Big brother is watching us because we asked for it – Huxley style

I have to admit to a certain cynicism about the age of big data – the age of online convenience where we can shop from home, buy stuff with the click of a button, and have it sent to us. Books, among other things.

But there’s a down-side. ‘They’ know what you bought – and while you might not care a whit about such things, that data is used to barrage you to buy more stuff. (‘You might like…’) Profiles are built from your online habits – profiles that might not be true, but which you get slapped with anyway.

Essential writing fuel!
“You look like you like coffee. Perhaps you might also like tea.” “Actually, it’s the wrong order.”

It’s something writers have to wrestle with. Say you’re researching for a book involving shoot-em-up action. Your online profile and book purchases make it look to the analytical algorithms that you have a deep interest in stuff that everyday people in most places around the world don’t, unless they have nefarious purpose in mind.

The reality? You want to write a compelling thriller novel.

What worries me is that the ‘false positive’ problem is compounded by a known cognitive illusion – the conflation between interest and identity, interest and advocacy. We assign guilt by association. The idea that interest might be abstracted doesn’t seem to enter the calculation.

There’s also the problem of where that data might end up. Not today, not tomorrow – maybe a few years down the track. History has plenty of examples of the innocent being victimised either on a 2 + 2 = 5 fallacy or because they have suddenly been demonised anyway. That last nightmare certainly came true for the Dutch. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Dutch census-takers began identifying ethnic groups. Innocent enough. Forty years later, their neighbours invaded and – hey presto! – there were ready-made lists of all the ethnic groups they didn’t like. Wham! (I still recall sitting on a Lufthansa flight out of Schiphol, a decade or so ago, when departure came to a grinding halt to mark the minute’s silence required on the day the Dutch remembered the holocaust.)

History doesn’t repeat in the specific, of course, but human nature seldom changes. There is a theory that we are framed, fundamentally, by a raft of behaviours that were shaped in old hunter-gatherer times – usually involving ‘us’ (originally extended kin groups, now abstracted as national, ethnic and abstracted identity such as sports teams or institutions) vs ‘them’ (other people). Apparently we can, cognitively, accommodate about 150 such people as ‘us’ – an idea first proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. According to that idea, a settled society puts a lot of strain on the whole mix because that ‘us and them’ concept is stretched so far.

Here I am standing beside a Haulmax, aka ‘bloody great big truck’. Can you conclude that I am a truck driver? Actually, no. But a ‘guilt by association’ algorithm might.

It seems to me that one of the outcomes has been the nasty behaviours that we decry, which have popped up time and again through history – the tyrants, the police states (which include Elizabethan England), the state-sanctioned bullying that follows the latest social panic (for the Elizabethans it was Catholicism) and all the rest.

What happens if that big data gets picked up and used by dark forces? My history studies convince me – sadly – that the dark side is the dominant side of human nature. Humans are innate bullies, because bullying is a winning strategy for self-validation. How can you lose, if you take away the ability of your target to defend themselves? We routinely rationalise our insecurities in ways that turn us into monsters. And the various expressions of human society frequently provide intellectual, political and social structures that sanction such bullying – intellectualised, rationalised, but ultimately all pivoting around such strategies, often then applied at institutional and state level. The monstrous evil of the totalitarian powers of the early-mid twentieth century was the industrialised expression of something that had been around forever. It was given apocalyptic scale by the application of industrial power – which made it look unusual. But I think the underlying issues driving it were still a reflection of a reality of the human condition. One we have to watch out for, because it can express itself in other contexts if we aren’t careful.

What does that mean for the connected age of big data? I often see predictions of an Orwellian future – Big Brother monitors our every move, every step. Technically that’s the case now, given the way behaviours on the internet are recorded. But there’s a difference. George Orwell (Eric Blair) modelled his vision of human nature on the way it had emerged in the early twentieth century – specifically, in Stalinist Soviet Union. It was an imposed future, crushing an unwilling people.

What we actually have is something else – something implied by Aldous Huxley, for whom a future dystopia would arrive not because it was imposed, but because society invited it to happen. People would want all the benefits of technology, convenience,  and all the rest. But it would come with a dark side. I think he was right. And I also think that such a future wouldn’t become obvious until it was upon us – we would sidle into it, driven by our desire to validate ourselves as individuals through the easiest path to that desire, because that is human nature. And then darkness will fall. Because that is also in human nature.

Can we avoid falling into the trap? It is within human ability to do so. I hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

2 thoughts on “Big brother is watching us because we asked for it – Huxley style

  1. Much of what you say has been on my mind, perhaps for different reasons but nonetheless, our thoughts are parallel. This morning, I read about “post truth,” a growing concern United States. So many believe that facts of what you decide them to be, including our President-elect. As the world watches, we find new ways to shock the entire planet. It feels dystopic to me. At the very least, it’s numbing, and yes, we asked for it but the world did not. Forgive me, Matthew, I am off on a tangent but it does seem we are living on the fringe of the dark side you talk about.


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    1. I think what you’re describing is part of the issue I mention above, the darker side of human nature. The issue of “post-truth” material worries me deeply. We seem not to be taught proper critical analysis, these days, the internet lends itself to unverifiablility, and the way the social media algorithms work seems only to create echo-chambers for viewpoints that become increasingly polarised, increasingly divorced from reality. It is as much a road to dystopia as Huxley and Orwell’s paths, and perhaps it is the one that will be followed. After all, both those writers operated at a time when the intrusive state also had fairly full control of sources of information if it wanted. Whereas now it’s been decentralised. Has that stopped people being misled? Not at all – and worse, the nature of that misleading, it seems to me, is a product of the human condition in its naked state.

      I haven’t engaged with the US political debates online, though I have had plenty of discussions with friends here in New Zealand, including people from the US who feel they have quite compelling reasons to make their home in a small island nation at the bottom of the South Pacific…

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