George Orwell wrote in the epic novel 1984 the unsettling story of Oceania, a fictional place where Big Brother and the Party scrutinize every move made by its citizens. The timing couldn’t have been better for Orwell to write such a tome, as the Cold War was ensuing, and totalitarian regimes had been swept to power.
If anything, he instilled fear among the citizens of the free world or what was left of it, for it was an implicit warning of encroaching governmental power and the dissolution of privacy. Our protagonist, Winston, was left to his own devices to defy Big Brother and the ban on individuality as he pursued a relationship with Julia. In the end, he had to face his opposition.
While Orwell’s dystopian world never quite happened the way he saw it, he did predict the era of a “telescreen” that could spy on household occupants. He just missed the mark on who would be behind those telescreens, as it wasn’t government but rather corporations. Oh, and whereas individuality was banned in 1984, today individuality is championed and tracked as Marketers seek to know each of us better, not to control us, but rather to sell more stuff to us.
Because we have become the product. And Big Brother…I mean corporations…are using our TVs to track everything we do.
We have been quick to embrace technologies and services that make our lives better, and the prices of these things range from free to ridiculously cheap. It’s just that the cheap price is a subsidy to us, paid for by Marketers wanting to know our every move.
Today’s smart TVs are case in point, as prices have dropped far lower than what economies of scale and technological advances would have predicted. It is now possible to buy a 65″ smart TV for less than $600, something no one would have dreamed of a decade ago. But how can they do it? Simple. TV manufacturers are selling our data to third parties salivating at the chance to know us at an intimate level, and be able to market to us one-to-one.
The crazy thing is, I don’t think many people even care.
After all, we have grown numb to the number of products and services already spying on us. We have grown accustomed to the omnipresent telescreen of technology following every move we make. From Facebook’s data breaches and dealings with Cambridge Analytics, to their efforts to pay people to download a tracking app on their phones, to Amazon and Google devices with microphones, to judiciously retargeted ads based not only on our web surfing but also our conversations, we have come to expect that someone is watching or listening.
It’s the price we pay to be able to use Facebook, to have inexpensive digital assistants, to have amazing home theaters that come ready to stream whatever our hearts desire. Our lives seem better with these things, and I doubt we would want to pay for the privilege.
The only problem is that the product that is us has a bargain basement price. At Facebook, each user was worth $6.05 in revenue last year. At Amazon, an Echo 2 lists for $149, a cheap price to pay for a microphone that lets Jeff Bezos listen to our pillow talk. And that massive TV, even at nearly $600, is a steal, even if we become Winston in the process. We may as well be naked.
While Orwell’s 1984 was entertaining and scary at the same time, he just didn’t see Big Brother being the watchful eye of corporations rather than the Party. Whereas Winston, Julia, and the citizens of Oceania were unwilling participants in a political power play, today we all go willingly.
But dystopia by any other name smells the same.
Dr “I’m Worth More Than $6“ Gerlich