job is precisely to burn the only copy of any news article that has been superseded by the Party's ever-changing version of truth.
Remarkably, both films present the use of information technology as a social activity; both the flexibly organized NSA conspirators and the regimented workers in the Ministry of Truth perform their work through conversations. Both films also invite the audience to share in the state's surveillance by showing the view through the surveillance cameras; 1984 does this just once in demonstrating the two-way screen in Smith's flat, but Enemy of the State does it constantly, for example as a device for switching perspectives between Dean's and that of his pursuers. The static of audio and graininess of video are developed as icons from the opening credits. The contrast between the visible NSA and the opaque Thought Police is crucial for the films' plots: we see the NSA conspirators ceaselessly improvising on the edge of failure, but the Thought Police appear infallible.
3 Political culture
For all these small points of similarity and contrast, the two films differ in one fundamental way. The world of 1984 is imagined totally, and Oceania is depicted as a nearly complete totalitarian society. The film portrays the reconstruction of language, personality, family, sexuality, economics, food, and war. Its views on surveillance are not nearly as developed as its reputation might suggest; individuals are monitored through their two-way video screens and are encouraged to inform on one another. INGSOC rules not principally through surveillance but through thought control. This begins with the internalization of surveillance, to be sure, but INGSOC's practices of surveillance cannot be dissociated from a much more pervasive microphysics of power, one whose center is not surveillance but mind control.
Enemy of the State, by contrast, suggests almost nothing about the state's real motives in building its apparatus of surveillance. The NSA conspirators are led by a bureaucrat named Thomas Reynolds whose promotion to deputy director depends on his persuading Congress to pass a vaguely defined bill that eliminates legal constraints on domestic surveillance. When a Republican Congressman from New York stands in his way, Reynolds has him killed. The murder is fortuitously caught on videotape by a biologist, who manages to pass the tape to Dean before he is killed himself. To recover the tape, Reynolds gathers a large team of NSA employees and calls upon a larger network of contacts in the government, either openly or through deception. All of them work under the guise of a "standard training op". And when the NSA director becomes aware that something is going on, he unknowingly precipitates the film's climax by threatening to send whoever is responsible for the problem to prison.
Why this difference between the total vision of 1984 and the strictly delimited picture in Enemy of the State? No real evidence suggests that Scott intends to protect the government's reputation, much less that of the NSA's leadership. The official justifications in terms of terrorism and other threats to national security are invariably treated as so much yakking. The rogue-bureaucrat scenario does serve dramatic purposes: it invokes the genre conventions of the murder mystery, it motivates an exceptionally intensive use of technology, and it ultimately creates qualitative symmetry between the NSA conspirators and their prey. But it also prevents the film from falling into a trap. The narrative of the totalitarian state and its actions against the individual have different meanings in American culture than elsewhere, and different meanings particularly than in Britain. Enemy of the State's road-not-taken is available for comparison in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), which presented as true some of the most extreme explanations of the strange events around the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And the fate of Stone's film is instructive: widely denounced as a conspiracy theory, it and its director were both effectively discredited. Enemy of the State develops the technological imagination while leaving the substantive politics to the imagination of the audience.
Orwell's story cannot be taken for a conspiracy theory. Some of the reasons for this are straightforward: it is set in the future, not the present, and it can be interpreted in some detail as a representation of the Soviet Union under Stalin. The bombed-out London of the film will be entirely familiar to the British, either from memory or from narratives of the German attacks. And the communist movement was much stronger in the Britain of both 1948 and 1984 than it was in the United States. But these factors do not account fully for the ways in which 1984 is intelligible. Differences in political culture are surely also at work. The shadowy machinations of the conspiracy theorist's state is foreign to the European imagination, just as the thoroughgoing intimacy of the individual's relation to the state in 1984 is foreign to the American imagination. Although this contrast should not be oversimplified, one element of it is surely religious. The relationship between the individual and Big Brother in 1984 does resemble in some detail the emotional economy of the Soviet Union under Stalin. But both of them also resemble a perverted version of the Catholic Church with its monastic asceticism and rituals of confession, as well as the historical memory of the Inquisition. It is thus that O'Brien can be understood, through a monstrous distortion, as lovingly helping Smith to overcome his pride and open his heart to Big Brother. Conservatives have contended that communism is the logical consequence of man's attempt to play God, and Stalin's position as both the beloved father figure and arbiter of the Party's totalitarian definition of truth certainly stands as evidence that they are right.
