Thursday, January 23, 2014

Calling George Orwell

Earlier this afternoon, a woman who used to be my supervisor and I were talking about advances in technology. Like many of my generation, I'm about 1/3rd computer geek, but I'm also a bit of a "tech skeptic" — I don't believe that technological progress is equal to or the same as social progress, or that it will necessarily lead us to Utopia. That doesn't stop me from wanting the latest cool toys, though.

Anyway, I mentioned to Maranda a blurb I'd read where someone claimed that all cars in America would be hooked up to the Internet within the next 5 – 10 years. Consternation dropped on Maranda's face: "Why the hell would anyone want their car hooked up to the Internet? We've already got a big enough problem with people texting while driving! Who needs to be surfing the Web at sixty miles an hour on the open road?" We agreed the idea was pretty ridiculous, and went on talking about MP3 players, Google glasses, iPhones, shoes and ships and sealing wax.

Meanwhile, over in the protest-torn city of Kiev, thousands of men and women protesting the increasingly authoritarian régime received this chilling text message yesterday: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance." You see, Ukraine passed a law prohibiting public demonstrations; using new technology, the government can locate any cell-phone subscriber in or near a place where prohibited activities are taking place.

Well, hell, the idea should be nothing new; it's the kind of thing federal agent-cum-supergeek Tim McGee does at least once every other episode of NCIS, right? Except that this is real life, reported in no less than the amoral gray Times. Vice's Brian Merchant, who repeats the story, calls the text message "downright Orwellian (and I hate that adjective, and only use it when absolutely necessary, I swear)." He comments further:

It's further reminder that authoritarian regimes are exploiting the very technology once celebrated as a vehicle for liberation; last year, in Turkey, you'll recall, the state rounded up dissident Twitter users. Now, Ukraine is tracing the phone signal directly. Dictators have already proved plenty adept at pulling the plug on the internet altogether.
All of this puts lie to the lately-popular mythology that technology is inherently a liberating force—with the right hack, it can oppress just as easily.

 But hey! That's over there, in a country that a mere generation ago was part of a totalitarian bloc of socialist countries ruled by a single party. No chance that we could become a nation that puts the sick, the deformed and the aged to death in pursuit of a genetic ideal, or that our Constitutional liberties will ever be seriously threatened. I mean, come on, our Glorious Lead—um, our President taught Constitutional Law, so he knows what's permissible and what's not, right?

Sleep tight. Don't worry, the government will take care of us.