I’m a huge George Orwell fan. Despite the fact that he wrote his most famous novel, 1984, long before the era of Facebook and big-data, and despite these dystopian developments coming about 30 years later than he predicted, Orwell’s novels, and especially 1984, are a fantastic cautionary tale for what happens when too much power gets concentrated in one place.
I was reminded of my teenage fascination with all things Orwell recently when sitting in a meeting of my local residents’ association. I live in a small, rural community. We’ve only got a couple of hundred residents and, in that ultimate test of rural New Zealand village-hood, we don’t even have a local pub (in fairness we did, but it burned down a decade ago and is now just a sad, derelict demolition site sitting barren in the dry norwest wind).
Anyway, at the said meeting, there was a bumper turnout for a group that usually only has a handful of people present to discuss the issues of the day – which generally revolve around footpath repairs, the state of the community lawns, and whether someone’s dog has defecated in the local domain – heady stuff.
The reason that numbers were at an all-time high was that on the agenda for the meeting was a discussion about an initiative to install surveillance cameras around the village. It seems that a budding entrepreneur (who, not coincidentally, has a camera install business) had teamed up with the local police officer to present to the community the benefits of surveillance cameras.
The police officer highlighted that our village is the only camera blackspot in the region, and it makes policing more difficult in that they are unable to track individuals and vehicles in our area, unlike in neighbouring towns. He was also at pains to point out the fact that the increasing usage of surveillance cameras in our district has coincided with a reduction in crime (or, more correctly, an increase in resolved crimes).
Before I go on, I need to explain my views on civil liberties. If there is a spectrum where screaming lefties suggesting we should scrap the justice system exist on one end, and the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” crew from the Sensible Sentencing Trust exist on the other, I would be somewhere in the middle. I appreciate that a criminal justice system is an unfortunate need in society but I also believe that we should give people a chance to rehabilitate – indeed, in another context my experience with an initiative helping people with criminal and addiction histories recover through exercise shows that people can change and the inherent goodness in individuals can overcome their horrendous lived experiences.
But my discomfiture about this surveillance proposal doesn’t actually come from a civil liberties perspective. Rather, it is about fear. And trust. And the erosion of the notion that people are fundamentally good.
Seemingly a lifetime ago, my brother went through a stage during which he lived in a dilapidated bus on the side of a river in Marlborough with a bunch of people who had generally opted out of society. The crew, while undoubtedly rating quite highly in terms of malodorousness, did no harm to anyone and enjoyed their simple existence. The local council, concerned by these unkempt individuals, erected a number of “camping prohibited” signs in the area in the hope that the ferals would move elsewhere.
When the signs disappeared within a day, my brother and his fellow squatters were the prime suspects. It turned out the guilty party was actually a local orchardist who had come to New Zealand from Holland. His explanation was that, while he wasn’t particularly keen on the riverside inhabitants, he had left Europe precisely to avoid a culture of prohibition and suspicion.
And this is the thing that concerns me about the ever-encroaching culture of surveillance cameras and the attendant suspicion in small town (and urban) New Zealand. When a new car drives in the main road of my village, I want peoples’ default to be one of manaakitanga. I’d love for people to immediately assume that whoever is in the car is friendly, simply out for a nice drive, and keen to have a good old country yarn.
I don’t want the jungle drums, or their modern equivalent, Facebook groups, to begins with messages to “watch out since there’s an unknown car in the district.” If we default to that approach, we’ll be proving Orwell right and, in a dystopian, ironic and sad twist, we’ll be fulfilling the role of Big Brother.