This point will be readily evident in a country whose political culture took form in the presence of a Catholic -- or in the case of Britain, an Anglican -- religious establishment. But the narratives will parse differently for those, for example in the United States, whose political culture derives more from Protestant sources. The United States did not simply import Protestant religious doctrines from Europe; it imported the concrete experience of rebellion against centralized religion. The story of 1984, like the Catholic Bible, is allegory as well as representation, but the story of Enemy of the State does not present itself allegorically at all. It is a story for a literal-minded culture, one whose narratives locate evil in the conspiracies of corrupt institutions (Fuller 1995). In 1984 the apocalypse has already come and gone, but Enemy of the State warns that it is soon to come. The focus of 1984 is the destruction of the soul in the guise of its salvation; the focus of Enemy of the State is the revelation of evil in high places. The prevailing sentiment in 1984 is pessimism; in Enemy of the State it is urgency.
4 Constructions of space
Michael Radford made a point of shooting 1984 in and around London in the spring of 1984, the exact time and place that Orwell had in mind. But their post-apocalyptic London lacks a great deal. Trucks carry enemy troops to public executions and trains carry those with permits to the countryside. Other vaguely military-looking trucks and armored vehicles pass in the streets in what is evidently a war zone, and unmarked helicopters hover outside of windows, but no cars are ever seen. Few spatial relationships are developed; no character is ever followed for more than ten meters' travel, and the only sightline greater than a hundred meters is a single view of a hill in the countryside; Winston and Julia first escape to this place, and it eventually becomes the setting for Smith's hallucinations in the Ministry of Truth. Space is divided between home and work, between city and country, and between the proletarian zone and the rest. Communications are impoverished as well; no telephones or mailboxes are seen in homes or on streets. If space represents freedom of movement and communication represents freedom of association, then the world of 1984 atomizes its populace by representing neither.
In Enemy of the State, by contrast, space is fantastically elaborated. Indeed, the whole film is essentially one long chase, and it is most original in its use of technology to reinvent the weary conventions of the Hollywood chase. To be sure, those existing conventions are all present: early in the film, the biologist who first uncovers the Congressman's murder is chased across rooftops, runs through alleys throwing obstacles in his pursuers' paths, dodges traffic, and so on. But there is more to it: the NSA people have reserved a surveillance satellite, and they are receiving real-time video of his progress. Along the way they employ a range of databases to identify the businesses that he enters, and to instruct one another as to his location. He is eventually chased to his death, but not before he slips a book-sized playback unit containing a PCMCIA card carrying digitized video of the murder into Dean's shopping bag.
This initial chase scene establishes a vocabulary that will be exercised at length once the NSA conspirators manage to infer that the biologist has slipped the recording (which they always refer to as a "tape", not knowing its exact format) to Dean. Central to this vocabulary is a division of labor: beneath the NSA bureaucrat Reynolds and his lieutenant are two types of employees, whom I shall call geeks and goons. Two of each are drawn most fully as characters, but numerous others make appearances as necessary. All are familiar Hollywood figures. The geeks, as custom dictates, are neither handsome nor athletic: one is fat and disheveled; the other is markedly thin and wears crooked yellow-tinted glasses. The goons are enormous, blond ex-military guys, one of them slightly more maniacal than the other. The geeks talk on top of one another, as do the goons. Most crucially, the chases unfold through an intricately organized real-time collaboration between the geeks, who sit at computer terminals in NSA buildings or in equipment trucks on the street, and the goons, who do the physical chasing while keeping in continuous contact through discreet microphones and earpieces. When the geeks and goons are in the same room, the dialogue emphasizes the different worlds they come from, but when the chase is under way, everyone interacts perfectly well in the stilted language of military radio.
The chase sequences take place on a new terrain: one that is not just physical but informational, and whose physical and informational aspects are tightly intertwined. Every chase includes an element of "where did he go?", but here that element is greatly amplified. Having become concerned that Dean possesses the incriminating "tape", the goons are directed to vandalize his house and install miniaturized GPS tracking devices in his only remaining suit of clothes. The goons then break into his gym locker and replace his pen, cell phone, and pager with matching items that also contain tracking devices. They cannot arrest him because they are not legitimate police, and they cannot kill him because they do not know whether he has passed the information to anyone else, so they destroy his life and start to follow him. By tapping his cell phone, they learn that he plans to contact his former girlfriend, who is also his contact for Brill, at Mount Vernon Square. In a scene that plainly recalls The Conversation, the NSA conspirators deploy numerous spies with microphones, all coordinated by the geeks, to take pictures of them and record their conversations. The film cuts rapidly back and forth among the conversing pair, the geeks in the van, and the listeners on the square, with the conversation continuously audible, either in the clear or through the noise of the listening devices. The listeners' difficulties in maintaining line-of-sight for their microphone introduce the improvised and contingent nature of the surveillance work.
