Privacy – or its absence – is an important theme in George Orwell’s novel 1984 right from the start, and this theme is one of the issues that helps make the book especially relevant to life today. Examples of the loss of privacy in the novel (and today) include the following:
- In the very second paragraph of the novel, the narrator reports that at every landing of a building, the elevator opens to a poster showing a huge face with staring eyes and the slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” Almost immediately, then, the reader is introduced to a society in which constant surveillance and lack of privacy are the norm. A contemporary example of such surveillance would be the observation cameras that are hidden (or even plainly visible) in many public places these days.
- In the next paragraph, Winston is faced with what we would call a television:
The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.
One thinks of the televisions that are now increasingly present everywhere, especially in airports.
- Later in the same paragraph, Winston is described as wearing the “uniform of the Party.” One thinks of the school uniforms that are now increasingly common, even in public schools. Individual expression, even in dress, is now often forbidden.
- A bit later, a police patrol is described “snooping into people’s windows.” One thinks of the heavy surveillance, by members of the Transportation Safety Administration, that now takes place at airports (surveillance that often involves “snooping” of a far more intimate sort than even Orwell describes).
- Again, a bit later, the narrator reports that the telescreen not only transmits sounds and images to Winston but also transmits any sounds Winston may make and any image he may present, as long as he is within sight of the screen. One thinks of the surveillance cameras used, for instance, in casinos, and of the wiretapping (which now doesn’t even need to involve wires!) that is presently a main form of crime detection.
Just within the first few pages of the novel, then, Orwell conjures up a world hugely lacking in privacy – a world that resembles ours today far more than the world that existed in England in 1948, when Orwell was alive.