From the Vault: 1971 Press Publication Wonders If We Can Escape 1984

by Mikala Carpenter on July 15, 2013

Our “From the Vault” posts allow you to take a peek into the history of the Press, where you can rediscover past authors, projects, editors, awards, and more that led to the development of the university publisher that the Press is today. This window into our past spotlights backlist or out-of-print titles and series and also recommends and contextualizes them with similar current and forthcoming titles. Explore the drawers of the Vault with our intern, Mikala Carpenter, as we uncover the hidden treasures that await us in the archives of the University of Michigan Press.

In 1949, George Orwell anticipated a world of government surveillance and nonexistent privacy in his dystopian sensation, 1984. As the eponymous date of Orwell’s novel approached, the Press published a monograph by Arthur R. Miller, a University law professor, in which he expressed concern that the United States had yet to escape the danger zone as innovative but overbearing technology began to encroach on Americans’ civil rights. Despite Orwell and Miller’s warnings, the current atmosphere in the United States — characterized by vigilante Wikileaks, NSA surveillance, and the U.S. government’s attempts to protect its citizens from privacy encroachment and to weaken whistleblowers’ releases— suggests we may have yet to escape the threat of technological violation of private rights and records.

Miller’s The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers was published March 1971, a year after he testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights in a hearing about federal data banks. Miller feared for Americans’ individual constitutional rights to privacy, free speech, and assembly under the onslaught of technology. In his testimony before the U.S. Senate, as recorded in a University press release found in the Vault, Miller declared, “It is axiomatic that the effect of wide scale governmental surveillance or information control can chill the exercise of an individual’s constitutional rights.”

While looking through Miller’s file from the Vault, I discovered a description of The Assault on Privacy that the author wrote for the Press. In summarizing his work, Miller expresses a growing need for effective legislation and administrative regulation, which, if ignored, “[promises] to bring us closer to 1984” and its society of paranoia and suspicion. Miller predicts a world in which data and information define societal power: “… in contemporary society those who control large quantities of information have power. Power over people and power over decision-making” and “the balance between the individual citizen and the groups and organizations that affect his daily life.” Though Miller admonishes technological encroachment, he wondered if there was way “for dealing with the problem of preserving privacy in the computer age without impairing society’s ability to reap the full benefits of the new technology.” The Assault on Privacy was nominated for the 1971 Pulitzer Prize in Letters by the Press and won the Gavel Award from the American Bar Association in 1972.

Miller’s fear that Americans “may well become insensitive to the importance of personal freedom and autonomy” remains 40 years later. Today major concerns about maintaining privacy center on the Internet. In Feb. 2012, the Obama administration released blueprints for legislation focused on improving consumers’ privacy protections, including a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.” President Barack Obama said of the legislation: “By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth.” A more controversial event may be the whistleblower Edward Snowden’s June 5 release of National Security Agency files associated with government surveillance. In his first interaction with mass media since the release, Snowden explained why he believed it necessary to uncover NSA’s tapping of millions of phone records and Internet data: “I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

Just like Miller before them, both Obama and Snowden have communicated an interest in the continuation of technological innovation. But Orwell’s 1984 fictionalized admonition continues to be as poignant in 2013 as it was to Miller in 1971. Though today’s governments and commercial companies seem to be trying to follow the recommendations in The Assault on Privacy, Miller’s question still remains: Are individual and consumer privacy acceptable costs for the growth and increasing power of innovation and technology in the modern world?

A forthcoming title from the Press, Albert C. Lin’s Prometheus Reimagined: Technology, Environment, and Law in the Twenty-First Century, tackles similar issues concerning technology’s growing strength in modern times and advocates for a thoughtful and democratic approach to technology regulation. Lin’s book is currently available on the Press’s online catalog for pre-order. Miller’s Assault on Privacy is also freely available to read via HathiTrust.

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