Friday, December 12, 2014

o brave new world, that has such people in't

I stood looking at the screen of people scurrying along in their daily chores -- none of them knowing that their every movement could be seen by eyes far away from where they were living their lives.

Thoughts of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley should have been racing through my mind.  As cliché as it would have been, it would have also been understandable.  It is not often that we can see the prophecies of the wise bearing fruit in our time.

And what brought on these disquieting echoes of jack boots in the hall?  A simple visit to the local police command post in Cihuatlán.

Late last month, I told you that the new police chief in our area came to Rotary to explain some policing techniques he was implementing (policing ourselves).  As part of his program to make police services more transparent, he invited us to visit the command post to get a better understanding of what happens when the dispatch center receives a "066" call (the local equivalent of a "911" call).

The invitations pinged several of my prior life threads, and I immediately volunteered.  Having spent my share of time in various command posts, I was interested in seeing how this one was set up.

If you think every command post looks like the television set of NCIS, you would be wrong.  And you would be very disappointed in the facilities that we toured.  Because this command post actually works within the constraints of reality.

Our main guide was the on-duty police officer in the command post.  (There was a military officer on duty, as well.)  What struck me first was his English.  It was heavily accented, but he clearly explained the emergency call system to us without the need for translation.

That mattered to this group.  Even though some of the local expatriate community speak Spanish, most do not.  And those who do, may find it difficult to make themselves understood in a second language during a stressful telephone call.

Most of the dispatch officers have learned English from a member of Rotary.  Jess has donated his time since this past summer to teach the officers enough English to get rudimentary emergency information, and to assure the caller that help is on the way.

After listening to the explanation of how the dispatch center should work, I am convinced, if I needed to make a "066" call, the appropriate policeman, ambulance driver, or fireman would arrive.

All of that was reassuring.  Where I started getting a bit squirrely was the sight of that surveillance screen.  "Surveillance screen" may be a bit too melodramatic.  It was no larger than a wide-screen monitor in a small bar.  What caught my eye, though, was the activity being displayed.

The police chief told us that he has a system that can monitor 80 separate surveillance cameras.  But only six are currently installed.  He offered the expatriate community access to the system.  Anyone who wants to buy a camera and hook it to the police system was welcomed to investigate further.

Only four cameras were operating during our visit.  The camera that interested me the most covers all traffic entering and leaving Cihuatlán -- including the bridge over the river that divides the states of Jalisco and Colima.  The camera has a zoom capable of capturing license plate numbers.

I felt my stomach knot.  The bridge tends to be a traffic bottleneck.  Getting around slow-moving traffic is difficult because there are few legal passing options.  That means a lot of us -- and that might include me; no, it does include me -- pass slow traffic on that bridge even though it has a very clear double line the length of the span.

I suspect it will not be long before the flood of surveillance cameras will include traffic cameras with their anonymous Big Brother monitoring and attendant tickets in the mail.  And I will not even bother venturing down the hypocritical cul-de-sac of trying to justify driving behaviors that are extra-legal.

But the era of the ubiquitous surveillance camera does bother me.  I know most of us have long ago abandoned our privacy rights with a mindless shrug of "I'm not doing anything illegal."

Instead of Orwell or Huxley, another writer came to mind as I was standing in front of that screen -- Ayn Rand.  When I was in high school, I read most of her novels.  (Mind you, I have recovered from the experience.)

However, I remember one passage from Atlas Shrugged as well as if I read it this morning.  On the second page of the novel, Eddie Willers looks up to see a calendar erected on the top of a building at the behest of the Mayor of New York City.

Eddie Willers looked away.  He had never liked the sight of that calendar.  It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain nor define.  The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.

He thought suddenly there was some phrase, a kind of quotation, that expressed what the calendar seemed to suggest.  But he could not recall it.  He walked, groping for that sentence that hung in his mind as an empty shape.  He could neither fill it nor dismiss it.  He glanced back.  The white rectangle stood above roofs, saying in immovable finality: September 2.
Ayn Rand seduced many a teen boy with her writing.  And that passage is a perfect example.  It appeals to the ego of the lightly cultured.  As I sat in the diner across the street from my parents' shop reading the novel, I felt very clever.  Unlike Eddie Willers, I immediately knew the quotation -- "Your days are numbered."

But that is not what I was thinking when I watched the screen of the cars driving across the bridge or watching people come and go from the bank and Oxxo on the square.  It wasn't so much that our days are numbered.  What bothered me is that our days are now watched, analyzed, and cataloged.

Or, at least, they can be.  I suspect that the dispatchers probably have better things to do than watch what gringos are doing in our little village by the sea.

However I will confess that, like Eddie Willers, I have a sense of unease.  Just knowing that this brave new world is filled with people of all natures is not a reassuring thought.

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