“No one knows we are here.” That the thought occurred at all is a sign of the times. We were cycling between farmer’s fields in East Lothian – no roads or houses in sight, no CCTV cameras and, crucially, without a smart phone to give us away. In the world of surveillance capitalism the countryside is the place to go if you want to disappear. It was where Winston and Julia escaped to for a few hours of rebellious pleasure, away from the urban world of Big Brother. And we have walked all too willingly into that world.
This truth was born in on me a few days later, visiting Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura. Back in 1892, the tower had been bought by Patrick Geddes, the sociologist, town planner and all round benefactor of this city. Renaming it ‘the Outlook Tower’, he used it try to change people’s outlook on life. He showed them the town and the surrounding countryside, and then left them in the darkened room to reflect on the wholeness and interconnectedness of life. Today the tower is still full of things that challenge our perspective. However, it also allows visitors to control CCTV cameras and observe other people – up on the top of the tower or in the street nearby. Surveillance, it seems, has become entertainment. Perhaps we are being invited to reflect, Geddes-like, on how we are colluding with this brave new world. Perhaps – but if so I fear the message is lost, when it is just too much fun to spy on a mother berating her children, a man picking his nose, or a couple engaged in a supposedly private cuddle.
We live in an age of web-cam exhibitionism. We walk down any street in Britain and our movements and behaviour are tracked. We use a computer and hand over a stream of information about ourselves – to companies and governments who tell us they have our best interests at heart.
The other day I turned on my smartphone and searched for the location of an event I was going to. On the map I found a dotted line traced to my destination, which was marked with the words “Appointment 14.00 hrs”. I had booked on line no more than two minutes earlier. Someone (beginning with ‘G’) had decided this would be helpful to me but had not asked my consent. If I had been Winston or Julia I would have been whisked off to Room 101 there and then.
Sometimes I tell myself that there is nothing to fear from surveillance capitalism if I am not breaking any laws. The trouble is, this depends on the laws being benign. As the Winstons and Julias of the world know to their cost, there is no guarantee that this will always be so.
Is it too fanciful to imagine a society in which we are compelled to carry an ID card with a smart chip in it, so that those in authority can know where everyone is, every moment, of every day? If not, then maybe it’s time to turn off the phone and computer and head out into the countryside for a few hours of rebellious pleasure – while we still can.