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There are more mobile phones in the world than toothbrushes,” says playwright James Graham, as he nibbles on a sandwich during a break in rehearsals for his new play Privacy.
For now it is the first half of that equation that troubles Graham. Privacy, which opens at London’s Donmar Warehouse next week, grapples with one of the hottest topics around: Edward Snowden’s revelations about the way governments and corporations gather personal data and the way, as Graham puts it, they “might change our concept of what it is to be a private individual”.
The play will examine, and demonstrate to the audience, just how much information we emit through technology, from mobile phones to Facebook to store-cards. It follows a central character who, says Graham, “considers himself to be a very private person and who goes on a journey to investigate this stuff”.
Graham has already shown a relish for tackling big issues by using telling detail: his comic hit This House wittily examined British democracy through the parliamentary whip system. For Privacy he consulted some 60 sources: civil servants, lawyers, academics, technical geeks, politicians, David Omand (a former head of GCHQ) and Shami Chakrabarti (director of Liberty). Many of the encounters are woven into the piece as the lead character conducts his investigation.
But Graham insists that although some of what he learnt is “hair-raising”, he is not out to scaremonger. Neither is he focusing entirely on surveillance. Rather he hopes to encourage a wider debate about the issue of privacy in a digital age. He points out that a rapid escalation in technology has accompanied a generational shift in attitudes about what we share.
“Now it’s such a big part of our lives,” he says. “It could be the next big problem facing us. Can we see the wood for the trees and what should we do about it?”
Graham, a friendly, diffident individual in his early thirties, admits that his own phone is “the most intimate thing” in his life. He was shocked to discover just how sophisticated a profile can be constructed from the footprints we leave online.
“You might not even be aware that you’re suffering a trauma but a psychologist can work that out based on your online activity. When you mix personality inference with physical data on where you go, who you talk to, when you talk to them, how you talk to them and what you buy, sell and read – you can be totally known.”
Many of us assume that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear from the fact that others, including the government, could sift through our emails and online shopping patterns. After all, surveillance may avert terrorist attacks or obstruct criminal activity. So does it matter?
“I do think it reveals a fundamental shift in the social contract between citizen and state,” Graham says. “And it might be fine. We might say, ‘D’you know what, my right and my freedom to not get blown up might be worth a slight shrinking of my privacy.’ We might decide that. But we’ve not been asked.” He adds: “I don’t know whether it matters. But I think what does matter is having a conversation about it.”
Graham is not the only playwright engaged in that conversation. Last year Watford’s Palace Theatre mounted a symposium on the impact of digital technology on personal lives. Headlong theatre company will shortly stage the UK premiere of The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s examination of what consequence-free behaviour in a virtual wonderland might teach us about personal morality. Meanwhile Headlong’s stunning and disturbing reworking of 1984 is set for London’s West End and a second tour. The company’s website has a “digital double” application, where you can explore what your own online activity reveals about you and to whom. Duncan Macmillan, co-creator of the 1984 adaptation, is keen to prompt awareness.
“When the NSA [National Security Agency] revelations came out, it seemed everyone shrugged,” Macmillan says. “There weren’t riots on the streets. But the analogue version of it is that there is a microphone in every room of your house and you get home and find they’ve steamed open every envelope in your mail. That would be absolutely chilling. But because it’s digital, somehow we can’t focus on it as a tangible problem.”
So what can theatre bring to the issue? This ancient, communal and physical art form confined to one space is, in some ways, antithetical to the combination of privacy and elastic reach that define communication in the virtual world.
Macmillan says that is the point: “The way we receive information and communicate is so atomised,” he says. “There are very few places culturally where you sit and are exposed to a sustained thought.”
For Graham, the live and communal nature of theatre is essential for what he hopes to show. The excitement lies in being able to fuse that shared experience with new technology to make the revelations about data emission strike home. “We’ll be using the fact that it’s a live situation and that data can change,” he says.
Neither he nor the play’s director Josie Rourke can be pressed into specifying how interplay between a live audience and digital activity might work – partly because surprise could be key, partly because their plans are still fluid. But Graham is confident that the show “will truly surprise an audience as to their level of exposure”.
“There’s a difference between knowing something in theory and then seeing someone doing it on the screen in front of you,” he says. “So people might leave theatre a bit more aware of how vulnerable we all are.
“In rehearsal I did an experiment where I read my Twitter feed out loud,” he adds. “I was completely mortified. We’ll try and get that into the show: the idea that even though you know your Facebook photo can be seen, if you see it where lots of other people can see it as well, it may help you readdress the difference between what’s public and what’s not public.”
It is not just the new ethical questions presented by modern technology that exercise both writers, but subtle alterations in perception, behaviour and thought. Macmillan suggests that “for today’s children it has almost become, how do you know you exist unless you have a virtual presence? What that’s going to do to their sense of self? What is their identity and what is their constructed identity?”
“Since Greek and Roman times playwrights have wrestled with what it is to be both a citizen of the world and a private individual,” Graham adds. “Theatre is still the best forum for complicated big ideas to have some air and a chance to breathe.”
‘Privacy’, Donmar Warehouse, London, April 10-May 31, donmarwarehouse.com; ‘1984’, Playhouse, London, April 28-July 19, tours from August 29; ‘The Nether’, Royal Court, London, July 17-Aug 3, headlong.co.uk