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"Orwellian" is a description so over-used it has become an almost
meaningless cliche. We hear it all the time, but no longer grasp its power
In part, the power of the story comes from the author's despairing view of
what technology might ultimately do to human dignity and independence.
His hero Winston had to contend with techno-abuse by a remote, vicious and
authoritarian government. The Big Screen was always watching him, even
during forced daily exercise sessions. He was expected to think and behave
in a certain way, and the punishment for trying to withdraw or remain
private was death or life in prison.
In our time, the invasive and ubiquitous use of technology comes more from
corporations than from heavy-handed government, so we perceive it to be
But companies rapidly acquiring new digital behavior-monitoring technology
can gather vastly more information about our personal lives or habits than
Big Brother ever dreamed of turning on poor Winston and the citizens of
The idea of Orwellian technology advanced so powerfully in 1984 (published
in 1949) has never been as relevant or timely an issue as it is today, as
decisions are being made all the time and with almost no public
debate or discussion that will affect elemental ideas about choice,
privacy and freedom.
Technology has long exceeded some of Orwell's gloomy predictions about it.
We live with Orwellian dramas every day that would send Winston diving out
of his monitored apartment window.
Remember all those TV screens beaming President Clinton's videotaped
testimony, in which his image was on every wall in the country saying
nothing? And wouldn't Big Brother have drooled over the invasive
possibilities of Caller ID, which makes it impossible in our time to even
change your mind about calling somebody and just hang up?
Then there was the journalistic Mindspeak surrounding those happy
McCaugheys from Iowa, still being hailed by journalists for their seven
babies, even as medical alarms about the awful risks taken in bringing them
into the world were largely ignored.
Unconsidered technology is dangerous technology, a point only madmen like
the Unabomber seem willing to talk about much in our culture. The problem
with our journalistic and media obsession about sex and technology isn't
just that it's exaggerated or hysterical, but that it distracts us from
considering the many serious issues technology does raise.
New software programs called Group or Collaborative Filtering (GF) are the
latest example of unthinking and disturbing technology, advances in
behavioral monitoring that cry out for public discussion and thought.
GF is digital software designed not only to sell things, but to monitor our
tastes and behavior so closely that companies can use the most intimate
knowledge about our lives to alter what we do or don't buy; that is, to
affect the behavior of acquisition, choice and taste.
Software developers are selling what even they call "Big Brother"
The November issue of American Demographics Magazine has a cheerful piece
about this new technology called "Reading Your Mind, Reaching Your Wallet,"
with this sub-hed: "This Big Brother technology records your buying habits
and tastes online. And it could be coming to a store near you." Chances
it already has.
As the online world continues to draw commercial retailers, many Web
companies use personal recommendation programs to convert lookers into
regular buyers. If you've ever been on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble,
Moviefinder, CDNow, or other established websites, you undoubtedly have
noticed that these vendors have personalized product recommendations for
you, based on the previous purchases you've made, or the purchases other
people have made that are similar to the things you've bought.
When I first encountered this on Amazon.com, I was enchanted by the idea
impressed by the technology. This is the Gee Whiz approach to technology,
epidemic in American life: "Gee whiz," I thought. "They can help me pick
Most of the book recommendations were pretty close to target, and I was
rattled to see that this Web site could choose books for me more precisely
than my wife could. But I stopped chuckling when I read the American
Demographics piece and saw that 40 per cent of all commercial websites now
use recommendation technology, and 93 per cent of those that don't plan to
add the application within the next year.
According to Jupiter Research, online sales could top $40.8 billion by
Suggestive selling, says the firm, could contribute 34 per cent of total
sales revenues within the first year of implementation. "It's direct
marketing to the n-th degree," says one New York City marketing analyst.
And to an Orwellian degree, too. Orwell's chilling vision was that
forces would use technology to monitor every aspect of our outward and
internal behavior to the point that we had no free will or privacy. In
making government the villain, Orwell never quite imagined the American
mega-corporation. Or did he?
American Demographic reports that collaborative filtering is soon to spread
from cyberspace to stores and supermarkets near you, where the checkout
cashier will be happy to remind you that the beets you always buy are on
special today, or that you forgot the skim milk you usually get, or that
your favorite laxative or toilet paper is on sale.
Reading this, I squirmed at my own lack of consciousness, as well as at the
growing power of these corporations to gather so much information about
myself and my family. For the longest time, it literally never crossed my
mind that companies were collecting, building and undoubtedly sharing a
growing digital file of all the things I buy, a file that was getting to
know me better with each purchase. Did I really want to get this close to a
Web site or supermarket, to share so many intimate personal and creative
experiences with to many different retailers? I don't recall anybody ever
Nor is there any law that keeps these companies from sharing the
information they collect with other retailers. Nobody who's been online for
long puts all that much stock in online security. An elemental law of
technology is that humans can understand and undo whatever humans can make
or do. It's hard to imagine it being worth anybody's time, but there are
hundreds of thousands of people out there who could get my 1998 booklist in
a nano-second if they wanted to. And soon, a complete list of the food I
buy as well.
