Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who shall guard the guardians)
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: 0505EL
Date: May 2005 / Show Official Info /
So begins George Orwell's 1984, written mostly in 1948, the must read novel of totalitarian Dystopia. We are at once set off balance by the unnatural striking of the clock, and never quite regain it throughout the remainder of the book. Whether or not you've read it, you're familiar with many of the ideas in it, particularly the one of "Big Brother" and constant surveillance...and how inimical it is to personal freedom. Whenever a new traffic camera or video monitor is put into place by authorities someone cries out that we are a short step away from rightspeak and the loss of all personal freedom. Personally, I think they've got it backwards, but not because I trust the government any further than I can throw them. The government is made up of people just like you and me...and of the two of us, I only really trust myself...and not especially far.
But trusting no one is a pretty dismal way to live, and it's not my style. Fortunately, there are alternatives to this "X-Files" foolishness. But they require active participation in society to work, and for many, it's much more attractive to sit back and wish the world were different than it is.
Dovorey no provorey -- Trust, but verify, goes an old Russian adage, made popular by Ronald Regan in 1987, three years after the title of Orwell's work changed from future to past. Had the author seen the future as it would be, he might have been gratified that his work had so much impact, and that we have the tools to keep it from coming true.
The Rodney King video served as a wakeup call to law enforcement agencies everywhere that the public was watching back. That video doesn't show the events leading up to the beating that Mr. King received, but they do show the respondse. Recently a soldier was put on trial for killing an Iraqi at a checkpoint...and introduced into evidence was video from an unmanned surveillance drone. Cell phones are sensitive enough to pick up a conversation in a room, and it would be a simple matter to set up a service where you could dial a number to have a call recorded for review by a lawyer. Camera phones now take video as well as high resolution stills. I've often thought that if I was part of a group that got regularly accused of crimes on the basis of my appearance I'd buy a locater braclet and let a security company keep a (sealed) record of my whereabouts. Do you have an alibi? Well, yes.
Big Brother may be watching us, but we're watching back.
In the short run, this presents an uncomfortable tension between government and citizens, but in the long run it could do just the opposite. Secure in the knowledge that the people we empower to protect and serve us are accountable, we could afford to trust them. If our real concerns are that we will be found out to be criminals, if only in the eyes of others, then we need to engage the process and change either ourselves or our laws.
One of the most cited quotes on the Internet is attributed to Edmund Burke, an "Anglo-Irish statesman, author and philosopher" who lived in the 1700s. It appears in several forms, owing to the fact that it does not appear in his writings, but that has not stopped it from keeping his memory, or its popularity, alive.
In this post-post-modern era, we're often confused by a lack of certainty about what several of these terms mean, especially good and evil, so for fear of doing evil instead of good, people of "good intent" may opt to sit on the sidelines rather than commit the sin of passing judgment, leaving that to those who have formally forsworn it. We do need a consensus on the practical elements of good and evil, but even as things stand, watching may well be enough, or at least the first step. If watching is an active state rather than a passive one. If we hold both the governerning and the governed accountable. If we do more than watch. If we witness.
There are too many people in the world for anarchy to be practical, but the power of government must be kept within limits so that it does not become tyranny. The same tools that can be used to control you can be used to set you free. The tools are out there. Pick them up and use them.