“Big Brother is Watching You” is the ubiquitous preoccupying message that kills even the idea of privacy in the all powerful totalitarian state of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The deeply insightful Orwell used his novel to alert humanity to the dangers of a state that could, like Oceania in the novel, exert absolute control of its citizens by convincing them that everything they did– and even thought—was being monitored so they could be disciplined—or disappeared– for any deviance from the party line—even the idea of a private thought had to be rooted out in the quest for absolutely control of human thoughts and actions.
While it is spooky to think of how prophetically the perpetual war in Orwell’s 1984 geopolitics is almost a running account of world news in 2016, the one big point that Orwell didn’t and couldn’t possibly have seen is that in 2016 Big Brother would not be watching through a network of spies and hidden cameras. In fact, in 2016 Big Brother(Big Government/Big Business) is scrambling to analyze all the information of every aspect of our lives that we are so willy nilly giving away in exchange for cheap operating systems in our computers, at-your-click information services and just about everything internet—it’s all cheap and comes with an enormous price tag.
For instance: I got a “free” operating system, Windows 10, with my new computer. I had Windows 8 on my old/crashed computer and I had resisted all the efforts by Microsoft to install Windows 10 over my old system—they were desperate and it was a lot of work to keep them and all their intrusive messages out. But the new computer came preinstalled with Windows 10 so it was pretty much take it or leave it. Why were they so desperate to install 10? Well I soon found out. Minutes after starting up the new computer up pops “Cortana”–a sort of blinking, sexy eye lids, soft/seductive voiced, computer generated, “helpful” Microsoft spy. “Hello” she said graciously. (paraphrasing slightly to cover for my aging memory)’My name is Cortana. I want to help you. You can ask me anything but first I’d like to get to know you better’—she said with the practiced seductiveness of a courtesan—‘so let’s start with some of your personal life and preferences’. …Woow! Or I should say oops! A bit too cozy for me—on a first date! So I went straight to Google (oh, my gosh, I was looking for privacy?!—and went to Google!) Anyway Google was quite happy to share the inside scoop on Cortana. Microsoft calls Cortana “a virtual assistant.” She’s a digital spy with an impetuous lust for your (my) data that Microsoft has engineered to watch, record and send a report on every keystroke, every mouse click, every word spoken in any proximity to a Windows 10 operated computer–well Cortana’s “classmates” are in just about all cloud based software systems.
I didn’t want to share my life with Cortana so I phoned a friend who knows about things digital and asked how I could break off with Cortana before this went too far. Well, he said, the truth is you can’t. What means “I can’t? Well it seems I can cool the relationship but Microsoft wrote Windows 10 and gave/forced it on PC users precisely to enable Cortana and a bevy of digital spies so it could enhance its seemingly falling behind ability to spy on people, organizations, and businesses. I could restrict some of Cortana’s mobility and effectiveness as a spy but I couldn’t actually divorce her from my digital life as long as I own my computer. Oh, my gosh, in trying to find out how to restrict Cortana’s access to my digital life I discovered that my computer doesn’t even have to be on for Cortana to be listening in on my conversations and reporting out! The reason Microsoft was so anxious to get Windows 10 out—and so belligerently harassing Windows 7 and 8 users is that—in Windows 10– it has invented the unstoppable spy. On learning that Windows 10 is sending thousands of reports on my computer activity back to Microsoft every day, I, then, went to the Microsoft disclosure statement, “…we will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary…” Remember when it took a court order to open a private envelope? Yeap, I’m pretty old!
Being in a bit of a fluster over this privacy affair with Cortana, I decided I need to get a bit broader perspective on this whole privacy thing that Orwell and I seem to have valued so highly but seems now to be so easily given up as though of no intrinsic value. Could we really have so thoughtlessly and easily have bargained away our privacy rights—rights that Orwell saw as key to our sense of a self that is not owned and operated by Big Government/Big Business? So I took the privacy question to a personal support group meeting. What, I asked, do those at the meeting think of this whole privacy issue? In light of how much is shared on Facebook and collected by Microsoft/Google/Yahoo etc is privacy still as important as it once was? How important is it today? How do you feel about the supposed bargain that assumes we are quite happy to sell our privacy for cheap internet toys? I was shocked. I was shaken to the core of my perceptions as the answer came back an overwhelming, “Privacy doesn’t exist on the internet!…Do you really want to pay out of pocket for all these “services” we get for nothing on the internet?” Yikes, I hadn’t anticipated this response—not from this crowd certainly.
Yikes, here I was, just a short week ago, thinking that I was 70 years young!—but I hadn’t even begun to imagine the implications of a world where a half-billion people make multiple social network postings a day; or where everything a person buys with any kind of digital payment or “rewards” is recorded and analyzed, where BB knows exactly where you are at every minute of the day, where all the juicy details of our lives is feed to huge machines that use complex formulas to group and digest, analyze and correlate with what everyone else is doing, thinking, feeling.
