Big Brother - coming to a screen near you close

David Hart
David Hart
In Musings
16th June 2010
Big Brother - coming to a screen near you

When I was a kid, growing up in the 70s, I had a comic book and in one of the stories the main character had traveled to the distant future (1999) where everyone flew around using jet-packs. All his meals were delivered in pill form, but tasted of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and the menial chores were performed by different shaped robots. The comic writers were right, in that technology has had a fantastic impact on our lives, but these clichéd predictions were sadly not to emerge.

In the 80s, at school we were introduced to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. In particular, Orwell’s 1984 painted a shocking picture where the state was able to eavesdrop on your every move. The government lied about the country’s economic output to keep morale high and censorship was a recurring theme. I remember reading the book around the actual year 1984 and thinking ‘thank God none of this happened’.

And although today, we have one of the highest CCTV cameras per capita in the world (in West Sussex there is 1 camera for every 2,000 people) and the government can intercept and record every one of our digital communications, I think something else is more interesting...  maybe it’s because it’s that time of year again where Big Brother comes on our screens for the summer that I'm thinking about this, but I reckon one thing that George Orwell and his contemporaries didn’t predict was the degree to which technology has allowed everyone to spy on everyone else. And there are a few developments and very small leaps of faith that make it easy to imagine a whole Brave New World of our own, where we semi-willingly enter into a state of “Total Transparency”.

OK, let’s consider a few tools out there:

  • Twitter – let’s you tell people what you are doing/thinking
  • Twitpic – let’s you take a photo and share that with the world via Twitter
  • Twitpic face-tagging – let’s you take a photo, say who’s on that photo and share it with the world
  • Foursquare – let’s you tell people where you are
  • Whoshouldifollow – tells you what sorts of people share the same interests as you based on your Tweets
  • Facebook – let’s you connect with Friends and also is a place where you can share your Tweets and Four-square updates. Also you can tag photos and videos.
  • LinkedIn – let’s you connect with business contacts and get introduced to contacts of your contacts
  • Twilert – allows you to set alerts to monitor people’s tweets and can be based on subject, person, location etc
  • Google Goggles – an Android-only application that allows you to identify items in a photo (such as a painting or a book). It has the potential to recognise faces but this functionality has been withheld over privacy concerns.

Working together these various tools could tell you a lot about a person.

Here is a positive application:

You are a printer who is going to a marketing conference. You set up a Twilert to find people who say they are going to the conference and either supply the printing trade or buy printing services. You also run a whoshouldifollow search to see if anyone else is thrown up with a similar interest. You follow them on Twitter. When you get there you check Foursquare to see which of the people you follow is at the conference. There are one or two that you really want to meet. You send them a DM via Twitter to ask if they want to meet up. But there are a lot of people at the conference and it may be that people don’t check their DMs, so you lookto see if they have been tagged on Twitpic so you can recognise them as they are wandering around and can introduce yourself. It would be unlikely that you would realise your shared interests or simply bump into each other at a conference, so these tools could connect people in a very useful way.

But here’s a more sinister application:

You’re in a bar, you see a few people that you want to meet. You do a quick scout of Foursquare and see that there are a few people there. None of the avatars are actually of their face so you have a quick look on Twitter to see if any of the people on Foursquare have Twitter accounts. Of course they do, and you check out the Twitpics that they have been tagged on. You can recognise one of the people in the bar. You run a Twilert on their name and scan through the last 100 bits of activity around their Twitter name. You deduce that they hate football but love Thai food. You go to their Facebook page and realise that you used to work with one of their friends. You see pictures of them with their family and see that they recently went on holiday to Egypt. You notice that they are single. You see what age they are and where they went to college.

I’m not sure there is a single application out there that would do all this for you yet, but I’m sure we could build one if we thought it was worth it. Depending on how we marketed it, we could either bill it as a tool for networkers or a tool for stalkers.

So in some ways this Total Transparency is great: it’s like a multi-layered, interactive dynamic business card. It can connect you in ways we could never have imagined and, to an extent, it can be controlled by the user. But on the other hand, if you want to participate in this super-connected world you have to accept that much of your life will necessarily be on display to everyone and this information could be used by less scrupulous people.

Just a final thought. Face-recognition is a technology that exists. Google Goggles is still in its infancy and the face recognition element of it hasn’t been rolled out yet, but like all technologies it’s going to get better and cheaper, and even if Google doesn’t do it someone else will. Surely it must only be a matter of time before someone can walk into a club, point their phone towards the face of someone they like the look of and every Tweet, Twitpic, Facebook photo and Foursquare location relating to that person is instantly downloaded for their viewing pleasure.

We’re all Big Brothers now.