Big Brother is Watching You… and now it gets really scary

BIG BROTHER

I HAVE just read the most disturbing news item I have come across in a long time.

I am beyond shocked… I am frightened for my children and my grandchildren.

I cough and allow my mind to drift to a peaceful place sitting in the summer sunshine on the north side of the Isle of Jura watching the sea wash white horses on the rocks below me.

Less than 300 yards to the south of where I am sitting is the isolated cottage known as Barnhill… this was the rented home of writer George Orwell, who lived there intermittently from 1946 until his death in 1950. Orwell completed his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four while living there.

It was a place I visited often during my two years living and working as a newspaper editor in the wilds of Argyll, in western Scotland, some 28 years ago.

Barnhill always held a fascination for me, because Nineteen Eighty-Four had remained my favourite novel since I was first mesmerised by Orwell’s vision of a future dystopian world as a raw 14-year-old. And I loved to imagine the views he must have taken in while writing that classic of English literature.

First published in 1948, yet set 36 years later, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a citizen and ordinary member of the Outer Party.

Winston works in the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting and distorting history, under the dictator Big Brother.

But Winston is determined to remain human under inhuman circumstances and begins a diary. Yet telescreens are placed everywhere — in his home, in his cubicle at work, in the cafeteria where he eats, even in the bathroom stalls. His every move is watched. No place is safe.

One day, while at the mandatory Two Minutes Hate, Winston catches the eye of an Inner Party Member, O’Brien, whom he believes to be an ally. He also catches the eye of a dark-haired girl named Julia from the Fiction Department.

A few days later Julia secretly hands him a note that reads: “I love you.” Winston takes pains to meet her, and when they finally do, Julia draws up a plan whereby they can be alone.

Once alone in the countryside, Winston and Julia make love and begin their allegiance against the Party and Big Brother. They fall in love, and, while they know that they will someday be caught, they believe that the love and loyalty they feel for each other can never be taken from them.

Eventually, Winston and Julia confess to O’Brien, whom they believe to be a member of the Brotherhood (an underground organization aimed at bringing down the Party), their hatred of the Party.

O’Brien welcomes them into the Brotherhood with an array of questions and arranges for Winston to be given a copy of “the book,” the underground’s treasonous volume written by their leader, Emmanuel Goldstein.

Winston gets the book and takes it to the secure room where he reads it with Julia napping by his side. The two are disturbed by a noise behind a painting in the room and discover a telescreen. They are quickly dragged away and separated.

Winston finds himself deep inside the Ministry of Love, a prison with no windows, where he sits for days alone. Finally, O’Brien comes. Initially Winston believes that O’Brien has also been caught, but he soon realizes that O’Brien is there to torture him and break his spirit.

O’Brien spends the next few months torturing Winston in order to change his way of thinking — to employ the concept of doublethink, or the ability to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind and believe in them both.

Finally, O’Brien takes Winston to Room 101, the most dreaded room of all in the Ministry of Love, the place where prisoners meet their greatest fear. Winston’s greatest fear is rats. O’Brien places over Winston’s head a mask made of wire mesh and threatens to open the door to release rats on Winston’s face.

When Winston screams, “Do it to Julia!” he relinquishes his last vestige of humanity.

Winston is a changed man. He sits in the Chestnut Tree Café, watching the telescreens and agonizing over the results of daily battles on the front lines. He has seen Julia again. She, too, is changed, seeming older and less attractive. She admits that she also betrayed him. In the end, there is no doubt, Winston loves Big Brother.

Today, the year 1984 has long passed, but Orwell’s futuristic vision of hell on Earth remains.

Big Brother is now everywhere

  • Mainstream newspapers and TV channels feed us daily propaganda – the “facts” the Establishment wish us to believe
  • CCTV cameras are on every street corner and inside every store – yet we never know who is monitoring them
  • Number Plate Recognition cameras are installed at almost every filling station and car park
  • Sat Nav satellites pick-up every move of our car, van or truck
  • Cookies and spyware follow every finger click we make on our PC or tablet
  • Police DNA and fingerprint databases have more than 30% of adults logged on their files
  • MSN, Messenger text messages and private phone calls are harvested by government snoopers at GCHQ
  • Our employment, financial and residential history is catalogued in the finest detail by so-called credit reference agencies such as Equifax and Experian

Our lives are no longer secret… Big Brother knows all of us.

Which brings me back to beginning…

I stare again at the news item and in something which can only be described as Nineteen Eighty-Four meets Black Mirror the headline reads: Implanting Microchips for Convenience.

The article explains how plans are already being rolled out to implant a tiny microchip in people’s hand which could eventually replace the need for credit cards, car keys and much more.

And this dystopian world is almost upon us right now.

Micro-chipping is almost routine at the Swedish start-up hub Epicenter. The company offers to implant its workers and start-up members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.

The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted.

“The biggest benefit I think is convenience,” said Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter.

