THE BLOG

The Orwellian Age Is Here

03/11/2013 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2013

A must-read book to prepare you for the coming age of police and government surveillance is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. George Orwell was a pen name for Eric Blair (1903-1950), an English-born writer who was a sworn enemy of both totalitarianism and communism. Orwell wrote a number of books, including Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London, a memoir of his starving years in those cities while trying to make it as a writer.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published on June 8, 1949, describes a future in which "Big Brother" watches a citizen's every move, making privacy a thing of the past. Not only are there audio recorders and cameras in every home, but also in every hotel room, street, store, country lane, bus and seaside resort. Citizens who are caught disobeying the rules of that society are punished by varying degrees of mental torture until they come to "love" the oppressor, Big Brother. And since Big Brother controls the media, only certain forms of information are allowed to "get out."

Robert McCrum, in The Guardian overview of Orwell's life, wrote of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Probably the definitive novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as 'Big Brother' 'doublethink' and 'newspeak' have become part of everyday currency. Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

In the 1950s, Orwell's book seemed much like science fiction, although that can hardly be called the case today. Today, in the city of London (the scene of Orwell's novel), literally every square inch of the city has surveillance cameras. In the United States the situation is almost as bad. There are cameras in and around every convenience store, WAWA, bank, Rite Aide, CVS, and ATM machine, where our every move is watched and analyzed by an unseen observer or panel of strangers.

Although established ostensibly to thwart criminal behavior, camera surveillance has slipped outside criminal margins to include the filming of everyday people engaged in everyday behavior. A store manager, for instance, is able to observe people entering or leaving his store while blowing their nose, talking with friends and strangers, giving money to panhandlers or even flicking cigarette butts onto parked cars with their middle finger. Philadelphia subway and El station stops are all currently equipped with cameras, while city buses are being prepared to carry interior and exterior cameras and audio recording devices, meaning that conversations between passengers can be taped and archived.

As if cameras and audio transmissions aren't bad enough, we now have to suffer the coming plague of drones, some as big as hummingbirds (in the not-so-distant future, they will be as big as house flies), which are being purchased by police departments across the country for aerial surveillance of the average U.S. citizen. Domestic drones, of course, are spinoffs of military drones, which have recently garnered their fair share of controversy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Think about it: A small drone the size of a hummingbird may buzz discreetly outside your bedroom window, recording subversive conversations or "illegal" acts, and then transmit the information to the local police. Naturally, the powers-that-be insist that these domestic drones -- which some police departments want armed with non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets, tasers and tear gas -- would only be used to catch dangerous criminals. But, if you believe this, then you must be a diehard fan of the 1950s Walt Disney film, Pollyanna.

What concerns me is Congress' authorization to the FAA to change airspace rules to make it easier for police departments to use domestic drones. While I think catching violent criminals is a good thing, I have problems with the other portion of police work -- some call it the not-so-nice totalitarian side that might include the arrest of nonviolent protesters like those of Occupy Wall Street. This is why I stand solidly behind the ACLU's position that domestic drones should not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons. Furthermore, I agree with the ACLU position that the use of domestic drones should be decided by public representatives, not by police departments.

Can you imagine the skies over your hometown filled with hummingbird drones, buzzing, diving, hovering and spying? A landscape like this is much like the bleak reality depicted in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which begins this way: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Like it or not, a brave new world is coming. The U.S. News and World Report, for instance, states: "Drones in Seattle and Miami are equipped with video cameras capable of taking daytime and nighttime video, as are drones used by the Texas Department of Public Safety."

Some Americans, of course, will inevitably support a sky filled with domestic drones and say that such invasions are "only for our own protection." Glenn Greenwald of Salon concurs when he writes: "There is always a large segment of the population that reflexively supports the use of greater government and police power -- it's usually the same segment that has little objection to Endless War -- and it's grounded in a mix of standard authoritarianism."

That's tragic in my book, considering that it is bad enough that we have to have TSA X-raying our bodies and going through our belongings at airports. I don't like the idea of an unmanned aircraft buzzing in the skies around my neighborhood (even police helicopters are annoying) with the sole purpose of collecting information by filming the activities of citizens who have not broken the law. Furthermore, I don't think that the Founding Fathers of this nation would have found the idea attractive -- or even Constitutional -- either.