And while our government isn't in an especially menacing frame of mind
right, it isn't too much of a stretch especially this year to
what some overzealous prosecutor might do with my Collective Group
Profile, should he or she decide to investigate me.
And what about the subtle directing of collaborative filtering on my
behavior? I'm only looking at the books Amazon's software has decided to
recommend to me. I might buy one of their recommended books without even
bothering to browse or search, thus avoiding all sorts of books I might
want, or that they might not know that I want (yet).
And do I want my hardware store manager to remind me that I'm almost out of
light bulbs or that I haven't got salt yet for the first storms of winter?
Like any good salesclerk, collaborative filtering sharpens its suggestions,
thus increasing the likelihood of sales, as it learns more about the
customer. But there's no law that keeps an online bookstore from sharing
its many burgeoning profiles of customers with the local mall down the road
orthat giant discount chain whose stores are getting to be as big as
Advocates of collaborative filtering praise the technology's impact on
and repeat traffic. Sixty-three per cent of Amazon.com customers are repeat
buyers, according to Net Perceptions, while a typical commercial site
averages 35 to 40 per cent.
And CF software makers are eager to move these new techno-marketing notions
off the Net and the Web. According to American Demographic, one software
company met recently with a major U.S. retailer that's evaluating the
of technology in its stores. The chain's average customer drops by every 21
days, purchases an average of 13 or 14 items per trip, and spends
approximately $75. If collaborative filtering software were in the store's
computers, it would read items as they were scanned at the cash register
shampoo, nail polish remover, and deodorant, for example and
instantly determine which other products were bought with these items in
the past: toothpaste, perhaps, or chocolate chip cookies. Printed on the
back of the customer's receipt would be coupons for toothpaste and cookies,
valid for the next 14 days.
Collaborative filtering is intriguing, even useful. But the fact that
American Demographic can joke so casually about "Big Brother" technology is
also revealing. It speaks to the American obsession with more sales all the
time at any cost whatsoever. And to the fact that we've agreed to surrender
so much information about ourselves without even giving the idea a tiny
fraction of the discussion we have daily about keeping Jane and Johnny off
the Playboy website.
The nature of the Internet is changing rapidly as middle-class consumers
wired and more and more people become comfortable with browsing the Web.
According to Jupiter, 42.5 per cent of people who've been online for two
years or more are shoppers; 28.8 per cent of people who've been online for
less than two years are shoppers, but only 20.5 per cent of those who've
only recently gotten online buy things there. This collision of so many
potential consumers with so much gee-whiz behavioral technology can only
mean the ability of corporations to observe and gather and share
information about us will evolve rapidly.
It seems a bit knee-jerk, even paranoid, to worry that giant retail chains
will gather vast amounts of personal data about all of us and use it to
over our lives. But it is undoubtedly true that technology is becoming less
and less of a choice, and more of an overwhelming reality we can't escape
from even if we want to.
Were the United States government gathering this material about our reading
habits, libertarians of every stripe from both the left and right would be
felling whole forests in outrage and protest. And there is nothing to keep
candidates or political parties from buying information like this or
gathering their own.
In the very linked age of computer networks, the trek from corporate to
government computer isn't a very long trip. Police agencies are already
using digitalized toll booth passes to monitor the comings of and goings of
suspects in criminal cases.
In America, capitalism has become a religion and ideology that surpasses
even technology. If we can possibly make more money, we do. Anything we can
invent, create or deploy in the service of that ideal is okay and moves
ahead with little attention from journalism or government.
Government de-regulation and the epidemic number of mergers, takeovers and
acquisitions has led to larger, more powerful and wealthier corporations
than would have been imaginable even just a few years ago. Their growth
parallels the rise of the Digital Age, when techno- marketing is giving
business news ways of studying and manipulating us that were not available
Even if ignored, the issues seem enormous. Do we have the right to buy
in private, and keep our choices to ourselves? Do we have the right to keep
our choice of mouthwash and toilet paper personal? If we wish, can we keep
some or all parts of ourselves and our identities private? Do we really
to surrender these choices without any public discussion at all? Can the
individual possibly stand alone with dignity and independence against these
gargantuan corporations and their overwhelming ability to observe us and
affect the way we behave?
Suddenly, Winston's drama seems less remote, less of a cliche, especially
his own exhausted reflections as he sat awaiting merciless justice in an
Oceania jail cell: "There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung
to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad. He was safe,
everything was all right. He fell asleep murmuring "Sanity is not
statistical," with the
feeling that this remark contained in it a profound vision."
Jon Katz can be e-mailed at email@example.com
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