Thursday, May 30, 2013

Big Brother Is Watching You

Elizabeth Zelvin

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, was published in 1949. I read it as a teenager in the Fifties and found it very scary indeed. I’d forgotten what a wonderful writer Orwell was. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book:

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. ...It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. ...

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the moustachio'd face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston's own. Down at streetlevel another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind.... In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people's windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.

It was a great relief to me when the year 1984 came and went without Big Brother and the Thought Police becoming a reality. It’s almost thirty years later, and in the US, at least, proponents of the Thought Police are still fighting an uphill battle, partly thanks to that unruly avatar of the proletariat, the Internet. But Big Brother is here.

I’ve recently watched the entire series Prime Suspect (1991-2006) with Helen Mirren on Netflix, and I was struck by how much information the police got from closed-circuit television (CCTV). According to Wikipedia, CCTV is more heavily used in the UK than in the US, but our recent history of terrorist attacks has made Americans more willing to relinquish some of their privacy—and the law more insistent on observing us.

Then there are the global positioning satellite (GPS) locators in our cell phones and tablets. I’m not talking about my traveling companion Sadie, who cheerfully recalculates whenever I make a wrong turn. But on my iPhone and my iPad, some app or other is constantly asking if I’m willing to let them identify the location where I am right now.

Then there’s the targeted advertising on the Web. Google offers content matching as an advertising option. What it means to the consumer is that, if I buy a pair of rain boots online or visit the fantasy sports site that’s my son’s employer—once—ads for rain boots and online betting follow me around for days or weeks, whether I’m researching crime in medieval Spain or comparison shopping for vacuum cleaners.

In September 2012, my blog sister Sharon Wildwind wrote a wonderful post on information silos. As Sharon said, “If I go to Wikipedia all the time, and you don’t, Wikipedia is likely to show up in my results as the #1 or #2 hit.” In other words, as a result of my past researching decisions, Google gets to play Big Brother, herding me through a narrower and narrower gateway and thus limiting my future ease of access to a broad range of information.

Every time I finish reading a book on Kindle, the device insists on asking me if I want to share what I’ve just read before it will let me close the book. Facebook constantly changes its algorithms controlling whose comments and pictures I see on my own page and how and to whom my messages reach others.

With cell phones, everyone’s a photographer. And with instant sharing, a headshot of me could be transmitted to thousands of strangers without my knowledge or permission. (In one of SJ Rozan’s recent books, a murderer was caught that way, by enlisting the detective's followers on Twitter and their followers to track him through the streets of New York.)

When I first became an online therapist in 2000, we were already talking about the “disinhibition effect.” Since then, cell phones have given license to the holding of intimate conversations in public, and social media to the reporting of the minutiae of daily life, even in the bathroom and the bedroom. In short, we are constantly exhorted to tell what we’ve just read, what we’ve bought, and what we’re doing right now. And for those who don’t care to share, Big Brother is on the job, processing the countless data breadcrumbs that we leave as we go about our lives.

At least Big Brother isn’t monitoring our thoughts or rounding us up—yet. As my 101-year-old Aunt Hilda (born nine years before Orwell) said the other day, “It’s a capitalist world.” So far, he’s just trying to make us buy, buy, buy.

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