We're all being watched - and there's nothing we can do about it
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I keep a diary of sorts. (It’s nothing intimate, and it’s published on Medium under the title Captain’s Log.) It’s a relatively recent and very occasional hobby which I began shortly after moving aboard my boat. The last entry, written up after a lengthy episode of housekeeping, contains a reflection on George Orwell’s 1984, and Winston Smith’s famous refrain, “If there was hope, it lay in the proles.” But life has a habit of subjecting us to irony. For was only a few minutes after I published this that something distinctly Orwellian occurred. Sitting on the bow, with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other, in a moment of reflection, I was spotted; interrupted by a small drone patrolling the canal. It’s the sound that gives them away. They occupy a register somewhere between a lawnmower and a hornet; an unpleasant, grating… well, drone. And I thought then, and think now, that it was typical for such a thing to occur after publishing something about Orwell. These things, small and cheap and mass-produced as they are, fitted with cameras and the ability to fly almost anywhere, piloted by almost anyone, are so obviously dystopian that the only surprise about it is that they don’t feature more often in works of that genre. One might point out that they’re a relatively modern invention, but the idea certainly isn’t. At times, the bluntness of it makes 1984 unrealistic, if not reassuringly so. I’ve long thought Huxley’s Brave New World is a better and more realistic approximation of an actual dystopia. But Orwell’s telescreens, behind which lurks the unseen and inscrutable face of Big Brother and by which he is always able to watch you, capture, if only by parodying the whole concept of state surveillance, the formative impulse us which causes us to fear unseen eyes. Often missed in any analysis of 1984’s psychological effect is that the fear of telescreens is not only fear of being watched, but fear of the possibility of being watched. You can never know when yours is switched on, so the only sensible thing is to assume that it always is. The fear of surveillance is transplanted to the means of surveillance; citizens of Air Strip One aren’t only afraid of being watched, they’re afraid of the telescreens themselves. The telescreen is the symbol of surveillance, a constant and clear reminder of the fact.
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