Under Observation

Have George Orwell’s predictions of the future come true? If so, what are the implications for writers?

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Public Domain

On Boxing Day there was a post on our community Facebook page – had anyone found a small red drone in their garden; a Christmas present lost on its first trial. No one had, though the comments ranged from great amusement (mine included) to questions as to what his drone was doing over people’s gardens. His obvious answer was that he had not yet learned how to control it.

It was not long ago that we were excited to see our first drone. We were on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall; a dog walker, a few sheep, a man tending a crackling bonfire in the garden of his solitary house. A strange noise made us look up into the evening sky. We zoomed in with our cameras, not a UFO, nor the sort of drone that drops bombs, luckily, but what was it doing? Watching us? Is there anywhere you can go without being seen?

The next day we returned and drove up a road to investigate the tall mast on Caradon Hill that we had seen from afar. Warning signs said ‘Private Road, Access Only.’ We walked the rest of the way up the grassy hill, veering away from the unmade road, past the gigantic guy ropes – steel cables holding up the metal tower. There was a complex of buildings, entry by security pass only, CCTV in operation. Obviously a secret facility; we were being filmed and I expected armed troops to emerge at any moment to take us in for interrogation. The signs were headed by the word Arqiva; a sinister secret organisation for sure.

The truth was more prosaic when I looked the place up on Wikipedia.

“The Caradon Hill transmitting station is a broadcasting and telecommunications facility. Built in 1961, the station includes a 237.7 metres (780 ft) guyed steel lattice mast. The mean height for the television antennas is 603 metres (1,978 ft) above sea level. It is owned and operated by Arqiva, a British telecommunications company which provides infrastructure and broadcast transmission facilities in the United Kingdom and Ireland.”

But perhaps that information was a cover up; we only escaped arrest because they had identified us as civilian ramblers.

We are all being watched, all the time. CCTV cameras we know about, on buses, station platforms, in shops; though we don’t know if we are being filmed or watched live. Above us are police, military and coastguard helicopters.

It is not only people who are being watched, so is your vehicle. Drive down many main roads and your journey has been recorded by ANPR – Automatic Number Plate Recognition; if the car is stolen or of interest for any criminal reason it will be spotted. Police cars can now carry similar equipment.

Writers of thrillers or crime novels have a harder time than ever helping their characters hide or escape, though in fiction and real life criminals are often one step ahead of new technology; now drones are used to drop drugs and mobile phones into the exercise yards of prisons, thus opening up new possibilities for crime plots.

But you don’t have to be a writer of crime thrillers to take inspiration from galloping technology and spies in the sky. My favourite starting theme is ordinary people faced with the unexpected or the extraordinary. ‘What would happen if…?’ can lead to a humorous story or a terrifying tale.

On a balmy summer’s day a couple sunbathe naked in the seclusion of their own back garden, eyes closed to the sun, hardly aware of a buzzing sound above. Imagine their surprise when they see on Facebook a YouTube video taken by a drone dipping down over people’s properties and recognise their greenhouse and apple tree and more… How to stop their grandchildren seeing it?

Jake had another life his wife and boss knew nothing about and it would have stayed that way had he not shared a bus journey with a woman thirty minutes before she was murdered. On the national news that evening CCTV pictures from the bus filled television screens as police asked for witnesses to come forward. Jake’s wife wanted to know what on earth he was doing on a bus the other side of the city when he never travelled on buses and should have been at work.

A young couple were in a panic when their taxi for the airport did not turn up; their friend borrowed a mate’s car and promised to get them to Heathrow in time for their dream holiday. How could they have known that the car’s number plate was spotted by ANPR as they drove down the M4 spur road? As they emerged from the tunnel into the centre of the airport their only concern was to find the right terminal; until a police car pulled them up.

George Orwell wrote about the future and Big Brother has been watching us for a long time; but we don’t need to write about the future, it’s already here and the possibilities for writers are endless.

Janet loves writing novels, short stories and blogging. Her favourite theme is how ordinary people cope when strange things happen to them.

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