You may think that Pramod is thinking like George Orwell! This is where the comparison ends. Orwell was a great British thinker whereas I am just a blogger! But from what I have been reading and what I observe things, are going to get quite complex. Similar to Orwell’s theory of big brother watching, a group of companies are jointly becoming this New Big Brother (NBB). No, they are not coming together or forming a cartel or a caucus, nothing of that sort is happening. But Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook jointly have a large amount of information about us, stored on their servers.
The adjective “Orwellian” connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth and manipulation of the past. In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell described a totalitarian government that controlled thought by controlling language, making certain ideas literally unthinkable. Several words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four have entered the popular language. “Newspeak” is a simplified and confusing language designed to make independent thought impossible. “Doublethink” means holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The “Thought Police” are those who suppress all dissenting opinion. “Prolefeed” is homogenised, manufactured superficial literature, film and music used to control and indoctrinate the populace through docility. “Big Brother” is a supreme dictator who watches everyone.
All the liberals and radicals in India had raised a hue and cry about Aadhar data going to Government. Firstly, we have been sharing a lot of information about us through Income tax department, when we get our PAN card or Election card made. Aadhar additionally took biometric data. Apple, Microsoft has been encouraging biometric recognition using thumbprint and face recognition, we have not even thought for a second whether to share these details with them or not. This is going to create a more secure environment, we were told. We shared this info with no questions asked!
The New Big Brother (NBB) is very powerful. They not only have our data but also have the wherewithal to use analytical tools and understand everything about us. Let me give a very intimate example, then you will know what I mean. Suppose a lady buys her sanitary requirements for her monthly period on Amazon. Amazon has her age and buying history, so don’t be surprised if she gets a reminder from them, “Hey, you seem to have forgotten to buy your Tampons!” Whether Amazon is using the data for such purpose, I don’t know, yet.
You have been always taught since childhood not to accept chocolates or biscuits from strangers or never to talk with them. Here you become friends with hundreds of near strangers and share your very intimate details with the whole world. People share their cell number on FB wall! Is it not risky in the cyber world? Fraudsters can cheat you, with your money; some people use this for stalking! There was a big scandal regarding data sharing and breach by a company called Cambridge Analytica! They were given data of US citizens by Facebook. This data was used to create a campaign against Hillary Clinton in her election campaign against Trump. Later on, it was found out that this company used data about sexual scandals to help a group of politicians in Sri Lanka! It seems the cyber tentacles have spread in all directions!
How can the NBB be stopped from taking policy decisions which can be against the right to secrecy? The option is for workers, many having entered tech company with idealistic rather than financial motives, to help regulate and restrict their own employers. Many have already begun to express regret over the effectiveness of their innovations, a phenomenon perhaps best exemplified by the Center for Humane Technology, led by the former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris. But the problem in this method is that the employees who are protesting or are whistleblowers are ultimately products of the same system that created the issue in the first place.
Less clear to most people, however, is the extent to which the companies that make the technology, apps, and browsers that we use are not just tracking but shaping our behaviour. Thanks to the border-breaking nature of these technologies, and particularly the smartphone, the success of the NBB companies has put an unfathomable amount of wealth, power, and direct influence on the consumer in the hands of just a few individuals – individuals who can affect billions of lives with a tweak in the code of their products.
Self-driving and electric vehicles are expected to come in a big way. These vehicles will use a lot of onboard computers. Any issue reported in the vehicle will be instantaneously captured on servers. Experts will analyze and create a software solution. The correction software patch will be released simultaneously to hundreds of thousands of vehicles. Great, no more visits to the workshop; next time you start the car the patch will be auto-downloaded. Does this bother you? No. But it bothers me. In the same way, the patch is released, a malicious person can send a malicious program and release it in the computers of thousands of cars. You just put imagination glasses on and wonder how damaging this can be!
NBB may be shaping our behaviour! This is where the fundamental democracy deficit comes from: you have this incredibly concentrated private power with zero transparency or accountability, and then they have this unprecedented wealth of data about their users to work with. We have allowed these private companies to take over a lot of functions that we have historically thought of as public functions or social goods, like letting Google be the world’s library. Microsoft runs our life by controlling the operating systems on computers. Android and IOS control our cell phone operating systems. Android has a remarkable share of 80% plus. Democracy and the very concept of social goods – that tradition is so eroded globally that people are ready to let these private companies assume control.
Democratic governments can be changed through elections but how can you change ways NBB works, with lack of transparency? But at the same time for NBB, everything is not a walk in the park. They are multinationals, incidentally all having headquarters in the USA. But they are answerable to all governments in the world. Zuckerberg faced the music in the US after Cambridge Analytica fiasco. He was called by the British Government but somehow managed to skip the “invite”! Sundar Pichai is being grilled by US Government about suppressing conservative views on Google search engine. European Union has been really pushing Google about their search engine monopoly. In China Google had to withdraw in 2010 because of censorship and other issues, thereby losing big business. The Indian government is pressurizing Microsoft/Amazon that cloud servers for Government data must be on Indian soil! They will have to relent, looking at the size of business that India operations can generate. Indian Government has been after WhatsApp and Apple about certain issues.
NBB is forced to use freedom available to multinationals with care and responsibility because they are being forced to become transparent in their dealings by combined efforts of whistleblowers and governments. These checks and balances will fall in place over a period of time.
Orwell’s theory of Totalitarianism gets challenged, every time we see somebody trying to control freedom. Indira Gandhi was forced to cancel emergency, Russian communism collapsed in the late 80’s/ early ’90s of the last century. Berlin Wall fell in 1989. How China and NBB fight with each other is a test case for the world. Both are trying to keep each other’s monopoly in check. Its early days of this battle but as computers become more and more powerful, as software becomes all compassing there can be spectacular battles. But as an optimist, I am sure the good will win in the end! By the way, I don’t believe in Orwellian thoughts!