1984 in 2017

By Brent C. Elder, Ph.D., Rowan University

“Big Brother is Watching You.” — George Orwell, 1984

I have recently noticed a certain accessory appearing on my colleagues’ computer screens. Some choose a sticker with a cartoon character on it, while others cut up a small piece of the sticky part of a post-it. Regardless of the design, these decals end up in the same place— covering the camera on their computers.

Perhaps it is the tech paranoia induced by Edward Snowden. Or maybe it’s the flood of Kellyanne Conway microwave camera memes online. Either way, I now have sliced up post-it notes protecting me from the uninvited gaze of Internet hackers.

While I have taken to minimize the intrusion of cameras in my world, a mother in Milwaukee has taken modern surveillance in a completely different direction. She has designed a drone to help “track” her daughter who has a label of autism. Christine Carr calls her creation “Nonni,” a blend of the words “nanny” and “mommy.” Nonni uses facial recognition technology, and can be programed to turn on if the targeted individual wanders out of a specified parameter (e.g., backyard, living room). It can also be individualized to provide a pre-programmed verbal prompt to redirect a wayward person. This calls to mind the omnipresence of the telescreen of Orwell’s 1984 by which Big Brother kept everyone under surveillance.

Proponents say Nonni could add another pair of eyes on vulnerable people (e.g., children and adults with disability labels). While this sounds like a wonderful tool to help keep certain people safe, what about the implications of this overreliance on technology for hyper-surveillance? What do we give up when we invite drones like this into our lives? People with visible disabilities already live in a world where their every move is scrutinized and judged by the able-bodied masses. How can the safety of the person be assured without resorting to the ever present eye in Nonni? What does Nonni say about paternalistic attitudes towards people with disability labels? Where is the line between invasion of privacy and safety?

We often hear calls for increased camera surveillance when police wrongfully shoot a person of color. We look to place cameras in every classroom to hold teachers more accountable for the outcomes of their students. We all live in a world where everyone has a camera in their pocket or handbag. Does this technology actually create a safer society? Does it hold some people more accountable for their actions? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t have the answer to these questions, but I for one would feel a bit creeped out if I had a drone following my every move. For now, I’m sticking with my post-its.

For more on Christine Carr and her Nonni drone, check out this link: https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2017/05/17/mom-designs-drone-track-wander/23719/