27 April 2006

1984: A Reality

It has become a cliché: comparing our time and emerging politics with the dystopian society envisaged by George Orwell from his 1948 vantage point in 1984: A novel. Among the vivid images created in what was then a work of fiction was the ever-present telescreen:
Behind Winston's back the voice from the telescreen was still babbling away about pig-iron and the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan. The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Now, two patents have been issued recently that effectively implement the telescreen. This patent, issued to Philips Electronics, embeds digital flags in broadcast transmissions that prevent viewers from changing channels on the television/cable/satellite tuner during certain programs (commercials, for example), or fast-forwarding through them, if the program was recorded. And this patent, just awarded to Apple, "inserts thousands of microscopic image sensors in-between the liquid crystal display cells in the screen. Each sensor captures its own small image, but software stitches these together to create a single, larger picture." In other words, the television watches you.

Imagine the possibilities for individual liberty. No longer will neighbours have to report on neighbours. The amount of fear and suspicion will decrease as only those who are plotting behind closed doors will be monitored closely. Remember, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Repeat after me:



Scattered about London there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Victory Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously. They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided. The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names, in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.

The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all. Winston had never been inside the Ministry of Love, nor within half a kilometre of it. It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons.

Update (30 April 2006): I just went to see V for Vendetta last evening (yeah, I know I'm late), and it is a worthwhile thriller-cum-political-commentary that is a chilling reminder of what can be just around the corner. What struck me is how few American reviewers were able to make the connections between a fabricated crisis, those connected to power profiting from it, and the imposition of a totalitarian police state. More here and here, with a great parody of the trailer here.
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Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff. But I really wonder if that is what the Apple patent is describing... and even if it is, engineering such a device was very possible even before this patent. Under what circumstances would it be more desirable to have a tiny camera in each pixel of an LCD instead of just placing a cheap, high quality, mass produced video camera in the bezel of the screen?

The only dire scenario I can think of that this patent could relate to is if all LDCs were made like this, so it was impossible to buy a television or computer that wasn't also a video camera. Which maybe seems wild, but what percent of consumer DVD players are region free? Less than 1%. There are probably better examples out there.


hoong said...

This afternoon a friend, from China, suggested that I should get a WebCam so that we can chat and see one another. And I told her I DEFINATELY would not have one because I don't like to have people looking at me. Just the same as how I hate to have photo taken.

If Computer screen is going to take pictures, I think I will take up a different activities ...