George Orwell’s 1984 is so ingrained in the privacy liturgy that the author’s own last name, the name of the book, and its dominant antagonist “Big Brother” all conjure a future-world devoid of privacy.
1984 is much more than that, of course. Privacy is just one of the things citizens have lost to their overweening government in this tale. Language is a tool of the state. The press and all literature are state-run and state-revised. Autonomy is not an option. Freely chosen social relations and creature comforts like adequate housing and quality food are things of the past. The world is at war and each nation’s propaganda about imminent victory flows unendingly.
Winston Smith lives a gray life in the world Orwell has created. He labors meekly as a revisionist in the Ministry of Truth and keeps to himself otherwise. It’s the safest way to live. Slowly and carefully, he develops a relationship with a woman in his office, Julia. The exhilaration of this illicit affair leads Winston, with Julia, to reject the conditions of life in their oppressive surveillance state.
Pushing the edge of caution, they cultivate a sympathetic Party Member who is engaged with a much wider group of rebels. This group rejects the status quo, wanting to be delivered from the all-controlling super-state. They will join as collaborators, prepared to act at any time in a fight for freedom. Winston and Julia will either escape their life of oppression or be damned to the worst punishments conceivable in the Ministry of Love.
Orwell wrote 1984 to caution against the power of governments much more than to warn about a future of lost privacy. There is an inverse relationship between privacy and government power, of course, but it is excess government that creates lack of privacy, rather than the reverse.
Modern advocates who use Orwell to argue against private-sector databases and deployments of technology understand the book’s power, but not its meaning.
At the time Orwell was writing, totalitarian governments were on the march in many parts of the world and the future looked bleak indeed. Today, we can read the book knowing that the core of Orwell’s vision did not come to pass. With our vigilance, it never will.