Archive for the ‘ The Future ’ 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.

Contingency planning

hey world!

So about a year ago I signed up to 23andMe’s personal health service. I sent them a tube of my spit, as you do, and they set me up an account at 23andMe.com, where they gave me an estimation of my odds of developing various conditions, based on my genetic profile.

Here are some of my top risks:

Coronary Heart Disease – 58% (as opposed to the average 47%)
Prostate Cancer – 25% (as opposed to the average 18%)
Alzheimer’s Disease – 14% (as opposed to the average 7%)

On the plus side, they predicted a pretty reduced risk of:

Type 1 Diabetes – 0.1% (as opposed to the average 1%)
Melanoma – 0.7% (as opposed to the average 3%)
Age-related Macular Degeneration – 3.3% (as opposed to the average 6.5%)

So it’s not all bad, yeah?

I’m a bit gutted about having a 1 in 4 chance of getting prostate cancer, and not overjoyed about being told that I’m at double the normal risk of developing Alzheimer’s (since I’m already as forgetful as fuck); but fortunately these are only indications of probability, and it’s entirely possible that it’ll never happen.

That being said, they’re indications that I may as well take seriously. I’ll pay attention to the bits and bobs of prostate cancer research that I see, and I’ll do my part to lower my risk of Alzheimer’s as well (with further bits and bobs).

But these things do happen, so I’ve been thinking.

If I get Alzheimer’s, I’m gonna follow the instructions in this pretty legend pamphlet (heads up, it’s pretty legend but it’s also hardcore depressing). Amazing what you can find on the internet, really.

And if I get cancer, I’m throwing a party! I’ll probably need some cheering up, to be honest. Plus it’d be a great way to spread the news to all the people I see regularly but don’t know well enough to have an awkward “I have cancer” conversation with. It wouldn’t be too upbeat (I can’t imagine myself being in too much of a dancy mood, for example), but there’d be some nice music (maybe even a live band, depending on how much money I have) and some classy food. Probably not too much alcolol though; I’m not sure getting trashed would help anything. Maybe a glass or two of expensive wine. No champagne though – that’d just be poor taste.

P.S. And at least if I get Alzheimer’s I can plan my own surprise party. Happy World Mental Health Day 2011!