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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.

Combine this with our natural suspicion of any malevolent automaton – there’s a reason that Guy Montag, in Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, is in the end pursued not by humans but by an automated machine, and that fear and suspicion of robots informs everything from Asimov’s Caves of Steel to The Matrix – and we see why the prospect of drones becoming commonplace in the real world could, and should, disturb us. It isn’t that they are themselves bad, but that, by serving as a proxy for human action without the concomitant responsibility, they contain the potential for evil. Often is it that our fear of robots is a fear that they will behave towards us as we behave toward each other.

So there's something quite sinister about this; about the drone flying above me, and about the prospect of this becoming a common feature of life. Moreso when you recall that the police are beginning to use them, and that they will, I'm sure, soon become commonplace tool of law enforcement agencies. They're incredibly cheap to produce and to operate.

When one spies a police helicopter flying above, one can be quite sure that it's on a serious and specified task, for the costs of flying them are prohibitive and too much to allow for them to be used for generalised and non-specific surveillance.

This is not true of drones. Not only do they allow just anyone to spy on anyone at any time (which is objectionable), they also allow the state to do the same. And, unlike CCTV cameras, they are quite conspicuous, both conceptually and physically. Much like Orwell’s telescreens, the fact of their existence carries with it a fear not bound to their immediate purpose.

Imagine a world in which these things are common and ubiquitous, and you imagine a world in which the very skies remind you that you're being watched. No stroll is private, no park bench intimate; at any moment you are liable to be interrupted by the claxon sound and disembodied eyes of a stranger; eyes which, unlike real ones, give no hint of their motive or purpose, and from which there is no obvious way of hiding. They are attuned to no specific purpose, tasked with no limited responsibility to observe; they exist solely to satisfy the potential of the same. They speak only to that sinister part of us which is voyeuristic, and terrify that sensible part of us which fears it.

“If you want a picture of the future,” says O’Brien to Winston Smith, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” But this is crass and offensive, and ultimately unreal. Rather, if you want a vision of the future, imagine the clouds have eyes and birds are spies.

Imagine God is real.

I find that a more unsettling prospect.

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