1984 revisited

24 Feb

1984 was not the most momentous year I’ve lived through. That was probably 1989 when the ‘iron curtain’ crumbled leading to the later reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But 1984 is the more resonant date.

Thirty years on, let’s revisit 1984. Here are three reasons to remember a year long before most of my students were born.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four

Orwell 1984Orwell’s book was published in 1948, and the title came from reversing the final two numbers to produce a future date by which his nightmare vision of state suppression of individual identity might have come true.

It didn’t, and today the nearest thing to Orwell’s nightmare is North Korea (officially exposed by a United Nations report last week).

Or is this too optimistic a view? Pessimists might argue that the greatest threat to individual liberty comes from surveillance, not least by ‘free’ nations (as exposed by Edward Snowden’s revelations).

Whether it’s a flippant observation on the popularity of Big Brother, or a more serious debate about the limits of individual liberty, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four still resonates years later.

Grunig & Hunt (1984)

Harvard referencing conventions mean that 1984 is also memorable for one of the most frequently-cited academic contributions to our field, Managing Public Relations.

Thirty years on and PR students are still debating the ‘two-way symmetric’ model in class and in their dissertations, and one of the co-authors – James Grunig – now has an eminent place in public relations scholarship.

In contrast to Orwell’s dystopian novel, this book (with its now-famous model) can be viewed as a rather utopian vision of how public relations can benefit society as well as the organisations paying for it.

Many more books have been published and the field has expanded since then, as well as adapting to changes in the business and media environment, but the frequent citations mean this book has gained the status of a seminal text.

Ridley Scott’s 1984 ad for Apple

This is one of the most discussed advertisements of the twentieth century, yet it only played once during the Superbowl. The Orwellian echoes are obvious; less so now is the attack on the unnamed enemy (assumed to be IBM).

The IBM PC had launched a few years earlier, and Apple introduced its friendly Macintosh personal computer as the opposite of the corporate choice.

You’d be wrong to assume that the narrative turned out this way. Apple found itself in trouble a year later and its founder Steve Jobs was forced out. It was only after his return that Apple reinvented itself with new categories of products (music players, smartphones and tablets) that became bestsellers.

Arguably, it was the open architecture and low cost of the IBM PC with its Windows operating system that helped turn computing personal and which provided the platform for the internet to take off in the 1990s. But don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story: Apple’s narrative of individualism, dating back to 1984, is compelling.

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