Days of stamps and letters

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

When the current President of the U.S. was elected in November of 2016, sales of the 1949 novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell skyrocketed by 20 percent according to the Washington Post. It was in the top ten on Amazon’s book list, according to Amazon.

The story of 1984 is a weird world in which the government watches and controls everyone’s lives. In 1984, words have different meanings than they once had, and there’s a lot of propaganda spewing forth via “Newspeak” and “double think.” These words were bandied about just as now in 2019 we get bandied with “alternative news,” “fake news” and a leader telling us “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people on fake news.”

Really, it’s enough to make one quit reading, listening, watching anything. I in fact know people who no longer keep up on the news and people who left the country in order to be less exposed to our news.

In our own era, it’s not so much the government that is looking over our shoulders, although the U.S Census does want to know if we have a toilet and may be allowed to ask if we are citizens; I don’t know what happens if we fail to answer those questions. And Homeland Security, that piece of Nazi-sounding bureaucracy established after 9-11, was asking librarians to tell them what books we checked out.

But corporations, they are on the prowl. Big business gets to use GPS and Internet, Facebook and other social media to track what we buy, where we go and what we say. It’s unnerving to send an email to a friend one day about shopping for bras and the next day get bra ads by the dozens down the side of my computer screen. And giant Amazon is aware of what books I tend to buy and is so happy to suggest to me only those kinds of books, as if I never intend to venture to some other shelf in their bookstore.

It is capitalism that wants to direct what we buy and the government that wants to control what goes on in our bedrooms. And it seems that foreign governments are able to get to us via social platforms, pretending to be someone we know, to influence how we vote.

We are bombarded by money mongers who think they are better because they are rich; and by power puffs (you read it correctly: not powder puffs, but power puffs) – people who puff up because they are in power and think it makes them better than those of us who are not; this can happen at the PTA level, at the city council stratum or at the heights of the highest office.

Both of these hubrises – wealth and power – have been going on forever, back to the beginning of recorded history and probably before that, although because it’s not recorded, we can pretend that maybe it wasn’t a problem before the written word. But the true problem now is not so much the age-old, over-weaning pride of the powerful and the wealthy but that they have such access to us under the guise of freedom and democracy.

Life is no longer simple, and we are not as smart as we need to be to counter either the subtle or the straightforward attacks on our privacy.

I contemplate ways to outwit them, those top of the line capitalists and those supposedly legally elected government folk who pretend they’re not right on top of us and our lives.

1. If I walk wherever I go and do not carry my phone, I am not being GPS’d. Although if I go into a store, I might be followed by a device – the store proclaims that the camera is there to ferret out shoplifters, but I think it is also there to catch us buying stuff and then it can pursue us on our devices to buy more. If nothing else, someone watching from somewhere is aware I’m in the store; I believe it’s called “face recognition.”

2. I can stick to snail mail. Rather than emailing, texting, phoning, Facebooking or so-forthing, I actually write a letter now and then, put it in an envelope, stamp it and walk it to the mailbox. To receive a personal letter in reply is a literal “Yippee!” As in days of old, when it was common, I wait till I have time to sit down with the letter, the letter opener that was my grandad’s and a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. It is a ritual of closeness and consolation – a friend’s hand penned the message.

3. I have not figured out how to travel afar without being followed in some way. I do not have a GPS in my car, but my phone is a literal tracer. Wherever I am, my phone tells me the weather. Someone inside that smart phone is following me.

4. If I fly, I’m giving out my personal numbers: Social Security, phone, email, address. Whatever they want, I give them so I can get on the plane.

5. I went on a major cruise, and every week for the past three years I’ve received an invite to do it again. Surely, cruise line, you must know that I delete you before reading? How about if you go away until I contact you?

There once was a sense of being alone that I carried around with me whenever I left Jefferson. Growing up in Jefferson was a little like life right now – constant surveillance. We were all watched by all mothers and businessmen in town as a matter of keeping an eye out for waywardness in youth.

But once I grew up, once in new towns, on new trails, in other states and countries, I was invisible. Anonymity was always a reasonable, if not talked about, reason for leaving home.

I no longer have that feeling of anonymity, of obscurity; I might as well be 10 years old, in Jefferson, 1953.

Wherever we are now, we live in Coventry, in a world of Peeping Toms. You’d think the world would behave better since we’re all being watched, listened to, spied on (someone just told me to cover the hole above my computer screen because whoever’s behind that camera lens could be spying on me). I do not believe this (well, I did cover the hole), and I also do not think we act better because we’re tracked.

Although maybe we act just fine, the majority of us, and it’s only that we have such access via devices to what bad folks in the world are doing that it seems the whole world is less well-behaved than before Big Brother and friends decided they’re better off if we’re watched.

Weird world.

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