I am currently approaching the final pages of the acclaimed novel Nineteen Eighty Four.
At the age of 28 I am admittedly a little late to the party, but the delay did not affect the impact the story had, and that was to knock me utterly sideways.
The cause of my reaction is shared by countless people who’ve read it before me and that is the startling vision of the book; despite being written in 1966, there are astonishing parallels with today and so many contemporary references have their roots in the story. But it was one particular aspect of Nineteen Eighty Four which I found eerily familiar and was the impetus for this post; the use of technology to analyse people.
For those who have not read it, here’s the 326 pages condensed to 9 lines… Nineteen Eighty Four is famed for being a terrifying warning of what could be if the lower social classes became completely submissive and conditioned by a warped Socialist party to perpetually fund war.
Intense social stratification is practiced with everyone being relentlessly surveilled in their homes and dictated-to by the Ruling Party on behalf of the omnipresent leader, Big Brother.
Leafing through the pages on my commute through London last Monday morning I genuinely began to worry that Orwell really had seen the future and the domineering, controlling group he spoke of was actually personified by todays Analytics industry.
I got off at my stop and felt uneasy, I approached the towering building where I work and thought, “…yeah, pretty similar to ‘The Party’ headquarters”.
On my lunch break I read about Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” which deals with news, entertainment and art in a way that tries to steer and influence mass opinion and I thought “…yeah, thats what we do too, analysing people with a view to influencing them more effectively”.
By midweek I was seeing similarities between Orwell’s Telescreens which watch people and their behaviour and the countless analysis tools which my job involves to find, track and analyse people’s behaviour.
And to top it off, Nineteen Eighty Four plays out in “Airstrip #1”, an island off the west coast of Oceania, formerly named Great Britain.
Thankfully by Friday my girlfriend had reminded me that we do not reside in a dystopian hell and my profession as an Analyst in the communications industry had not been initiated by an author 50 years prior. I continue to irrationally disagree with the latter.
Listed below are some analysis techniques, which do you believe are realities in our 2016 and which are fiction in Orwell’s 1984?
- “Biometrics” is the statistical analysis of people’s behaviour or bodily characteristics and includes everything from the tone of our voice, the rhythm at which we type to the patterns of our brain processes.
- “Telematics” is the application of telecommunications data and informatics to control vehicles.
- “Personal Tracking”: wearable technology which records all aerobic activity and stores it in a central database.
- “Human Pattern Recognition”: A type of machine learning which looks for regularities in patterns of peoples movements.
Whilst all of the above sound like something which would be conducted by the Thought Police in Nineteen Eighty Four, they are in fact all a reality being practiced in many sectors today.
The Indian government has implemented the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) which is designed to track the population, assigning a unique 12-digit number called Aadhaar to each individual.
This number holds biometric data (fingerprint, iris and facial), along with demographic data (name, age, gender, address, mobile phone number). Recent quotes suggests that approximately 580M Indian residents now have Aadhaar status.
A few years ago in the UK, Tesco supermarkets and a firm called Dunnhumby established something which can be found in the wallets and purses of many reading this post. A wonderfully simple piece of plastic which records what you buy, when and how often.
When the founders of Dunhumby presented a pilot of their Clubcard data to Tesco’s chairmen Lord MacLaurin his response was thematic of Nineteen Eighty Four; “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years”. Rumours today suggest that Tesco’s Clubcard database conducts such powerful pattern recognition analysis that it can accurately predict any household need from cartons of milk to contraceptives.
Working in the Radio industry I relentlessly gather reams of data to help understand where, how, when and for how long people are listening to a particular radio station. Some tools gather and bucket people into broad trends and others allows me to locate individual people tuning in anywhere in the world. Ultimately, this allows us to offer a more individual Radio experience.
So its safe to say there is a stark likeness between the book and our reality. Admittedly twenty sixteen society is a little different to Nineteen Eighty Four, the UK is not a horrific dictatorship which wipes out free thought. But our constant obsession with analysing each other is dramatically similar and incredibly, Orwell’s mind painted our world over 50 years before it arrived.
In a way, the Analyst in me feels a guilty attraction to elements of Nineteen Eighty Four because the attention to human detail and pattern is so akin to how I spend my days.
But I suppose we should continue to treat the novel as a warning of the potential danger of analysing too many humans, gaining too deep a view of behaviour.
On this note its appropriate to end on todays news story that Apple CEO Tim Cook has refused to give personal information from an individual’s iPhone to the US federal government.
On reading the news article, someone in the office said “this is great, I like that Big Brother doesn’t get to control the contents of our electronic lives”, which I suppose is true, as long as Apple isn’t Big Brother…