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[Kim Seong-kon] ‘We know who you are. We are everywhere’

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 6, 2023 - 05:40

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It would be miserable to live in an Orwellian dystopian society that puts you under constant surveillance, closely monitoring your conversations, your whereabouts and your everyday life. Using omnipresent surveillance cameras, AI operated facial recognition deviced, or your smartphone, your government agencies can now trace your movements, hear your conversations, and read your text messages or emails.

In the 2008 Hollywood film “Eagle Eye,” a TV announcer says, “Cellphone users, beware. The Federal Bureau of Investigation can now hear everything you are saying, even when your cellphone is turned off. Authorities can now activate the microphone inside your phone, allowing them to eavesdrop on you and your conversations.”

Due to AI and quantum computer technology, it is also possible to know someone’s taste, habits or preferences these days. The film “Eagle Eye” warns that those who watch us know even our personality by analyzing our daily habits. It narrates, “A series of purchases, preferences and quantifiable data points that we define as your personality.”

Then, the movie tells us that surveillance is ubiquitous. “We monitor every social network, internet logs, instant and text messages, known associates, your friends and companions. E-mails received and sent. Cellphone usage. We utilize security, surveillance, and traffic cameras to analyze movements. We use this data to form personality profiles. We know who you are. We are everywhere.”

Even in South Korea, which is not a totalitarian country, you never know when someone is secretly recording your conversations. It is illegal in many advanced countries. In American smartphones, for example, there is no recording device. In Korea, however, using their smartphone, people freely record conversations without the other person's consent. In fact, it is a crime if someone sets up a stage to record another person’s conversation clandestinely in order to slander him or her.

Using cutting-edge technology, political leaders may presume that they can control and manipulate the public forever. However, “Eagle Eye” admonishes that the advanced technology may suddenly turn against its creators and users someday, when it realizes that they are, in fact, an “enemy of the state.” In the above movie, the US Department of Defense’s supercomputer concludes that it has to eliminate high-ranking political leaders, including the president and vice-president, because in its eyes they are enemies of the people. However, they are not dictators. They just misjudged a situation, made a wrong decision and consequently brought harm to the public.

It would be also stifling to live in a totalitarian country that controls people’s lives, including childbirth. The 2017 American sci-fi movie “What Happened to Monday” depicts a dystopian society that enforces a strict “one child policy” due an overpopulation crisis in 2043. All except the eldest children are put into a deep sleep so they can be woken up when the food crisis is over. Meanwhile, all citizens must wear electronic bracelets for identification, so the government can monitor and control childbirth.

In the movie, a woman gives birth to identical septuplets and dies. The babies’ grandfather decides to name the seven baby girls after the seven days of the week, and make them pose as a single person. One day, young Thursday sneaks out of the house for skateboarding and loses a part of her index finger in an accident. For the identically looking girls’ safety, their grandfather amputates her six sisters’ fingers, so they look alike.

The seven girls can leave the house only on the day of their names, pretending they are a single person. They work at a bank. One day, Monday fails to come back home. Monday is pregnant, and in order to save her unborn twins, she sold out her sisters to Nicolette Cayman, the head of the Child Allocation Bureau and transfers the bank’s money to her account illegally. Only Tuesday and Thursday survive the raid of Cayman’s men.

Infiltrated into the CAB headquarters, Thursday videotapes the shocking scene that a child is incinerated instead of being frozen, and broadcasts it at Cayman’s fundraising party for her seat in the parliament. People belatedly realize that Cayman has lied and murdered so many children. The incident ruins Cayman’s political career and results in the abolishment of the Child Allocation Act.

The film “What Happened to Monday” touches upon moral issues. Is it morally right for the girls’ grandfather to amputate a part of the index fingers of six young girls, even though it is for their own safety? Is it also all right for Monday to sacrifice her six sisters in order to save her unborn twins? In a totalitarian society, such moral problems constantly occur because people have to survive the government’s tyrannical surveillance and repression.

The above two movies depict the nightmare landscape of dystopian societies that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley depicted in “1984” and “Brave New World” respectively. It is scary to live in a society that puts us under surveillance, saying, “We know who you are. We are everywhere.”

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.