Tag Archives: George Orwell

“Privacy is theft”, a warning about invasive technology

Technology is anything invented after you are born - Alan Kay, computer scientist

If Alan Kay is right, I live in a time with a lot of technology. I am part of the last generation of high school students who wrote their own book reports, instead of copy pasting them from the internet. I am also part of the first generation that  communicate with close ones in other countries any moment of the day and anywhere. If needed, with a couple of swipes I can access all knowledge of the world from my toilet.

Am I living in a dystopia or a utopia? The jury is still out on that. But Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle provides some compelling evidence that we are on the wrong way. Over the Christmas holidays, I read his smart novel about a top-notch internet company in which the attentive reader may recognise a type of Google. The Circle has become the leading firm thanks to the creation of a single, and verified online identity – with the Orwellian name TruYou – that allows you to sign in everywhere. This single online identity is the end of password remainder emails and internet trolling.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The hero of the novel, Mae Holland, is extremely excited when landing a job on the Circle’s campus. She quickly spends her time filling out surveys, her mandatory social media activity, attending all the social gatherings, and occasionally do a bit of work. Responding surveys, whether it is from her own clients as part of the customer relations team, or on the question whether more or less vegan options should be served at lunch, becomes a key part of her daily tasks: her opinion counts. As a result, she almost has too little time to enjoy all the amazing services on campus, ranging from free and high quality healthcare to organic local meals and concerts from famous musicians. Positive and optimistic slogans entice the employees to be active and creative.

It turns a bit nastier when Mae is told to pay more attention to her social media presence. At the Circle, all performance is assessed. All experiences must be shared, and status updates, comments and likes all count towards her Participation Rank (PartiRank). Participation becomes a daily task: it takes multiple hours to rise in the rankings.

The novel is smartly constructed, and it would be a pity to reveal all the details. I’d rather encourage you to read the story itself. But the message is clear: starting with benevolent intentions – ending internet trolling and protecting children, for instance – technology companies get to a position where they gather more and more information about all of us.

It’s all for a good cause: to share wonderful moments with our loved ones. If I want to make a hike in the mountains, aren’t I selfish if I don’t publish the pictures online, so my mother can see them from home?  Everything must be known, claims the lead evangelist at the Circle. And that quickly turns into an Orwellian situation. If everything must be known, are people allowed to have any secrets? Is any degree of privacy still allowed? ‘Secrets are lies’, says the Circle’s leader. And one more: ‘privacy is theft’.

Eggers’ book is a timely warning. We already live in an age where large companies have a large influence on our lives, and where individual technologies control more of our behaviour than we should like. Smartphone users, it seems, check their device up to 150 times a day. The only way to prevent a Circle-like dystopia is to protect ourselves. To turn off our smartphones. To disconnect from time to time, and to spend time in nature or with friends. Technology only takes over as much of our life as we allow it.

Utopia – the reality TV edition

Big Brother is watching you.

George Orwell wrote it in 1949, Edward Snowden revealed how sharp his eyes are only last year. But in 1999 in the Netherlands, and soon everywhere around the globe, everybody was watching Big Brother. The first daily reality TV show taught us that people behave, well, quite ordinarily when you lock them up in a house full of cameras for five months.

Reality TV has come a long way since.  For the latest hit, Big Brother’s creatorDutch media mogul John de Mol, has taken Thomas More instead of George Orwell as his source of inspiration. The concept of Utopia sounds amazing: 15 people are dropped in a freezing lodge for a year. All they get is a plot of land, two cows, twenty chickens and a nice 10k in cash to get through the first months. They’re there with one aim: to build a new society. Utopia!

Petty fights

Whether the group will achieve its goal is uncertain: “Ultimate happiness or complete chaos“, says the tagline. ”Will it be heaven or will it be hell“, asks the lead in the opening song. The format of the social experiment is intriguing. The show is basically 1960s/1970s commune meets 21st century reality TV. Most of the show is strikingly similar to its cousins of ordinary reality TV. A lot of the day is filled with petty fights caused by silly behaviour or miscommunication. Alfa male of the group, professional wrestler Emil, eats more than his ration; builder Paul, the self-appointed leader, loses his cool. Anybody leaves their dishes; housewife Vanessa loses her cool. Anybody says anything slightly critical; brilliantly cast ‘life artist’ Billy (a lady) loses her cool with all of them – cows included.

As a show, Utopia is a success. It has about 1 million viewers a day and the American rights have just been sold to Fox. Though the daily storyline is a bit thin, there’s enough to make a nice realistic soap. One of the problems is that some parts seem too scripted and staged. The 15 Utopians, as they’re called, are not as isolated from the outside world – or instructions from the producers – as the TV channel would like us to believe.

Human resilience

As a society, it is hard to say whether Utopia is successful. So far it’s characterised by a bit of daily progress and a dose of bigger and smaller fights that ensure that the show won’t be taken off air. But some Utopians get enough of the fights, the hunger and the cold. Two have left already.  The biggest problem is that the group lacks a common goal. Full democracy is a laudable goal, but the group is too diverse and insufficiently strategic. Some people are there with a clear intent to build a different world. Others are more down to earth and just want to have fun or be famous.

Overall, the group show an amazing resilience in front of their problems. Their lack of food, heating, loved ones and all basic amenities of daily life – worst, no wifi! But still, the negative moments are countered by others positive ones. The regular pep-talks following the crises take them to believe in their community again.

A real Utopia does not exist. But maybe Utopia only arises from a constant battle of positive and negative energy – the interaction of happiness and chaos.

Promo, in Dutch: