First published by The Guardian (2013)

digital double

People often refer to the idea that we are living in 1984, but to what extent is that a valid observation about contemporary society? If Big Brother is always watching, how is he watching us now? And to what end? In recent months, revelations about the NSA's PRISM programme have complicated our love affair with digital technology. Our mobile phones have been transformed into the equivalent of Orwell's telescreens, watching us as much as we watch them.

Headlong is a theatre company with a reputation for making exhilarating, risk taking and provocative new work – since early 2013, we have been talking to King's Cultural Institute about collaborating on a project that would explore the relationship between digital technology and live performance.

The institute specialises in building and supporting partnerships between research expertise at King's College London and artists and arts organisations. Our ambition was to work together to develop a digital experience that operates in a similar way to the theatre that Headlong makes, by offering the user a chance to see the world around them in a new way or by driving home a truth that they already half know in a visceral sense.

There was also a desire to produce a digital experience that builds a relationship between the digital experience and the live event. The best digital work in performance (try Coney and Rimini Protokoll) is not a reproduction of the live experience, but rather is a parallel experience that augments the live event or enables the audience to see the performance they have experienced in a new light. The digital illuminates the live and vice versa.

With a radical adaptation of 1984 on tour this autumn and an increasing sense that we were all being stalked online by the furniture that we had looked at but hadn't bought from John Lewis, the decision was taken to develop an app that would examine Orwellian ways in which digital technology surveys us. And so we set about to make the 1984 Digital Double app – it seemed appropriate to use digital technology to interrogate the technology itself.

The resources we had at our fingertips were: boundless enthusiasm; a set of experts on contemporary politics and digital technology from King's College; and the help of a talented design studio, M/A, who would be able to turn our ideas into an actual app. Our budget was modest, in comparison to the six-figure sums that are spent on commercial apps, and with the show set to open in September 2013, our time was limited.

Dr Btihaj Ajana – whose research deals with the role that digital and biometric technology plays in contemporary surveillance and the effect of that technology on our psychological understanding of ourselves as individuals – introduced the concept of the 'digital double'. This is the online version of ourselves that is tracked by organisations whose interests range from marketing to national security. This online version of ourselves is not necessarily an accurate representation of our real world identity. The first aim of the app was to provide the user a summary of their online identity – to show them their digital double.

We decided to build the digital double from the personal data that users would have willingly placed in the public domain by posting it on social media sites.This decisions were grounded in the idea that the main difference between the world of 1984 and contemporary surveillance is that whereas Winston is spied upon in even his most private moments, we now willingly volunteer private information about ourselves online. What need is there for the thought police, when we openly broadcast our every thought in real time on Twitter?

In addition to showing the user their digital double, we wanted to provide them with some in-depth information about the ways in which they are tracked online and to enable them to consider how digital technology might be changing the very idea of personal privacy itself. Finally, we wanted to empower the user with some practical information about how to remove or better protect their online personal data.

The data that is gathered by the app is fed into two live experiences. The first occurs around the performances of 1984, while the second will take the form of an installation created by the visual artist Michael Takeo Magruder, which will be presented next year. These experiences offer the user a live equivalent of their online activity. After all, the internet is a public space in the same way a town square or a street or a theatre foyer is.

The project is still in its early phases. Taking part in the live version for the first time at Nottingham Playhouse the other night, I was surprised by how quickly the initial discomfort I felt passed. I heard audience members around me discussing their use of social media but no-one appeared shocked or alarmed by what they were seeing.

Digital technology is becoming a more and more intrinsic part of who we are as human beings as it moves from the phones in our hands to the glasses on our faces. This process is increasingly challenging our sense of what is public and what is private. I found myself asking whether a world in which our every thought is public would be such a bad place after all?


This article was originally published by The Guardian (2013).