Wednesday, June 29, 2005

In pursuit of dangerous visions


When it comes to choice in reading entertainment, my choice of preference has always been science-fiction. Indeed, I am probably of the generation where the genre first gained respectable literary status. Although it's legacy includes classic authors like Jules Verne, John Wynham, HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and (of course) George Orwell, it is more aptly a late 20th century artform.

Although I admit to indulging in my fair share of space operas and futuristic military scenarios, it was the sub-genre of "Dangerous Visions" (a phrase initiated by Harlan Ellison) that really caught my attention. In the tradition of George Orwell, this was the kiind of fiction designed to warn us about possible futures and often remind us of the need to retain the ideaology and values that define our humanity. Whilst some of the authors undoubtably considered themselves visionaries, few of them at the time would have given much credibility to the "prophetic" nature of their work.

Yet as the 20th century progressed, the science-fiction genre became immersed in our consciousness, a pervading influence on comic books, cinema and eventually television. The creative tools offered by new technologies have further allowed us to forge a convincing artificial reality where none really exists. The warnings inherant in many an original written work are increasingly obscured by the all-consuming experience offered up by modern media., Ideaological intent is now obscured by escapism and the grand thrill-seeking illusions. It is in our subconcious, rather than our perceived awareness, that the messages of the genre can now be found - to all extents and purposes we neglect them as we use our ingenuity to mimic the dreams and nigtmares in 21st century reality itself.

The notion of "Big Brother" is a case in point - and I refer not to the packaged voyeurism of the TV programme of the same name (which has today ironically been cited as having a beneficial influence on the cause for racial harmony), but the totalitarian nightmare envisaged by George Orwell. The concept is now so embedded in our culture that it is an assumed methodology for governance in our lives - worshipped for offering security against the insecurity it has itself created. It is seen as an embodiment of civil infrastructure rather than a threat to our civil liberties. We no longer heed those "dangerous visions" - we actively pursue them!

Today's link simply points to a version of the news story we all heard about last night. The reverend Blair has gathered just enough support to further ensnare his flock in an evangelical quest to allow "big brother" absolute power of dictation of the future. It stinks! With luck Britain's revisionary chamber, the House of Lords, will have none of it!

The arguement for ID cards is not in itself wholly without merit when discussing the simplest method of social organisation. I have witnessed enough ineptitude on the part of beaurocrats that the notion of producing a single document to replace the endless traditional (and frequently missing) paperwork is actually very attractive. Everyone who has ever puchased a phonecard to use public call boxes will be familiar with the concept - a single card with an embedded microchip which contains necessary information (in that case, the amount of money left on it). Many of us also have so-called "loyalty" cards which we produce at the local supermarket. These allow us to save microscopic amounts of money as regular customers whilst the retail consortium gets to analyse our consumer habits via enourmous inter-linked databases. The former is useful because it contains finite information and allows use to manage a service ourselves. The latter is highly insidious in that we have no control of it - the reading of the information and it's use is dictated by the corporation not ourselves. "Big Brother" has long been with us.

Yet it is the difference between the phonecard and the storecard that best describes the ID card dilemma. What individuals in modern society need is simply their own portable electronic database - rather like a hard-coded version of our portable flash-drives. Initally the chip would be empty and we would simply add, or allow to be added, information to it as required. As with bank cards, we would individually hold our own PIN numbers which we would enter before the data can be accessed or added to. The technology to store and sort vast amounts of information on such a card already exists and is, especially on such a scale, dirt cheap. We could all manage (and backup) everything to do with our identity by using the PIN with a computer to organise it. Even the contentious eyeprints, fingerprints and dental records (not to mention our entire DNA itself in the near future) could be included if we ourselves wanted - but the process would be gradual, dictated only by need and under our own control.

Government, especially in the UK and Amerika, would have it differently. They want a way of controlling and manipulating your identity over which you have no personal control and will do whatever it takes to build a system to suit their requirements. Ironically, their obsession with the actual function of the technology reveals a very antiquated mindset - namely that such "tunnel vision" leaves them blind to parallel developments outide their beaurocratic infrastructure. The cost of implementation will grow as more obstacles need to be overcome, it will take far longer than anticipated and the result itself will probably be out-of-date by the time the project is completed. The fact that the proposed Amerikan contractor for the British system has already screwed-up the treasury's "tax credits" system has gone largely un-noticed in the furore over proposed charges. That the project has been promoted as a consumer-driven deployment rather than absorbed into the general taxation system also itself suggests an astonishing lack of foresight within the institutions at Whitehall.

One science-fiction novel I read many years ago has stayed with me. It was called "Squares of the City" and although I cannot recall the author it may have been John Brunner. The story began as we came to know the protagonist - a "traffic controller" in a future city. As the plot developed, we came to realise that the "traffic" in question was the human population itself. The protagonist started to question things in his environment and the story took off. In the endgame it was revealed that the entire management of this future world was being played out as a game of chess by two ultimate power-brokers. In an appendix, the author kindly provided as resume of the plot as a sequence of moves in a genuine chess game. Individual people were less than pawns in this scenario and the game was being played less to win than to pass the time. The fallacy of "big brother" is that there is no rationale that can present such a system in a light that offers benefits to the human race.

So a thought. If all the world is a stage, what exactly is the purpose of a set designer?


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