As a demonstration, he unlocks a door by merely waving near it.

“It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys,” he explains.

The technology in itself is not new.

Such chips are used as virtual collar plates for pets. Companies use them to track deliveries. It’s just never been used to tag employees on a broad scale before.

Epicenter and a handful of other companies are the first to make chip implants broadly available.

While biologically safe, the data generated by the chips can show how often an employee comes to work or what they buy. Unlike company swipe cards or smartphones, which can generate the same data, a person cannot easily separate themselves from the chip.

“Of course, putting things into your body is quite a big step to do and it was even for me at first,” said Mr Mesterton, remembering how he initially had had doubts.

“But then on the other hand, I mean, people have been implanting things into their body, like pacemakers and stuff to control your heart,” he said. “That’s a way, way more serious thing than having a small chip that can actually communicate with devices.”

Epicenter, which is home to more than 100 companies and some 2,000 workers, began implanting workers in January 2015. Now, about 150 workers have them.

A company based in Belgium also offers its employees such implants.

And last year a company in Wisconsin has become the first in the USA to roll out microchip implants for all its employees.

The initiative, which is optional for employees at snack stall supplier Three Square Market (32M), implants radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips in staff members’ hands in between their thumb and forefinger.

Once tagged with the implant 32M says its employees will be able to perform a range of common office tasks with an effortless wave of their hand.

“We foresee the use of RFID technology to drive everything from making purchases in our office break room market, opening doors, use of copy machines, logging into our office computers, unlocking phones, sharing business cards, storing medical/health information, and used as payment at other RFID terminals,” says 32M CEO, Todd Westby.

The chips make use of near-field communication (NFC), and are similar to ones already in use in things like contactless credit cards, mobile payment systems, and animal tag implants.

“It will happen to everybody,” says Noelle Chesley, 49, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“But not this year, maybe not my generation, but certainly that of my kids.”

But Gene Munster, an analyst at Loup Ventures, thinks embedded chips in human bodies is 50 years away.

“The idea of being chipped has too “much negative connotation today,” he says, but by 2067 “we will have been desensitized by the social stigma.”

So the next time your child has to stand in-line for an eye recognition device to pay for their school dinner, or the next time you use your finger print to log into your iPhone, remember the Isle of Jura and George Orwell’s words of warning.

Big Brother is watching you.

No Direction Home

“I was born very far from where I was meant to be, so I am on my way home” (Bob Dylan)

YEARS which end with number Four seem to have unwittingly become major watersheds in my life as I too quickly approach my 60th year on this planet.

Forty years ago in 1974, I left the sanctuary of my parents’ home in the rolling downland of Sussex to begin studying for a history and geography degree in the cold, grey Yorkshire mill town of Huddersfield.

I was just 18 and the move was at the same time both terrifying and exciting, a time of discovery, rebellion, revelry, reality and education.

The locals spoke with an odd accent I had only heard on a few BBC2 dramas or Emmerdale Farm. Nowt, owt, rintin, snap, spice and eh lad, quickly entered my everyday vocabulary.

At first the people seemed abrupt and cold, but also welcoming and warm. They were different to those I had grown up with but I quickly learned to love them.

I also quickly learned the wonders of Tetley’s and Sam and John Smith’s beer, a pie floater on mushy peas, fish wibbits, Wednesday nights at the seedy Coach House nightclub and cheap second-hand LPs in a record shop secreted on the top floor of a decaying Victorian arcade.

Huddersfield Polytechnic (now University) was truly far from home – 260 miles to be precise – and at times may well have been Mars or Jupiter, such were the rudimentary means of communication with friends and family back home.

Those were indeed different times.

In 1974 the UK was fresh from the miners’ strike and the three day week. It took two general elections that year to re-establish a Labour Government, initially under Huddersfield born Harold Wilson and later (from 1976) under Jim Callaghan. It was a time of increasing industrial unrest and the beginning of the shift to high inflation and unemployment. Strikes were commonplace and the whole country appeared to be in political flux – none of us foresaw Thatcher or the 1980s! It was also the time of rising unrest in Northern Ireland and ever increasing acts of terrorism.

Oh, and finally the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe was still at large – one of his victims Helen Rytka was picked up near Johnnies’ Nightclub – a favourite haunt of Poly students.

At the Poly, life mirrored the world around us. Most of us had the luxury of full maintenance grants and thereby disposable cash which was often spent at the Student Union bar or Trinity Hall bar, nights out at the aforementioned Coach House nightclub or Johnnies’ and at loads of diverse and fabulous music gigs.

During that time we had rent strikes, a sit-in/lock-in in the Admin block, put up Workers Rights marchers in the Union building and two students were arrested and held in police cells for two nights under Terrorism charges – they were later released!

Revolution was in the air, smoke was in the lungs and beer on the carpet.

Twice I was almost sent down, once for failing two first year exams and a second time for being a reckless drunk playing tag on the flat roof of a four storey student hall of residence.