It is then that Dean, seeking answers to his situation, makes contact with Brill. Dean fouls up the attempted contact, and Brill must rescue him, taking him at gunpoint into a hotel elevator and onto the roof. On the way, Brill proves to be a master of the new terrain. He knocks Dean to the floor, empties a foil bag of Utz potato chips onto him, removes several tracking devices from his clothing, and places them in the bag. The geeks, meanwhile, watch their tracers go dead, infer that Dean has gotten help, and send in a helicopter. Brill now begins to instruct Dean in the practicalities of life in the brave new world. Later, when the NSA conspirators view the satellite videos of the conversation on the roof, they note that Brill never looks up despite the approaching helicopter, and they infer that, whoever he is, he has internalized the technologies of surveillance. This theme becomes crucial as the action unfolds: only someone who understands the capabilities of the surveillance technologies and thoroughly incorporates them into his embodied practices can navigate intelligently on this new terrain. When the goons track him down to a particular hotel room, Dean finally understands about the tracking devices; this is when he loses his clothes and the chase is joined in earnest.
Meanwhile, the geeks and goons must both escape detection themselves; after all, their activities are illicit even by the standards of the highly secret agency they work for. Some of their disguises, such as their equipment trucks and falsified police identification, are familiar from a generation of such films. But they also frequently use pretexts to obtain information, for example from the security guard in the tunnel complex to which Dean flees from the hotel, thus illustrating both the prevailing looseness of information security practices and the wide array of information sources that the geeks are accustomed to drawing on. Many film characters have obtained information under pretexts, but the NSA geeks manage to track Dean by this means in real time, and to use the resulting information in real time to direct the goons toward him. Although the NSA villains successfully maintain their disguises, their need to remain disguised can be used against them, as when Dean deliberately starts a fire in a locked supply closet in order to call attention to himself and thereby escape his pursuers in an ambulance. On another occasion soon afterward, he calls the police on a pay phone, pretends to be a local resident's son, and asks them to investigate whether the occupants of the villains' equipment van are involved in drugs. The villains naturally overhear this conversation, but this causes them to move along.
The terrain upon which the villains chase Dean, then, is new, but in a complicated way. The point is decidedly not that the surveillance apparatus is "everywhere". The apparatus has costs and limits, consequences and practicalities. Proximity is measured not just in geographic terms, but in terms of the capabilities of the technology and in terms of inference: what can be deduced from what by either party, given the full range of information sources available. In retrospect, of course, this has always been true: what technology has changed are the costs of acquiring information and making inferences. And as those costs change, so does a vast ecology of spatialized and embodied practice.
Enemy of the State thus represents, at least in one respect, an advance over the analysis of surveillance in 1984; it makes the practices of surveillance visible and fractures the sense of seamless totality in the earlier dystopian narrative. And, as de Certeau (1984) among many others has noted, these interstices are potential sites of resistance. In 1984, "the resistance" is an organized movement, probably mythical, having been wiped out by the omnipotence of the state; audiences in 1949 will have heard references to partisan resistance movements in World War II. But Enemy of the State takes a more complex narrative of resistance for granted.
Having been pointedly informed of his cluelessness about surveillance practices by Brill, Dean begins to figure them out for himself. When he discovers his former girlfriend dead, he once again tracks down Brill, who reluctantly agrees to take him along and decode the still-mysterious PCMCIA card. Arriving at Brill's laboratory in an industrial wasteland in south Baltimore, Dean and the audience learn who Brill really is: a former NSA employee who, working alone, applies the NSA's surveillance technology to his own ends. They view the murder video. And tapping into the NSA's database, they learn that Reynolds is responsible for it. As the geeks track them down and the goons catch up with them, Brill is forced to blow up his building and the chase begins again.
Brill is a logical development in a sequence that begins with John Rambo in Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982) and (especially) George P. Cosmatos's Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985). James Gibson (1994) argues that Rambo represents a new archetype in American culture in the wake of the country's defeat in Vietnam: the wounded hero who feels betrayed by decadent institutions. At the same time, and closely related, there emerges the guerrilla computer hacker Case in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984, no relation to James). Before these characters emerged, American culture tended to identify information technology with bureaucratic rationality, and technology workers with rational institutions for which they worked. Over the space of a few years, however, that association between technology and rationality collapsed. One contributor to the shift was the thoroughgoing failure of techno-war in Vietnam (Gibson 1986); another was the subsequent role of the virtual reality craze in shaping cultural constructions of the Internet (cf Agre 1997).
