2014 is upon us. For a person who graduated from Georgia Tech in 1961, a year in which the class ring showed the same date right side up or upside down, the 21st century was a science fiction concept associated with Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, “2001:
A Space Odyssey.” To us George Orwell’s 1984 seemed so far in the future we would never get there. Now it is 30 years in the past.
Did we get there in Orwell’s sense? In terms of surveillance technology, we are far beyond Orwell’s imagination. In terms of the unaccountability of government, we exceptional and indispensable people now live a 1984 existence. In his alternative to the Queen’s Christmas speech, Edward Snowden made the point that a person born in the 21st century will never experience privacy. For new generations the word privacy will refer to something mythical, like a unicorn.
Many Americans might never notice or care. I remember when telephone calls were considered to be private. In the 1940s and 1950s the telephone company could not always provide private lines. There were “party lines” in which two or more customers shared the same telephone line. It was considered extremely rude and inappropriate to listen in on someone’s calls and to monopolize the line with long duration conversations.
The privacy of telephone conversations was also epitomized by telephone booths, which stood on street corners, in a variety of public places, and in “filling stations” where an attendant would pump gasoline into your car’s fuel tank, check the water in the radiator, the oil in the engine, the air in the tires, and clean the windshield. A dollar’s worth would purchase 3 gallons, and $5 would fill the tank.
Even in the 1980s and for part of the 1990s there were lines of telephones on airport waiting room walls, each separated from the other by sound absorbing panels. Whether the panels absorbed the sounds of the conversation or not, they conveyed the idea that calls were private.
The notion that telephone calls are private left Americans’ consciousness prior to the NSA listening in. If memory serves, it was sometime in the 1990s when I entered the men’s room of an airport and observed a row of men speaking on their cell phones in the midst of the tinkling sound of urine hitting water and noises of flushing toilets. The thought hit hard that privacy had lost its value.
I remember when I arrived at Merton College, Oxford, for the first term of 1964. I was advised never to telephone anyone whom I had not met, as it would be an affront to invade the privacy of a person to whom I was unknown. The telephone was reserved for friends and acquaintances, a civility that contrasts with American telemarketing.
The efficiency of the Royal Mail service protected the privacy of the telephone. What one did in those days in England was to write a letter requesting a meeting or an appointment. It was possible to send a letter via the Royal Mail to London in the morning and to receive a reply in the afternoon. Previously it had been possible to send a letter in the morning and to receive a morning reply, and to send another in the afternoon and receive an afternoon reply.
When one flies today, unless one stops up one’s ears with something, one hears one’s seat mate’s conversations prior to takeoff and immediately upon landing. Literally, everyone is talking nonstop. One wonders how the economy functioned at such a high level of incomes and success prior to cell phones. I can remember being able to travel both domestically and internationally on important business without having to telephone anyone. What has happened to America that no one can any longer go anywhere without constant talking?
If you sit at an airport gate awaiting a flight, you might think you are listening to a porn film. The………………….