Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Orwell’s world – the pending reality?

Many years ago, I was removing the old-fashioned plaster and lathe in my daughter’s bedroom. Supporting the plaster were newspapers, yellowed and brittle. Most of the papers crumbled as I removed the plaster, but I did manage to salvage a few scraps.

One article in those old newspapers (from the 1930’s), involved the town council’s proposal to have a traffic light installed at the top of the street so that motorists traveling Highway 2 would know they were entering a town and slow down.

I was reminded of that old newspaper article a few years back when the City of Toronto was discussing the installation of CCTV cameras to catch speeders or drivers running red lights at the same intersection and others.

It made a lot of sense, despite the “big brother” connotations. It was the intersection where kids from the nearby middle school were most likely to cross the very busy Lakeshore Blvd. (once known as Highway 2) The cameras could catch any vehicle ignoring traffic regulations, recording license plate numbers of offending vehicles and their “ticket” would be sent through the mail.

It’s not as if the use of CCTV was a new custom. Some stretches of major highways around Toronto had been fitted with cameras; to monitor traffic flow and the like. And, they’ve been used for years in public buildings, stores, apartment buildings, etc.

In fact, the use of CCTV to monitor people’s movement has become quite commonplace. But, it’s gotten to the point where the use of cameras is becoming a little too intrusive; a little too Orwellian.

For instance, in Britain there are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in use. But, it’s not just the proliferation of cameras that’s creating a problem; it’s the way in which the cameras are being utilized. A recent newspaper article from the UK, for example, claims the cameras have been used to catch people committing such mundane offenses as putting their garbage out too early.

But, there’s more disturbing news regarding the increased use of CCTV coming from England. Last year, in a Middlesbrough pilot project, cameras were outfitted with loudspeakers so that staff monitoring the cameras could communicate directly with people on the street. In the project, 12 of the 146 cameras in use around the city were rigged for communicating with the public. And, the pilot program is expected to be expanded to roughly twenty other cities in England.

Consider the pictures in the graphic which accompanies this post. A man leaves an empty soda can on a bench. The talking camera advises him to place it in the garbage bin. The man is even told where to find the bin. After complying with the request, the man is given a polite “Thank you for using the bin.”

Says Middlesbrough Mayor, Ray Mallon: “The number one priority is not terrorism. In the public domain, it’s what we call anti-social behaviour; people misbehaving.” Huh? Leaving an empty can on a bench is anti-social behaviour? Putting your garbage out early or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is anti-social?

Such behaviour may be Inconsiderate, but anti-social? And, how did people misbehaving become such a high priority?

One person opposing the project, civil liberties advocate Simon Davis, believes the use of cameras amounts to a form of psychological warfare against the people. The cameras say to people: “We will watch you; we will monitor you; we will control you.”

And, he’s right. It’s very disconcerting to think that your every move can be monitored. And, it’s even more unnerving to think of being scolded publicly for “misbehaving”, by an anonymous voice from some remote location. And, just who decides what “anti-social” behaviour should be controlled, now or in the future?

Someone (David Cronenberg, maybe?) once said all that was necessary to make a good horror film was to take the perfectly ordinary and push it to its most extreme.
Imagine a strange, disembodied voice berating an overweight or obese individual about to enter a MacDonald’s. How about a public reprimand for a smoker who dares light up in the street? Will cameras be installed in public parks to ensure that young couples don’t get overly amorous following a picnic lunch?

That’s perhaps the most troubling aspect of all; just how close we are to the Orwellian world of 1984.

Read the news article.
Watch the video.

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