Screening the film adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” isn’t exactly the most festive way to celebrate one’s upcoming birthday, but after reading the Tribune’s “Nerdvana” column’s recommending it this coming Friday, I couldn’t help but reserve a seat.
The movie based on the book that coined the term “Big Brother” was made in the same year as its title, 29 years ago.
You see, lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about privacy and of those who covet intruding into it. I’ve been reading Garret Keizer’s 2012 book collection of essays titled, “Privacy.”
In his opening chapter, Keizer sounds very much like Orwell: “We tend to think of our right to privacy as a value that came about with the historical growth of the middle class. If, as current indices of income suggest, the middle class is vanishing, then it should come as no surprise if the privacy of all but a few people is vanishing with it.”
Happy birthday, Mark.
Readers of this column will remember the installment of Jan. 27 in which I criticized House Bill 2082 — which as of this writing remains defeated by a state Senate vote, but could be resurrected before the end of the current legislative session — that would give state lottery winners the option of keeping their identities secret from us all.
The bill has received quite a bit of popular support, judging from online comments. But in addition to the many reasons why the bill is wrong-headed — starting with its allowing unscrupulous lottery officials to claim a prize was awarded to, um, None of Your Business Who, when it could have been illegally, secretly diverted to undeserving recipients — is the fact that it protects very few people’s privacy.
And yet, large numbers of us who will never see a dime of lottery windfall support such legislation, because it makes us feel better knowing that at least one finger is snugly in a torrentially leaking dike holding back our private matters.
We’d like to think so. But faceless authoritarians aren’t the only ones wedging crowbars in the cracks in that dike.
Keizer cited the published views of author Walter Kirn, who wrote not of Big Brother but “Little Brother,” meaning that in our smaller ways, many of us are complicit in such intrusions.
“(Kirn) means any nosy individual with an electronic device,” Keizer wrote. “With the use of something called a keylogger, for instance, you can keep track of a spouse’s computer keystrokes. With the use of Google Images you can change your mind about a blind date.”
Many of us might be unnerved to know that, unlike the right to own a gun or to be tried by a jury of one’s peers, there is no “right to privacy” enumerated in either the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or any of the other amendments to the federal constitution.
What we have is what Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court majority in the 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, referred to when he said that “various guarantees” among four different amendments in the Bill of Rights “create zones of privacy.”
Still, the above fashioned rights don’t cover what kinds of advertisements pop up after your search engine assesses what kinds of products or services you might like.
Maybe it’s all done so efficiently, so silently, that we can pretend it isn’t there, and demanding privacy for lottery winners makes whatever discomfort we feel for being subject to such cyber-surveillance a bit more tolerable.
Or maybe we are more than aware of the monitors of our brothers, big or little. We may never depress the accelerator enough to trigger a freeway speed camera’s shutter, for example. But we somehow believe that 11 mph over the limit on a public road in front of dozens of other drivers is somehow not the business of law enforcement, at least it isn’t if it’s not going to send a personal representative to tell us directly through our rolled-down window that we were bad.
The all-powerful state in Orwell’s novel maintains control not only with electronic monitors but with the propagation of the deconstruction of the individual. If having individual thoughts and desires are severely punishable, the only behavior left to a person is a collective one. (Welcome to the Borg, Mr. Scarp. It’s not your birthday; it’s everyone’s birthday.)
One of the legally recognized bases of an invasion of privacy lawsuit is publication of private facts about someone. Many legal scholars and courts have wished that such a basis would simply fade into oblivion, because it is getting harder to show evidence of a fact that is truly private.
In that case, one day not only might it not be considered legally actionable for someone to know such a fact but for that person to tell any number of others about it.
Excuse me, now, but if I’m going to get through this film, there had better be enough popcorn.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.