Brill is located outside the institutions of power, but he appropriates the institutions' technologies. The tone of the film abruptly changes as Brill and Dean, having once again lost their pursuers, decide to go to war against them. Recovering the captured tracking devices from the Utz bag, they visit an electronics store and then fulfill a widespread fantasy (e.g., Brin 1998) by turning the technologies of watching against the watchers, in this case a prominent Congressional supporter of the NSA. They blackmail the Congressman, and by allowing one of their devices to be discovered they compel Reynolds to meet with them. This plan fails, but they are saved in the end by a deus ex machina involving comic-stereotype mafiosi that has been prepared at the beginning of the film.
Dean's purpose in all of this, of course, is simply to get his life back. Brill, however, is more complex. Having been cast off by the NSA after its operations in Iran collapsed with the Islamic fundamentalist revolution in 1979, he surprises Dean by presenting Reynolds (whose own tenuous relation to the NSA is not clear to him) with a list of demands for back pay and a cleaned employee record. His whole life revolves around his love for the agency, and he has gone underground to prevent his past from affecting his family. The symmetry with 1984 is striking: whereas the Party members of Oceania are brainwashed and tortured into acquiring a love for Big Brother, Brill already loves the NSA; furthermore, both Brill and Reynolds are motivated principally by their attempts to compel the NSA to approve of them in turn.
In the end, nobody is at war with either Big Brother or the NSA. Winston and Julia are broken by the Ministry of Love, issue their falsified confessions, affirm their love for Big Brother, and wait gratefully to be shot. Brill, shorn of his laboratory and no further ahead in his attempt to gain restitution from the NSA, invades Dean's television set with a video greeting card from a tropical island. And Dean resumes his real life. Whereas Winston Smith's partner in sexcrime and thoughtcrime was the cynical system-worker Julia, Dean has been exposed to his wife's ACLU work and what first appears to be an apprenticeship in guerrilla warfare with Brill. Yet the film does not portray Dean as having become a guerrilla warrior in his own right. Nor has Brill been noticeably changed by the experience beyond his pleasure at Reynolds' fall. His blackmail against the Congressman has momentarily stalled the surveillance bill, however, and Larry King of CNN is given the last word, blandly asserting the need to balance national security against individual liberty and insisting on the sanctity of the home. The seemingly political film comes full-circle to an apolitical resolution. The display of technology without an embracing story about institutions and their motives leads to nothing but a generalized concern.
Whatever their relationship to the opinions of any real person, these films are surely right in one central proposition: that surveillance and privacy are part of a bigger picture. They are embedded in the construction of identity, political culture, the practices of everyday life, and in forms of power and resistance. It is dangerous both intellectually and politically to abstract surveillance and privacy from the totality of concrete experience. Yet, perhaps inevitably, this has been the dominant approach in the legal and philosophical literature. It is surely valuable to make theories of privacy (e.g., Schoeman 1984), but after a certain point these theories can become misleading unless they incorporate a substantive analysis of historically specific formations of institutionally organized embodied activity. For example, how are the practices of surveillance integrated with the equally highly-developed practices of propaganda, and of the making and destroying of reputations? How do they contribute to the making and remaking of social relations in public space?
At the same time, these films also inadvertently identify a tremendous gap in prevailing understandings of privacy: any worked-out conception of the strategies and motives of the surveillance state. The matter is clear enough in the case of an openly authoritarian society, but neither popular nor scholarly imagination provides any particular guidance about the nature of the abuses that might be expected from the NSA's Echelon communications monitoring network (Campbell 1988).
Finally, full stock should be taken of the cultural change that has brought us figures such as Brill. Contemporary American culture finds a character like Brill appealing, but his autonomy and freedom are bought at the price of a social isolation no less profound than that of Winston Smith. Brill offers no useful advice to citizens in a democracy, and the post-Vietnam culture that invests its hopes in him would seem to have lost hope in democratic institutions. This may well be the logical result of a national security state that operates largely outside of democratic procedures. But it clearly draws on deeper roots as well. To the extent that information technology is culturally bound to this abandonment of democracy, the new ways of life that it promises will be hard for free people to embrace.
Phil Agre, The next Internet hero, Technology Review 100(8), 1997, page 61.
David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom?, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
Duncan Campbell, Somebody's listening, New Statesman, 12 August 1988, cover and pages 10-12.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Robert C. Fuller, Naming the Antichrist: The History of an American Obsession, Oxford University Press, 1995.
James W. Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
James W. Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
William Gibson, Neuromancer, New York: Ace Books, 1984.
Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Irving Howe, ed, 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century, New York: Harper and Row, 1983.
Ferdinand David Schoeman, ed, Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.