Big Brother or big brother?

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 The Indiependent, 15th August 2014

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”
– 1984, George Orwell


Since the dawn of time, or at least since the creation of budget horror movies on Channel 4, we have been terrorised by the idea of being watched. The ambiguous threat, that of simply being observed, is one that penetrates to the very barbarian core of human nature. From toddlers crying about the monster under the bed to the adult fear of walking along a darkened alleyway, we are most scared of the unseen menace – the menace that can see us.

Strange then, that the internet gluttony of the modern age should be financed, driven and motivated by the very same action of covert observation. It’s certainly no secret that the gratuitously provided Facebook, Google and Twitter make their money by watching what we do, where we click and what we buy – and then advertising to us what we are likely to want. Given the recent international news coverage, it’s also common knowledge that our online habits and conversations are recorded and sent to security agencies across the globe.

But somehow, we don’t care.

Of course, sitting in our PJs on the sofa, watching a trashy rom-com on Netflix, the all-seeing eye of the online corporations is veiled, abstract, and somewhat less threatening. And there are those who say that the benefits of the internet are simply the products of trade-offs, made with our civil liberties. Yes, our browsing history is analysed to give us specialised advertising, but we are presented with products we might like to buy. And yes, a bureaucrat in America might read our messages, but he will also read the messages of terrorists who threaten us. We’re not obligated to use the internet, but when we do, it’s in the knowledge that we’re not operating in total privacy.

Put like that, Big Brother is looking less like a malicious force and more like a friendly, well, big brother: looking after us. Shouldn’t we be thanking him, and not dragging him through the dirt? Doesn’t Edward Snowdon deserve to stay in Russia, for spoiling all our fun? Why are people making such a fuss?

Well, it’s partially about disclosure. Many argue that if Facebook wants to collect our texts and our clicks and pass them up to the NSA, it should be up-front and honest about it. If the destruction of our liberties is requisite of a useful online service, we should at least be told. In the same way, we might not be too pleased to find our postman has been reading all our letters as payment for trudging them to the front door.

But others are more critical of the hidden costs of surfing the web. If the state is watching everything we do online, they say, that represents a very damaging attitude – that the citizens of a state are the property of its government, and that law enforcement is more important than individual freedom. It’s a quandary which has had some turning to literature for answers.

“Does Big Brother exist?” asks Winston, the protagonist of Orwell’s 1984, whilst rebelling against his totalitarian government.

“Of course Big Brother exists,” his adversary Winston tells us, “The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.”

There’s a school of thought that sees internet surveillance like this, as indicative of an entrenched governmental mind set, where citizens can be coerced and lied to. Of course, this has very severe political consequences, and the majority of academics tend not to see it in such a cynical light. Another of the classic dystopian novels, Huxley’s Brave New World, presents the future with a government that controls people by giving them what they most want. This, to me, seems more representative of the deep link between internet culture and consumerism. The sidebar advertisement money pays for the searching and messaging and tweeting.

But hang on, you might reply, isn’t that just the ol’ slippery slope fallacy? Just because we have pretty well-tailored advertising, and we’re sharing our messages with a hidden third person, does that really mean we have a Thought Police? Don’t the values of liberal democracy, debate and the free exchange of ideas pretty much negate any effect of government eyes and corporate product-pushing?

Well, probably. As with any computer-related advancement, people are tripping over themselves to proclaim that Big Brother is here, we’re all being watched, and the end is nigh. But next time remember that you’re less likely to be watched by the monster under your bed, and more by the mobile phone beside it.

This piece was originally published here in the online magazine The Indiependent

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