You know you’re in trouble when the introduction to a book warns you that our surveillance society is going to be a nightmare both Orwellian and
Kafkaesque. Hyperbole is sure to follow.
It’s not that Ross Clark doesn’t tackle some unsettling trends. The proliferation of CCTV cameras in the U.K. designed to watch your every move, sometimes even speaking to you when you do something wrong, is disquieting, and certainly invokes scenes from 1984. DNA databases that contain information from the general public have potential for misinterpretation and misuse, and the movement of much of our personal information, including health and financial, to the Internet also has its pitfalls.
The problem is that Clark presents all of these scenarios in the most inflammatory, exaggerated way, making him seem more like a paranoid Luddite than a voice of sanity in an over-watched world. Almost none of his information is sourced in any way, making it hard to check his facts. He loses credibility with me when he moves from talking about the potentials of police misuse of our information, to fearful ranting about the grocery store:"If there is one nightmare which Orwell failed to foresee it is the voice of the health minister lecturing us for taking one helping of Frosted Flakes too many. . . .there is potentially a darker side. . . .Details of your shopping habits are used. . .to build a picture of you and your neighborhood, so that they can better target you with the type of junk mail to which they think your demographic category will respond" (p. 102-103).
Ross Clark’s Room 101 apparently involves not rats or cockroaches, but junk mail. I don’t like it either, but I think he’s missing the point.
With new technology of this kind, I think we need to ask three questions.
1. What are we trying to accomplish with the technology?
2. Does it accomplish what we want it to do?
3. Assuming it does what we want, is it worth the financial cost, and more importantly, the cost in civil liberties?
If it doesn’t even do what we want, as it appears much of the technology discussed in the book does not, then it certainly isn’t worth sacrificing civil liberty for.
The problem really isn’t the technology itself. Governments have spied on their citizens for centuries. From Caligula to Stalin, the best dictators have been remarkably good at monitoring people’s activity for their own diabolical purposes, with or without cell phone tracking. More concerning than the method of surveillance is how the information is used. In the U.S., the framers of the Constitution made it difficult on purpose
for authorities to search your house and your person. They were keenly aware that search and seizure had enormous potential for abuse. The bigger concern in modern society is the gradual chipping-away of the protections afforded by the 4th amendment with laws like the Patriot Act. Orwell’s 1984
, despite the pervasive cameras, could not have happened in a setting where those protections were honored, and where a free press kept an eye on things to cry foul when necessary.
*I want to thank the Bird Brian Lending Library for the opportunity to read this book. If anyone wants to read it next, let me know and I’ll send it along. You will have the added bonus of reading the snarky comments in the margins from all of the previous Goodreaders who have read it.