To call it Big Brother on steroids is to grossly understate the case. Imagine Cortana listening in on the conversations in my home long after I—theoretically—turned the damn machine off! They know who your wife is and all about her, even before she pops the big news they—especially Huggies– know she is pregnant again and her computer is filling up with ads and discount coupons for baby. They know what party you vote for and your favorite vacation sites and everything you thought or bought on your last holiday. They know you aren’t happy at work and have been quietly contacting potential new employers—you don’t know that your boss knows this as well and is already interviewing for your replacement.
The thing that worries/scares me about this brave new world where “privacy” is-of itself-an oxymoron is not only the Orwellian nightmare of big government spying on everything people do and think in order to prevent even the thought of change or rebellion against the elites, but—equally for me—it shakes me deeply thinking about how every human thought, word, action is now sifted for its potential commercial value; every human quality becomes simply a subset of commerce.
I remember, chillingly, sitting in a dental chair with the radio playing in the background as I tried to endure the smell and shrill grinding sounds of my tooth being pulverized when someone on the radio said something about climate change; which caused my dentist to lose his concentration, throttle back the drilling and in a most annoyed voice shout back at the radio (!) “When are you people going to get it? WE LIKE OUR TOYS!” I wondered then how we could have come to a place where our “toys” are more important than the health of our children and the planet they are inheriting from a generation that has seemingly surrendered its privacy and even its humanity in exchange for a cheap operating system and a few “toys.”
In researching this post I came across a website where it was argued “As people share more information about themselves online, the internet, in effect, has created a public transcript of consciousness.” But, I wondered (oh, gads, Big Brother is going to hear about this heresy) does all this e-sharing/spying constitute a “transcript of consciousness” or does it simply facilitate/celebrate the commoditization of consciousness?
In this age where “it’s all out there”, where Microsoft knows every question you ask, Google knows everything you are looking for and Facebook knows all your likes and friends what has become of the idea of a private live—a private life that generations before us fought for as the very foundation of freedom—a freedom that is more than just the freedom to buy and use up everything on earth –and even a personality that is unique and private?
The other question that was aggressively asserted in my discussion with the support group was “Why worry about privacy if you don’t have anything to hide?” Interesting that in an earlier age(still within my lifetime)—when it was still a serious offense to open mail that was not addressed to the opener—it was assumed that privacy was an a priori—self validating—value. One didn’t have to be hiding some wrong or sinister intent in order to have a “reason” to seek privacy. Privacy was assumed to be the default setting; the right to privacy was assumed unless it was explicitly given up-or the intruder had a warrant signed by a judge.
I seems instructive and disturbing to me that this end of privacy seems to apply to individuals but—most definitely—not to governments and corporations who, while wallowing in gleaned private information from individuals is adamant about its own privacy which it guards with all means possible. Where is the assumption that only the guilty need privacy when it comes to government and corporations?
Do governments and corporations assume that everything should be shared because anything not shared is sinister? Or is privacy a one-way street? The boogie man argument is raised that all this government spying is necessary to catch “terrorists,” but terrorists know they have something to hide so they know what to and not to put on the internet. In the end, wide spectrum government internet spying seems to be better at disrupting political opponents and community groups that seek a more equitable and sustainable world than in catching potential terrorists.
I am very interested to hear what others think of this new understanding of the value of having all of what was once private now open for purchase by the highest bidder. Do you agree that privacy is as archaic as the flat earth theory? Is it too late to turn back the pages to a time where privacy is the default setting? Or are we seeing the end of the age of privacy where, as was held in Orwell’s Oceania, “Secrets are lies, sharing is caring, and privacy is theft”?—or has privacy become simply a luxury for those who can afford it?
There is a thought that I didn’t bring up at the support group–a thought that troubles my dreams: When all is shared—what’s left? What remains when there is nothing left of the idea of a unique, private person? What is left when consumerism means that even what was once the realm of a private individual is now just another commodity? As people come to more and more accept the idea that personal information can be exchanged for cheap services, I can’t help wonder if this selling our souls for e-services idea isn’t a most dehumanizing and socially devastating form of prostitution.
“…to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity.” Orwell, 1984 “Ownlife”–what a concept; I am intrigued and dismayed when I ride a ferry to Vancouver and see how little “ownlife” left there is. Those who aren’t eating are, almost all, thumbing a digital reality where ownlife is rapidly becoming an oxymoron.
“Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there was still privacy, love and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason. His mother’s memory tore at his heart because she had died loving him, when he was too young and selfish to love her in return, and because somehow, he did not remember how, she had sacrificed herself to a conception of loyalty that was private and unalterable. Such things, he saw, could not happen today. Today there was fear, hatred and pain, but no dignity of emotion, no deep or complex sorrows.” Orwell, 1984