Indian-born former Burma policeman and Spanish Civil War veteran Eric Arthur Blair, better known to the world as George Orwell, started a bit of a trend, or ‘meme’ to use the current parlance, when he coined the phrase ‘Big Brother Is Watching’ in his notorious 1949 novel 1984. Also the source for the less popular but no less powerful ‘War Is Peace Freedom Is Slavery Ignorance is strength‘, the book cemented the sickly ironic term ‘Orwellian’ in the popular imagination. Ironic because the coldly fascistic contexts onto which this term is applied are based on the stark opposite of the positions of the man to which it refers. That’s right, Orwell was, largely, a Liberal who spent his life fighting against totalitarianism first with the gun, then with the pen.
Lessons from the past
There are few cases in which the term ‘Orwellian’ and Orwell’s terms are used more often and more accurately than in the case of CCTV surveillance. While not quite the telescreens as described in the novel, the sense of constantly being watched is very much real in modern society and not without solid basis. There are, in fact, more surveillance cameras – I refuse to use the euphemism ‘security camera’ let us just call a spade a spade shall we? – than ever before. Unlike with other predictions such as when Jules Verne was writing about war with airplanes in 1908, the so-called ‘surveillance society’ is basically a self-fulfilling prophecy. Less a matter of Orwell guessing correctly as to what was to come than administrators reading Orwell after the fact and thinking it was a good idea. Except now, people have cottoned on and there is resistance afoot, in the form of Reflectacles. Glasses that obscure people’s faces on CCTV images.
Champion or Rebel?
Unlike many innovations which happen either by accident or while looking for something else, the origins of Reflectacles is a bit more deliberate,being designed by Chicago-based designer Scott Urban, for those “just completely fed up with the massive surveillance state.”
Nuts and bolts
Coming in two designs, ‘Originals’ and ‘Ghost’, the science behind the glasses is actually fairly simple. They are made of materials are are micro-prismic and retro-reflective which is a fancy-pants way of saying wee little mirrors. The send any light bouncing off every which way, obscuring the face of the wearer behind a large, bright reflection.
The big picture for these reflective glasses
The very first reaction many people had and, indeed the very first thing mentioned in initial reports of the existence of Reflectacles, was that criminals will use them to avoid identification. It would be a field day for everyone from burglars to serial bar fighters (provided they could keep the glasses on), not to mention terrorists. Can you imagine what might happen if ISIS or the New I.R.A. got their hands on these things? Actually, not a lot. ISIS members tend to kill themselves after an attack. The New I.R.A. is largely made up of members of the old Provisional I.R.A. and the relatively new group R.A.A.D. (Republican Action Against Drugs), who are well known to law enforcement.
There is also the fact of privacy to consider. While still comparatively low in Chicago and North America in general, there are parts of the world where indiscriminate public surveillance is a major issue. In the city of London in the U.K. for example 422,000 active CCTV cameras. Which breaks down to one for every fourteen people. Yes, there have been problems with Chavs as of late and the whole hooligan scene is still an issue and there are remnants of Republicanism hanging on in Northern Ireland but the violent crime rate in Britain as a whole is roughly 1 in 100,000. Is there really so much serious crime that one in fourteen people are a legitimate suspect?
And let us also not forget that not everywhere in the world is quite as modern and forward thinking as North America and even Western Europe. In the former Soviet state of Belarus, to pull a name out of a hat, there remains a state police force that is still officially known as the KGB.