Devices listen to and record your every word.  Video cameras record your every action.   Automated systems track everything you read and every place you go.  Video screens beam tailored messages at you to control your thoughts and words. 

A vision from George Orwell’s novel 1984.

And a vision from life in the 21st Century?

Orwell envisioned a nation in unending war, with a ruthless government watching and tracking everyone, and doing its best to control people’s thoughts and actions.

Many parallels today: 
  • the United States has been in continuous war for over 15 years, with military deployments in 180 nations around the globe, and fear of terrorism drives ever more invasive security measures;
  • a government intelligence organization tracks every phone call and monitors many of them;  
  • city governments increasingly deploy video cameras to track traffic and do surveillance;  
  • police organizations track social media use by citizens;  
  • automated license plate recognition (ALPR) track movements of virtually every car using a public street or highway.
More technologies are emerging:
  • “smart cities” promise networks of sensors which monitor traffic, electric networks, water grids and other infrastructure;
  • “stingray” and similar technologies allow monitoring of cell phones and impersonating cell sites;
  • facial recognition tied to video cameras means no one can be anonymous outside their own home.
  • At the same time the democracies of the world have placed significant constraints on their governments.  In the United States, a 228-year-old document still protects freedom of speech, the right to carry guns, and the right to a free press which can – and does – often oppose government actions.  Freedom of information and public disclosure laws require governments cough up a wide variety of information about their plans and actions.   An independent judiciary places restraints on executive actions ranging from funding of education to limiting police power to take and use information in cellular phones to staying executive orders restricting travel. 
On the other hand, technology has allowed private companies to reach further than ever into our personal lives:
  • People willingly tag the faces of their friends on Facebook and Pinterest, unknowingly building an enormous global facial recognition database;
  • Users allow mapping services to track their location, search engines to track their browsing behavior and online shopping sites to track their interests and buying habits;
  • People allow Google to search their email and text messages to “better index them for later search”;
  • Our mobile “smart” phones have ever-increasing features such as accelerometers and voice-activated assistants (Siri), and location-tracking;
  • Google and others send vehicles with cameras worldwide to capture street views of every residence and business building – and, in addition, collect information by monitoring all the wi-fi networks discovered along the way;
  • Our televisions also watch us, as LT “smart” TV sets and the cable and wireless television services monitor and report everything we watch.
Again, significantly more intrusive technologies are emerging:
  • Homes are getting “smart” but also snoopy, as everything from thermostats to refrigerators to televisions to human beings ourselves (in our clothes and wearables) are being connected to the Internet, and a “thousand points of data” are being collected every minute;
  • sensors in vehicles track speed and movement, detecting every dangerous maneuver and violation of the law, and send it all back to insurance companies so they can “keep our premiums low”;
  • sensors in the human body monitor and control heart rate, blood pressure and insulin levels, but also send all that data and more to remote monitoring centers and, again, insurance companies;
  • Voice-activated devices such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home promise to be our servants in every room of our homes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – but they are also constantly listening to our every word.
  • And all these companies are selling information to each other, building massive dossiers on every human being who lives in a developed nation.

Finally, looming in the wings, waiting to make its appearance on stage, is the Singularity:   that point in time when machine intelligence becomes self-aware.   Such a superintelligence will rapidly evolve, far surpassing collective human intelligence.    Would it be benign, supportive of the human beings it created, or disdainful and aloof from the carbon-based life-forms which spawned it?

Should we fear Orwellian Big Government? 

Or should we instead fear Orwellian multi-national private social media, healthcare, finance and insurance companies, each of whom is in never-ending pursuit of the almighty dollar, and to whom we willing give up our data?

Or should we fear the Singularity, the machine superintelligence which may be in our future?

About The Author

Bill Schrier is the former Chief Information Officer of the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department, and resides in Seattle. He tweets at @billschrier and blogs at schrier.wordpress.com.