Most people don’t know their history. And even if they know the basic facts, they may not truly grasp the extent to which humans have stayed the same throughout the ages. Hence when something happens in the world, large crowds jump up and down, claiming this or that development is totally new. People that do know about history usually yawn at such enthusiasm. They know that the world is a pretty big place and that humans have been building societies for a pretty long time. In some circles, merely to claim some development is without precedent can be enough to be labeled as thoroughly unsophisticated.
And yet I still believe the extent to which governments will soon be able to snoop on their citizens is unprecedented.
The 20th century saw a few attempts at creating the all-seeing state. The former DDR, the former USSR: they’ve tried to see what every citizen is doing, sometimes at a level of detail that makes us laugh when we read accounts of their efforts. The cost and labour involved in such an effort made it not worthwhile for anything but the most determined police states, and even for them it didn’t work in the end. The 20th century also saw widespread fear of such a state (best embodied in George Orwell’s 1984) come and go.
But where I live, all the tools needed to create the all-seeing state are being installed here and now. Even though my present government doesn’t look like the evil police state that I thought would come first, it is nonetheless its clear and even stated aim to create a world where no movement of ideas, people, vehicles, money or goods happens without that fact entering a police-searchable database. This year we will be getting personalized chipcards to be able to use public transport. There are already cameras to see license plates, cameras for the police to watch entire neighborhoods and soon everything I do online will also enter a database.
The Netherlands may be pioneering some of these developments, but similar things are happening all over the world. Given how intimidating all of this feels to me, I can only begin to imagine what it must feel like to the inhabitants of Myanmar/Burma, Belorus or any other true totalitarian dictatorship.