Big Brother in the Era of Big Data


Friday, June 21, 2013

In the days following this month’s NSA leaks, with polls indicating that half of the country was willing to trade privacy for safety, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed. CNN reported that copies sold increased by 10,000% several days after the leaks came to light. Faced with some hard facts about our government mining data by the exabyte, Americans have scrambled to reacquaint themselves with Orwell’s dystopian classic about a society governed by the all-seeing Big Brother.

Novelist Walter Kirn, who wrote about the dangers of surveillance in his 2006 novel The Unbinding, believes that 1984 is prescient, but that Orwell couldn’t have imagined the ways that the internet kindly, gently encourages us to offer up our own data. “Big Brother was a monolithic, dictatorial leader who seemed to have power for life,” Kirn tells Kurt Andersen. These days, Kirn contends, people are willing collaborators in their own surveillance. “We’re divulging a lot more than we used to and it’s being collected and sifted,” he explains.

Still, Kirn believes that Americans should be more troubled by the government’s data mining. “We’re now in the recording phase of surveillance. Our information is being grabbed, sifted, stored. We’re not yet in playback phase. This vast archive of information is being built up and at some point I think there might be a temptation to compete for control of it among people who would want power.”

Rather than 1984, Kirn thinks 2001: A Space Odyssey comes closer to capturing the technological dystopia we’re making for ourselves. “What we’re coming toward is a sort of automated society in which we question our own judgment versus the machine. And might at some day have to turn it off,” as the astronauts had to disable HAL. “Will we be able to? And will it, at that point, have so many responsibilities and be so in control that to turn it off will be to threaten our own wellbeing?”

→ What do you think — is Orwell’s Big Brother the apt fictional vision in the age of Big Data? Tell us in a comment below.

Comments [4]

Marc from North Carolina

Kim's comment that we are in the recording phase as it pertains to the government version of data mining seems appropriate. My concern, as most of the folks I know see this program as either benign or helpful at this point, is what this could evolve in to. We see a preview in the way our Internet experience is now shaped and customized for our individual profile. Again, most people seem to either ignore this or find it amusing when ads tailored to yesterday's search queries begin to pop up in this morning's news feed. It's subtle and perhaps that is what is most unsettling. We allow this erosion of our privacy and our rights because it's gradual and painless but it's rather clear that the new commodity is us.

Jun. 27 2013 08:19 AM
Christopher from Hoboken, NJ

Your religious prejudice is showing. No god, not even the "arbitrary, capricious" Greek gods, is more arbitrary (not to mention petty and vindictive) than the Old Testament Yahweh. You're just used to ignoring those bits.

Jun. 23 2013 02:20 PM
Archibald Buttle from Long Beach, CA

As I think of all the recent NSA revelations, I more fear Kim's '2001' vision mixed with Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil' version of '1984', with a dash of the classic Hitchcock wrong-man theme. When I encounter the more visible manifestations of tech profiling and automation, I'm just amazed at how inept they remain: All the ludicrous autocorrect and "Did you mean…" suggestions. I avoid Microsoft products for all their wanting to take me by the hand, automatically "knowing" what I want to do, and totally screwing it up. (I know what I want to do, just get out of the way and let me do it!) Although long gone, I always thought that that paper clip assistant thingy was the spawn of the devil. And then there are the endless Amazon suggestions of things I should buy that it feels are absolutely perfect for me, based on the one item I bought fifteen years ago for someone else and had absolutely no interest in myself. (I just want to shake someone and yell, "Quite pretending you're my best friend and know me perfectly. You're just an inept, transparent Eddie-Haskell-bot trying to get more of my money.")

I can't believe that the government takes any less inept short-cuts in analyzing the mega-terabytes of our information that flows past their contractors every minute. But in place of annoyingly personalized ads, these inevitable NSA blunders could result in any average citizen ending up on a permanent no-fly list or with an unmanned drone looming over one's shoulder or in a secret trial lacking any due process because, you know, that's so good at getting bad guys.

Jun. 23 2013 11:54 AM
JonM from NY

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, adds the consumerism and pseudo-freedom to the strictly controlled world of 1984. This makes it more relevant to the American experience today.

Jun. 23 2013 11:22 AM

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