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.