Good news! Construction crews have finally finished widening and modernizing the Route 1 bridge over the Delaware River which separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. The Trenton on-ramp that I use every morning on my way to work now has its own lane for a pleasant, relatively worry-free merge into the harried Philly-bound traffic. The state has also spent a great deal of money to update the toll station with multiple lanes, all sporting bright computer controlled signs to guide you safely into your choice of taxation methods.
No, wait. They aren't quite finished. One of the EZPass lanes is closed this morning. The crew is hard at work installing--ah, of course, cameras.
As a frequent flyer of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I'm quite used to seeing a lens aimed at my face as I exit onto the final leg of my hour-long journey to the salt mines. I often take that moment to examine the back of my Ford's sun visor in vain hopes that my obscured face will at least annoy some bureaucrat, if not get me out of a ticket some day.
These new cameras are different, though. They're mounted on poles and aimed at a downward angle so as to peek into the cab of my truck! As I sit and wait for the orange foam-padded gate to rise and allow me through the EZPass lane, two of these silent intruders gaze into my lap and that of my non-existent passenger like unsubtle voyeurs. "Your papers, please comrade?"
I have such fond memories of living in America before it was moved out from under me and replaced with George Orwell's Oceania.
On that note, I have a confession to make: Until last year, I had never actually read 1984. Yes, I know. As a lame defense, I offer that, having heard it quoted --no, strike that-- having heard it referred to so often, I felt that I had read it by some sort of literary osmosis. After all, who doesn't know about Big Brother and his surveillance state? To be honest, I suspect I knew the story about as well as most of those who throw around the word "Orwellian".
Last year, when I finally did get around to slipping the audio book into my truck's CD player, I discovered a deep, dark story that filled me with both fascination and dread. The level of detail that George Orwell puts into his description of an all-knowing totalitarian state is nothing short of mind-boggling. His characters seem to breathe with life and realism. Eventually, I found myself caring about what happened to Winston and Julia which is the highest compliment I can pay an author.
It took some time to nail down that sense of dread as the story of Winston's interrogation unfolded. It is, after all, just an old tale written as a warning against a regime that has begun to fade into dim history. The book’s own title dates its contents. As a year, 1984 came and went, but the biggest news story involving the Soviet Union was that they had decided to boycott the Summer Olympics. A quarter-century has passed. Orwell was wrong in his prediction. Game over.
Yet, there it is, the strange feeling in my gut that it could all still happen somehow. In 2009, the book is no longer a warning against the expansion of communism and the Soviet Empire. If the vision Orwell describes were to happen, it would occur in the West, probably with the United States marching proudly at the fore proclaiming her citizens safe from terrorism, drugs, and firearms.
In the year 1984, technology hadn't advanced to the point where everyone could be watched 24/7, and for this, we should be thankful. One can imagine what the Soviets might have done with 2009 technology. Today, webcams are everywhere. Some of the more advanced surveillance cameras can detect the sound of a gunshot or recognize the face of a wanted criminal and alert the police. If that isn't enough, most people carry their own video camera embedded in a cell phone. Good communists would need only publish another's crimes against the Party on YouTube to get the attention of authorities. Orwell's nightmare would have almost certainly come to at least partial fruition had the Soviets held out for another couple of decades.
Probably the scariest thing about the novel is that, despite its dire warnings about the evils of totalitarianism, its conclusions seem somehow inevitable. While we decry the U.S. Government's latest intrusions into our privacy, our leaders know we will ultimately calm down into the herd of passive sheep they've come to know. We see the danger in Orwell's 1984, but like the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star, we're somehow unable to stop moving toward it. The twin tractor beams of perceived safety and false security drag us relentlessly closer.
Endless war? Check. Government encouraging citizens to spy on fellow citizens? Check. Cameras everywhere? Check. Government-controlled education? Check. Government-controlled medical care? Partial credit. And is there any better example of Doublethink than the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation that protects free speech by stifling it? Many politicians would love to saddle us with that again.
This isn't to say that any one political party is responsible for our descent into a surveillance empire. If the Democrats aren't trying to control our speech, then the Republicans are trying to listen to it.
My HP notebook has a camera recessed into the frame of the display. It's a functioning "telescreen" which is staring back at me even as I type.
Han: “Chewie, lock in auxiliary power!”
Obi-Wan: “You can’t win, but there are alternatives to fighting.”
Snowdog is a systems analyst who lists writing among his less-expensive hobbies. Once a story is subdued and dragged from his labyrinthine mind, it is often left on the doorstep of the Snowdog's Den with a note that reads "Feed me!" He also enjoys performing fiction for unsuspecting passersby in Trenton, NJ.
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