Tuesday 1 July 2003

Vision come to pass

Obey! Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eric Arthur Blair. Had there been any visitors to his quiet grave in Oxfordshire, England, the circular-saw-like noise they would have heard emanting from the ground would likely have been the man's high-speed, post-mortem whirling.

Blair died in 1950 at age 46. Just two years earlier saw the man's crowning achievement, a nightmare vision of the world of the future. Blair is better known by his pseudonym: George Orwell.

His nightmare, "1984," has become our reality, 2003.

We live in a reality-TV world. "Big Brother," the ominous, ever-watching eye of the bogeyman government created in Orwell's landmark novel, has been bastardized into a television show, featuring human mice in a designer cage living their lives and foibling their foibles to the glee and rapture of fans. The American version didn't have quite the success that has been shown by the long-lasting British version. That version is quite a bit more explicit than its American cousin.

But that's not the only place where Orwell's cautionary tale of an overwatchful, oversolicitous, overbearing bureaucracy has come into being. And it's not just the government gouging jackboot-prints across the broken corpse of our civil liberties. To borrow a famous line from Walt Kelly's Pogo -- We have met the enemy, and he is us.

A story in a recent edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer extolled the virtues of a new form of online voyeurism. Forget peeking into girls' bedrooms or fraternity houses for a cheap thrill. In Cincinnati, people poke their cameras onto the street, unblinking eyes capturing and preserving whatever ambience (and any activity, good, bad or otherwise) that happens to be going on.

Such an idea isn't going to work well in a rural environment, unless the person watching happens to have a thing for cows chewing or corn growing. But in a densely packed urban area, oh, the things that can be seen.

And, apparently, Cincinnati's cameras have captured a variety of nefarious activities: hit-and-run homicides, muggings, kids skipping school. Those film clips have been turned over voluntarily to police and have been used in the prosecution of the crimes.

What is lost in the hoopla of the limited number of cases where such technospying has proved to be useful is the countless numbers of hours -- and people -- who have been subjected to being filmed merely because they happened to be in a public place. Let's face it: It's no longer possible to think of being private in public. There are eyes. There are ears. There are satellites. And the government, among other things, wants to create a database of how we walk, when viewed from above. Apparently, the cadence of our gait is as much an identifiable trademark as our fingerprints -- and the government wants to know. It needs to know. It has to know for our own good!

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