Archive for the ‘ Review ’ Category

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I’ve been in more than one argument that’s ended with people pointing at me and yelling “1984! 1984!”. I always had a suspicion that the book wasn’t being referenced accurately, and so recently I decided to read it for myself. I found it immensely enjoyable. It’s captivating, chilling, and supremely relevant to the context in which it was written.

I have to admit that history is not my strong point (unfortunate, given that ignorance of history is one of the novel’s central themes) but the current political climate is worlds apart from that of 1940s Europe. As such, I don’t think that Nineteen Eighty-Four can be used to “shine a light” on the actions of modern governments in the way that many people seem to want it to be.

The stereotypical “Nineteen Eighty-Four” comparison arises in discussions on surveillance; be it via CCTV camera, email scanners, or DNA sampling.

I personally couldn’t give a toss. I don’t believe in this “right to privacy” that people are so attached to. In my opinion, there are two problems with a “right to privacy”:

  1. The phrase “right to privacy” is meaningless. What is privacy, and how is it violated? How is it measured? Is a glance enough to violate privacy, or does it have to be a thorough inspection? Does it matter whether you are in a public or private space? Why? Does it matter whether or not you’re aware that you’ve been observed? Why? Does it matter whether the observer is a human or a machine (or a monkey, or a flower, or a ghost)? How far does your “privacy bubble” extend – does it only cover you, or does it cover your property; and if so how long does it cover your property for once you discard it (old laptops, clothes, family photographs etc.)?
  2. Privacy is not a necessary condition for a happy life. The government could have read every single email I’ve ever sent, and there would be no measurable impact on my quality of life. Strangers could walk past my window all day long and I’m pretty sure I’d be OK. I could get caught on CCTV cameras from every single angle, and it wouldn’t hurt me. There are almost infinite situations in which privacy is unnecessary.

I believe in a right not to be humiliated. I believe that there are sets of circumstances where privacy between two or more specific parties is necessary. A teenager might want to keep their browser history private from their family, for example. A job applicant might want to keep their personal life private from their potential employer. I believe that in any situation in which public knowledge of personal details could lead to any measurable harm, privacy should be an option. In a relationship between an individual and a disinterested government, however, why hold back? Yes I would find it a bit weird if there was a camera in my bathroom, recording my lavatorial exploits, but if there were cameras in every bathroom who would care? (Why put a camera in a bathroom?)

The disinterested government is the real issue, not the methods of surveillance used. In Nineteen Eighty-Four the telescreens and hidden microphones are a tool used by a zealously authoritarian government to eliminate the freedoms of its people – and before anyone starts talking about British authoritarianism I’m just going to have to go ahead and point out that the British government does not track down, torture, and murder its citizens for expressing anti-government opinions, talking in their sleep, or having extramarital sex; so it’s not really an accurate comparison now is it?

And THAT is why people who blabber endlessly about Big Brother piss me off. No one is watching you, and no one cares what you’re doing. Even the people who know you don’t care what you’re doing. The government cares even less.

… unless, of course, you’re doing something illegal. Which is an issue that needs a certain amount of discussion. I’m not going to say “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”, because I hate that argument. It’s unpleasant and accusatory, and not worth the breath used to speak it. Instead, I’d like to address those who are concerned about being caught on CCTV doing something illegal: surely it’s more sensible to protest the illegality of your action, whatever it may be, than the method of detection?

Example:

  1. I want to do X (graffiti, protest, shoplift).
  2. X is illegal.
  3. If I do something illegal, I will get caught and punished.

If you believe that what you’re doing is right, then the problem is at step 2, not at step 3 – if you do away with step 3 you’re hindering the enforcement of all laws. If your problem is with step 3 then fine, you might have legitimate beef with surveillance.

But enough with the Big Brother bullshit! Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a novel about the inherent evil of being watched all the time, and if you sincerely believe it is I suggest you read it again.

Discordia – Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple

In all honesty, I started Discordia without having the faintest idea of what it was about. I read it because Laurie Penny tweeted that she was offering a free PDF of the book in exchange for a review. I like free things. I like PDFs. I like books. I like reviewing things (well, judging things. Same diff?). I figured I’d go for it.

I’m glad I did.

The full title is “Discordia: Six Nights in Crisis Athens”. Last summer, journalist Laurie Penny and illustrator Molly Crabapple took to the streets of Athens in order to document the experiences of those living there. The result is powerful, to say the least.

I power-read it this evening; partly because I felt a little obligated to, partly because it was fascinating. The writing style is easy to read and the subject matter is of huge importance. The illustrations paint a far more detailed picture than I’d expected them to, and below/around each one is a quotation translated straight from the graffitied walls of the city.

My one (mild) criticism is that at certain points the narrative seems to jump back and forwards a little. I wouldn’t make an issue of this, however, as the coherence of the book doesn’t suffer.

I’m not a whizz with this politics stuff, and so I don’t feel massively qualified to comment on any kind of wider context, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist. I actually learned quite a bit, which would have been enjoyable if what I was learning wasn’t so depressing.

The book can be bought here, and if you have even the remotest interest in the subject matter I would recommend it wholeheartedly. I’m not going to come out with some schmaltzy line about how I enjoyed it so much I’m going to buy it even though I don’t have to, but if I didn’t not have to and I knew how good it was I would buy it. If that makes sense.