Oh and I also stood for election as president of the student union, but as Leeds United manager Don Revie famously said: “You get nowt for coming second”.

Somehow, between all this, I graduated in 1977 with a good honours degree in my two favourite subjects: geography and medieval history.

I was now 21 years old and for the first time I learned the difference between a vocational degree and a non-vocational degree. I had studied for the latter! What career options were open for a young graduate in two academic humanities subjects? The answer was simple: teach or lecture the self-same subjects. To lecture I needed a second degree and was luckily accepted onto an MSc course at Edinburgh University. I had a new focus, but three weeks before the academic year was due to begin the funding body wrote to me to say they had run out of cash and I would have to wait another year.

I flirted with psychiatric nursing during that ‘year out’ and settled for a second best option and enrolled on a post graduate teaching training course at Bretton Hall College – ironically just 12 miles from Huddersfield.

I qualified in 1979 and proved to be a good teacher. I enjoyed five full years teaching in two high schools in Barnsley and later in a small town on the Welsh Marches.

But Four was about to strike…

George Orwell foretold 1984 as a year of doom for mankind; for me it is a year that will be forever Orwellian. As a 27-year-old ‘highly gifted’ teacher I made a monumental blunder that was to end my teaching career and change my life forever.

I won’t bore with the full story as it can be read in detail in a piece titled Regret on my blog.

Thankfully, or rather selfishly, I had started dabbling with early personal computers and had even run a lunchtime computer club at my last school. I had bought myself an Acorn Electron home computer – at just 32k memory it was the little brother of the BBC B computers which were finding their way into most British schools at the time.

My new nerdy hobby soon became a passion and I began writing letters and games solutions to two monthly computer magazines: BBC User and Electron User. In what seemed like no time I was given new software to review and a few months later a regular monthly column in one of the mags, for which I was paid a handsome £120 a month.

Two years of freelance writing, private tutoring and teaching English to YTS trainees followed. Then in the summer of 1988 I was offered a staff job as assistant editor of a new magazine Atari ST User. Somehow this directionless history and geography graduate had become a journalist.

My rise through magazine and later (1990) newspaper journalism was meteoric and reached its zenith when the next Four came around: 1994.

In a nutshell it was an amazing year: a succession of major exclusives unravelling a link between the test firing of depleted uranium tank shells (the same ones used in both Gulf Wars) and childhood cancer drew international attention. I scooped two major press awards for my work and to cap it all I was informed that 41 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising my investigation. Some of my political heroes signed that EDM including Alan Simpson, Ken Livingstone and Dennis Skinner. But the sixth signature on that motion was Tony Benn. His name next to mine was like a personal shield of honour.

Later that year I was head-hunted by Scotland’s premier daily broadsheet The Scotsman and elevated to the position of Chief Investigative Reporter.

The next 10 years passed too quickly. The long awaited Millennium was here and gone in the blink of an eye and my hair was turning grey as I made my way into middle age.

In 2004 I had moved away from newspapers and plied my trade in PR and publishing. They were treading water years, but in hindsight I learned and honed new skills of writing precise and detailed copy for demanding clients, including county council and national sporting bodies. I also became a publisher, writing, designing, editing and printing brochures, annual reports and newspapers.

In 2006, due to an unforeseen change in domestic circumstances, I returned to my passion of newspaper journalism and became editor of a thriving county weekly tabloid in North Wales. But life is always a rollercoaster and my demons caught up with me – catalogued in detail in my blog – exactly a year ago. On 12 June 2013, I suffered a nervous breakdown and as I recovered knew I had to change my direction home. Last November I signed off for the last time almost 28 years in employed journalism.

A rocky road to freedom followed. Supported by my gorgeous wife and son I began writing for real. I found escape, refuge, solace, excitement and therapy in my blog, my poetry and my most recent teen novel: Poison (The Adventures of Nathan Sunnybank and Joe Greenfield). I was writing for myself and learning more about who I really am than I had glimpsed during the previous 56 years.

Autumn leaves fell, winter came and went and the spring of 2014 heralded a new tomorrow.

This week I am launching my company writeahead, from its base here in North Shropshire. For my US and Australian friends, Shropshire is a long county bordering Wales in what is known as the English West Midlands.

My company promises a new way forward in marketing and publishing for small and medium sized businesses and for individual clients. Drawing on my years in journalism, I aim to provide a one-stop tailor-made service to research, write, design, print and publish, everything from simple business cards to brochures, magazines and books.

I will also offer a unique service to interview, research, write and publish memorial and celebratory publications for individual clients. Whether it is a one-off eulogy in the local press for a departed loved one, a fuller memorial for a funeral service, a This is Your Life type magazine for a 40th, 65th or 80th birthday or a full bound biography, there lies my new tomorrow.

I am home.

Or as John Lennon once said: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

NOTE: You can check out my new company at: http://www.writeahead.co.uk