A lot of folks have been circulating this picture of a surveillance camera situated outside of the former residence of George Orwell, with the claim that it’s “Orwellian irony in the extreme.” But I don’t get it. In fact, it’s not really ironic at all.
First, the camera’s on the outside of the house, pointing outward to (I assume) a public place. Orwell depicted a totalitarian world in which private places were constantly surveilled. If the camera were pointing through the window, that would be ironic, as it would echo Orwell’s two-way telescreens. Second, the camera is out in the open, where everybody knows about it. It’s not a secret, disguised or hidden anywhere. The fact that this surveillance camera is in plain view, and called by its right name, is just the opposite of Orwellian.
But more importantly, it’s not only legitimate to use surveillance cameras in public places as an anti-crime measure; it’s also generally good for civil liberties, because it reduces the reliance on human eyewitness tesitmony, which is so prone to bias, error, and outright falsehood. Presumably, nobody would think a photo of a policeman strolling the sidewalk in front of the Orwell house was ironic. And yet a human policeman is a far less reliable as a witness—far more likely to make a mistake, or to lie, than is a surveillance camera. This is worth emphasizing, because 1984 emphasizes human snitches—the “Junior Spies,” for example—more than the technological snooping of Big Brother’s regime. A video camera is a much better patrolman than a Bobby on the beat.
Now, obviously camera surveillance is subject to abuse—if the recordings are used to snoop into things that are nobody’s business, or used to enforce laws that should not be on the books. But all power, lodged as it is in human hands, is liable to abuse. If camera surveillance is used properly, to track down the actual perpetrators of crimes that really ought to be crimes—if it’s used to catch purse-snatchers or rapists or terrorists—then that’s good for everybody’s freedom. It protects innocent victims, and reduces wrongful prosecutions. Reason itself just yesterday was using a recording from a surveillance camera to defend the rights of (apparently) innocent persons.
The extreme efficiency of camera surveillance, like GPS, may call for a reconsideration of some past assumptions about privacy and individual autonomy. But precision and accuracy in security measures is a good thing, if the ends be legitimate—and the truth, recorded on a camera, is much more often the innocent man’s friend than his enemy. Orwell himself profoundly understood that point.