When I was a child, heading off somewhere sans parents, my mother would say to me, “Just because I’m not around doesn’t mean I don’t know what you’re up to. I have little birdies everywhere keeping an eye on you.”
Even at such a young age I did not really believe her, but I didn’t put it past her, either. To this day my mother, who is in her 80th year and still drives a stick shift, has powers beyond mere mortals, and to this day anytime I find myself thinking of committing even the slightest indiscretion, those birdies come to mind.
My mother’s flock of see-gulls was just a harmless concoction designed to keep a little boy in line. Society, however, has embraced an extensive network of electronic “little birdies” – the proliferation of video cameras posted just about any place where people meet and/or pass through on a regular basis. This love affair with technology could turn into a nightmare of Hitchcock-like proportions.
Nassau County, for instance, is trying to balance its budget by “catching” citizens on camera as they drive through red lights. The police don’t even have to pull you over. You run the light; the camera mounted to the traffic signal takes the picture; you pay the fine. Brilliant! Suffolk County also has followed suit with these green-yellow-red cash cows.
The point of this piece is not to advocate for greater leniency for red-light-runners, however, although this afternoon I found myself going through a “photo-enforced” intersection as the light turned yellow and now I have to sweat out the mail for the next few days. And Lord knows the video cameras that were working in that Medford pharmacy last month and the street cameras in Brooklyn that caught the killer of Leiby Kletzky were most helpful in putting fiends behind bars.
One doesn’t have to be a scofflaw to have to fear the ubiquitous camera, either. Last month a woman made a complete ass of herself berating a Metro North conductor. A fellow passenger captured the tirade on a camera, posted it to the Internet and within hours the woman was a laughing stock around the country. I can’t imagine the horror of having your worst moment – and we have all had them – recorded for posterity.
While I do not have a lot of sympathy for law breakers or snooty blowhards, I am concerned that we will reach a point in our lives where we are afraid to express honest opinions or thoughts simply because we have no idea what’s being recorded for dissemination.
And where does it end? According to story in the New York Daily News, there are now tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of surveillance cameras in New York City alone. In 2006, the article says, the New York Civil Liberties Union launched an effort to tally the number of surveillance cameras but the search was called off after staffers counted 8,000 between the base of Manhattan and 14th St.
If you don’t think there is a downside to having all these eyes in the skies, then you might want to read – or re-read – George Orwell’s “1984.” Orwell’s “science fiction” concerns about a government that was all seeing and all knowing thanks to the miracle of modern technology should be required reading of all high school students today. Inexplicably, it is not. Talk about nailing it. Orwell’s notion that government officials are not above placing flat screen TVs in every room in every building in the country – and that those screens could hear and see everything you do – seemed far-fetched as recently as 1975, when I read it in Mrs. Baskir’s 10th grade English class. Not anymore.
Right now the American people watch “Big Brother.” Are we that far removed from the possibility of “Big Brother” watching us?