When George Orwell was writing his political sci-fi novel Nineteen Eighty-Four he had no idea how close his imaginative classic would come to eerily predict our future. It took a few years past the year 1984 but in 2010 our world is resembling Orwell’s futuristic one and realising his grim outlook.
The industrial age gave us the means to pave the technological road, which led us to the age of information. Information or the excessive access and manipulation of it have eventually landed us in the era we live in today, the time we could quite easily dub, the age of paranoia.
Civilisations tend to embrace technological advancements in the hope that with them comes progress and enlightenment. But sooner than the world realised, technology spread like wildfire and before we knew it every man and child had the entire world at their disposal. Overnight, the power of information was available to all, even the once harmless person was now equipped for destruction.
Civilisations also cannot thrive without maintaining order and controlling chaos. Yet this virtual world they helped create and nurture has now turned into a living, breathing monster they cannot seem to control. Information technology has become their Frankenstein.
Once the monster broke loose governments strove to maintain control over the potential chaos it could cause. With the countries’ security at risk governments quickly started to monitor the instigator of all fears, the borderless world they helped create, the Worldwide Web. Emails, chat rooms and blogs became breeding grounds for anarchy and a major concern to government security.
Social networking websites had to revise their privacy policies because when it came to the Internet no stone would remain unturned, no page unmonitored. The social-networking site Twitter has donated the entire world’s status updates (tweets) to the United States’ Library of Congress claiming they took this step for the “preservation and research” of tweets. Why would the Library of Congress want to preserve and research random peoples’ updates? Regardless of the reasons, whatever you decide to use your 140 characters for, rest assured they will be archived and never be erased. Once you send that tweet you can never take it back.
Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom took the monitoring to the streets, and to their publics’ outrage, have introduced the use of closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) as a tool for crime prevention. The UK has not divulged the total number of CCTVs being used or whether or not this method has directly lowered crime rates, although according to several independent studies CCTVs have reduced crime in the UK by only four per cent. Their effectiveness is very low considering their massive cost on the taxpayers and on their civil liberties.
It is supposed to feel comforting having an eye watching you on every street corner yet there is something quite unsettling about it. Looking back at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four his Big Brother Surveillance prophecy has indeed been manifested through today’s CCTV.
After the Web monitoring and the street watching comes the latest fight against terror in the form of cell-phone tapping. The new terrorist on the governments’ block is the Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM). RIM has made it on this list because of their smart-phone device, the Blackberry. The company’s effort to differentiate its product by offering their customers complete privacy, a safe-zone if you will, through the use of this device is its crime.
Yes the big picture is clear and we are reminded of it everyday. Yes, terror is among us. Yes, national security is of utmost importance and governments have the right and obligation to maintain peace within their territory. But while we are staring at and being consumed by the bigger picture have we managed to neglect the smaller one within it?
The conflicting rights are bewildering and can place a person at a thorny crossroad. On the one hand we have to think of our safety as a nation and on the other we have to be concerned for our right in pursuing a private life. National security is sacred and should be fought for but are we willing to sacrifice personal privacy as our not so glorified casualty of this fight against terror?
Should we wilfully accept that every word we type on Twitter be documented by the United States’ security service? Every letter we type in haste or anger be a weapon used against us?
Should it be normal to walk down a street and not feel like you’re being watched but be certain of it?
Should law-abiding citizens be scrutinised and punished in the name of national security?
It is quite a dilemma that once absorbed, forces a person to re-sketch the parameters of his private space and rethink his every step, for you never know who is out there watching, listening and ‘documenting’.
Most of what Orwell prophesized in Nineteen Eighty-Four has come true in some form or another. In Orwell’s fictitious world “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and, except in darkness, every moment scrutinized”.
Here’s hoping his Thought Police aren’t next.
This article was published in The Gulf Today newspaper on August 30th, 2010.