Image: Vintage Telephone by Daniel St. Pierre
I attended a very interesting lecture yesterday at Morley College called ‘On Liberty’ by Shami Chakrabarti (which, since it only cost a mere penny as part of the ‘Penny Lecture’ series, was partly a shameless plug for Chakrabarti’s new book, of the same title).
That probably is a good thing though, as Chakrabarti is the director of Liberty, a campaign group for the defence civil rights that protests against things like ‘the snooper’s charter’ and increased invasion of privacy (not least due to the prevalence of technology and surveillance equipment). It was refreshing to hear from a young (-ish, in her own words) woman from an Asian background, if only to counterbalance the abundance of old white men we usually hear from (compelling and articulate, though they are).
I was speaking with my boyfriend, James, who accompanied me to the lecture, about what I’d write a blog post about, should the mood take me. This is it. There are so many angles you could take to approach the topic, but I’ll probably go for just one.
This one facet of modern life that has become murkily interwoven into this debate on human rights and privacy: technology. It has been partly caused by the spread of the internet and social media, which now connects and exposes us all in ways hitherto dreamed of only in science fiction.
Ordinary people rely on technology to get around, to do their jobs, pay their bills, and stay in touch with their friends and family.
It is used by violent groups in countries outside the western world, which are rising up to overthrow a perceived – whether real or fictional – oppressor. They use technology to communicate, to recruit new members, and cause terrifying amounts of damage to their own countries and others.
Technology is also used by security organisations to survey the public, as well as by the news media to produce a continuous steam of stories and images of ‘terror’. Technology is a medium that is used and abused by all.
Even under these circumstances, it’s still quite frightening that people are so willing to allow the erosion of their basic rights and liberties because they are half-asleep. We are so used to being poked and prodded by marketing companies and government that it’s only a tiny step further.
It’s easy to dismiss basic invasions of privacy when you are still enjoying a fading liberty, sure that they’ll be surveilling someone else, and not you, or even because you are terrified of what might happen to you and the people you love. The citizens of the republic of China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, and the USSR probably felt the same.
Racism and xenophobia appear to be on the rise, with the popularity of political parties like UKIP (which now has two local seats), the move to tear up the bill of Human Rights (in favour of ‘British’ rights) and the backlash against immigrants who are believed to be ‘leeching’ our resources. This is surely, in part, an unconscious backlash against a far more sinister and uncontrollable threat: global terrorism.
I agree with Chakrabarti and many others that the powers the government is attempting to give itself are completely out of proportion to the threat, and with dubious efficacy. As Chakrabarti says, it is impossible to wage war on an abstract noun – and, if you can, you will never be able to tell when it has come to an end.
Quote from Shelley (used in the lecture):
“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many-they are few.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy: Written on Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester