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Jan 19

Written by: Greg Runyon
1/19/2010 1:47 PM 

Well, the happy day is almost here:  The red light cameras are about ready to go into service here in Cedar Rapids.  I can’t honestly say I’m pleased, though perhaps a small measure of my reluctance has been tempered.  I have plenty of reluctance to spare, though, so don’t anybody get too excited.


I credit our Z102.9 Schulte & Swann morning show for having a police representative on last week to clarify some points on the matter.  For example, I was pleased to hear (I hope I understood this correctly) that there is video as well as still-picture evidence being taken by these cameras, so the reviewer can have some help ascertaining what is going on when the still photo gets snapped.  Also, it was nice to hear the officer mention that as long as the light is yellow when you enter the intersection, you’re a-ok.  There’s probably a large grey area there in regard to timing, but that allays my fear about getting caught out there in a left turn lane with the light going red.


As I mentioned, though, there is still plenty to be less-than-thrilled about in regard to these cameras.  I think we are headed down a slippery slope in regard to freedom when we use technology such as this.  I heard a radio ad the other day (I listen to a lot of radio, and so should everyone, but that’s beside the point) for the OnStar product from General Motors.  The feature they were advertising was that if your car is stolen, and you have OnStar, somehow they can send a signal to your car and have the engine slowed so the police can catch the thief, or make the thief think the car is failing and abandon it, or whatever.  They can pinpoint the vehicle’s location and send the police to it.  Nifty, huh?


I truly think that that is pretty nifty.  It can help you recover your car in a theft situation, which is great.  This technology, expanded, could be used to create some pretty interesting possibilities for transportation:  Eventually, we will probably all just get in our cars, punch in a destination, and the car will take us there with no further input from the rider whatsoever, like individual mass-transportation, only no fixed bus stops or train stations to be bothered with.  You could read while you hummed along, or, more likely—if know my fellow Americans like I think I do—watch television.


However, in such a system, the likelihood is that certain destinations will be impossible to get to, or unsanctioned and therefore impossible to get to.  Maybe the government doesn’t want you to be able to go to the strip club, or the liquor store, or the adult bookstore and so you can’t be delivered there by your vehicle.  Or maybe on Election Day there is a failure of the system for all people not registered as members of whatever party is in power so, darn the luck, they couldn’t get to the polls (or had to work a lot harder to get there).


The fabulous Donald Fagan song “I.G.Y.” talks of such technology improving our lives:


A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We'll be clean when their work is done
We'll be eternally free yes and eternally young


The trick there, of course, is that the machine be “just,” and “programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.”  What is the likelihood of that happening? 


The police spokesman on Schulte & Swann that I mentioned earlier also said that they can repurpose these cameras in the event of a child abduction situation (Amber Alert) to scan license plates for a specified tag number, and alert the authorities if it passes one of these cameras with direction of travel and so forth.  Now, that sounds terrific, reuniting a kidnapped child with his or her family, but, uh, does that scare anyone else just a little?  The police, if they are looking for me, can monitor my whereabouts or my movements with their network of cameras.  This seems like a very powerful tool indeed, and one that will soon be expanded beyond looking for child-stealers.


You’re thinking (my network of brain-reading computer monitors tells me that you are), “The authorities won’t be looking for me, because I don’t do anything wrong.”  That may be true now, but with the quiet, trickling, ever-expansion of government, who knows when in-car nose-picking will with very little fanfare become a felony, and you’ll be Public Enemy Number One, and those cameras will be looking for you.


My point here is that, while I’m generally a change-is-good kind of guy, change must be well-scrutinized.  It is our duty when governmental agencies are making big changes to resist if they are not truly in our best interest.  These cameras, well regulated, may well be in our best interest.  But simply to accept that as fact because the police tell you it is so is wholly irresponsible.  I love the police.  I’m not kidding.  And I think the Cedar Rapids police do a fine job, and I support them in reducing crime and improving public safety without reservation.  But part of any government agency’s mission is to improve their budget status and make their job easier to execute, and that will not always be in your best interest.


I realize I may sound a tad paranoid with all of this, and most of it is probably stuff I won’t be impacted by terribly much in my lifetime.  By the time they get this technology extrapolated to nose-picking degree, I hope my biggest worry will be who that new young whippersnapper is that’s hosting the 2050 edition of The Price Is Right.


It has been said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.  Now, I’m not saying that these traffic cameras are evil, but I fear sometimes that much of our society is so disengaged, and that we accept things as inevitable as a matter of course, that we’ll just go along with diminishment of our liberties in the name of safety or security, all the while setting ourselves up for a difficult battle of undoing all of this should tyranny come to be, someday down the road.


Now I shall carefully don my tinfoil hat that will protect me from Obama’s evil brain x-ray machine, and go get me some lunch.



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