Going back to 1984

Movies often deal with “epic” stories of friendship, compassion, and long existing traditions that aim at putting back trust in mankind in our hearts as we are watching them. Quite often the scenarios are based on true facts, albeit romance is being used to make almost insignificant facts shine in golden Hollywood glory (a good title helps too).

Such a fact that could be easily turned into romance is for instance a tradition which exists in one of the oldest French engineering schools: long ago, a student decided to go and see his fiancee despite the strict rule forbidding leaving the grounds during the night. He jumped over the wall to meet her, and later came back the same way, but ripped the first button of his uniform in the process. The button was found by a professor, and the next day all the students were asked to line up, in order to find the culprit. The students did line up, but all of them ripped the same button so that nobody could be identified. Two hundred years later, the students still do not use that button, in memory of this glorious past of fraternity.

These stories have entered the small and big history, and their protagonists are revered as heroes. This is the case for the resistance in Europe during WW2, or the brave US independentist soldiers fighting against the British, but in all cases, the image of the rebel/revolutionary going against “the powerful” is filled with envy, romanticism, and glamor. So why do we insist in behaving exactly the opposite in our day to day life?Not only do we do nothing to help those who live an alternate life, we will in general tend to actually help the all-powerful entity against them whenever we can. I am not saying that we should not help the police track criminals. But behaving like an angry mob ready to pull out the tar and feathers each time someone steals an apple in front of us is far from being glorious.

With the advent of the internet, cheap vigilantes have appeared. Cheap as they do not need to show themselves to participate in what they see as a lawful occupation. No danger: just the thrill to feel important by giving someone away. A couple of days ago (June 2011), riots erupted in Vancouver Canada after the local ice hockey team lost to their visitors in the last game of the season. Sure enough, going rampant in the street burning cars, bins, and breaking window shops is not something I would congratulate you for. However when the very next day, random people started using online social networks to identify the participants in said riots and give their names to the police, it sickened me. I would not mind if anyone had done that to help inquire on a possible bodily injury, but there is a huge difference between a broken window and someone being assaulted… The police had already arrested more than 100 individuals… why not stay at that rather than wanting more blood? The very same mechanisms that led to the riots in the first place (mass behavior and global stupidity after frustration) were once more taking place… only at the electronic level!

When people read George Orwell’s novel 1984, they often conclude that Big Brother is a computer. While I do not necessarily agree, I assume this is due to its capacity to analyze everything happening at once everywhere, in the lives of every citizen being monitored. The world depicted in this book is seen as the ultimate form of dictatorship, where no opposition is possible, since even the words to express it start to disappear. But are we not already creating ourselves this form of government, willingly and against ourselves, by adopting the attitudes I have just described? Now that we have the technologies that could enable us to really spy on everyone using a computer, we can in fact see that the eyes and ears of the central intelligence are actually… all of us! So instead of trying to be vigilantes for poor reasons, we should think a bit more about what we want our lives to be: being able to live it freely and accepting incidents, or living totally sterile lives where we fear the stare of the others behind our backs? Many governments in the past (and the present…) have relied on their individuals to spy on one another (Ceaucescu’s Romania and Ben Ali’s Tunisia come to mind). But in these regimen, state and education were targeted at that: the paranoia of their leadership had changed the people. What is really sad is to see the online community following this pattern without even a second thought about it. Benjamin Franklin once wrote “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both”. Such little security should be precisely the trigger between acting like a group of vigilante, and acting responsibly.

As for the Vancouver situation, if something like this should ever happen again, we should start “tagging” (aka identifying) ourselves everywhere, especially if we were on the opposite side of the earth when the events took place. This could be the modern pendant of the modern finger-pointing/tar-and-feathers attitude that some have been quick to adopt and adapt to the online world.