Beijing’s 70,000 taxis have had equipment installed in the run up to the Olympics, that enable the authorities to bug them, track them via GPS and disable them remotely. Apparently this is all in the name of driver safety, but then, that is the official line.
This kind of technology is often compared to Orwell’s 1984, but the reality is that we have far better technology in place than Orwell ever dreamed up. In Orwell’s landscape, it was possible to find private places that were unobserved, even though many of these actually proved not to be private at all. Such places are now rapidly disappearing, especially in urban areas, with the rise and rise of CCTV and other forms of security and monitoring.
China is an interesting case study for this kind of invasive technology. In democracies, we often believe the line that people, who do no wrong, have nothing to fear. While it’s possible that regime change would happen, it seems a pretty remote concept, even though I’m sure most Germans felt the same thing in the early 1930s. But imagine what Hitler and later, Stalin and his successors in East Germany, could have done if they could track every move their citizens made and every word they spoke, along with the ability to monitor patterns of words analysed by the powerful computing technology of today.
China, of course, is not a democracy and we don’t have to imagine regime change to understand that this kind of technology is potentially the most oppressive tool ever devised.
The sad thing for democratic society is that it’s politicians who are making the decisions to monitor the people (and often unaccountable private businesses) and there’s not even public debate, let alone any form of protest. I hope we don’t live to regret this. It’s like we’re standing mutely and happily by, watching our leaders build us our prisons of the future.