Is Big Brother Watching Us?

Photo by: Chris Yiu

Fingerprint detector, facial recognition, cookie web… 2017’s new way of tracking us is the through the iconic LED Piccadilly billboard, owned by Land Securities. A complex system of high-tech hidden cameras strategically placed all around the famous square will detect the type of cars passing by, along with the drivers’ and pedestrians’ sex, age, style, and even mood, in order to target ads! In addition, Piccadilly will provide an extremely appealing public Wi-Fi service, which will also be used to track and target the countless unsuspecting internet users. This implies a head-to-toe screening of about half a million unaware victims that pass through the square each day. Among the companies that signed up to have a space on the billboard are Coca-Cola, Hyundai, Samsung, and L’Oréal. The upgraded screen will first be implemented this year during the Christmas season, and – if proven to be successful – it will be expanded to the entire national territory. The Big Brother Watch, a British movement defending privacy rights and civil liberties, already expressed its concern on this massively invasive so-called marketing strategy, advising anyone who wants to preserve his or her own privacy to “categorically” stay away from Piccadilly.

The Big Brother Watch group derives its name from George Orwell’s famous novel 1984, one of the two most visionary dystopian novels of the 20th century. In fact, 1984, along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, describes the author’s personal view of a dystopian society. The two books deal with the same topic in two very distinct ways. The social critic Neil Postman wrote that in Orwell’s society “people are controlled by inflicting pain,” while in Huxley’s society they are “controlled by inflicting pleasure.” More specifically, the first one is strongly driven by fear, while the second one is too distracted by amusements to realize it is actually being maneuvered. The two opposite, yet so parallel worlds might be seen by the reader as pure fiction, but by analyzing the structure of both of them, one can detect odd, at times disturbing, similarities between the dystopian societies and our own.

The main driver of Orwell’s society is the fear of the “Big Brother,” a ubiquitous entity with eyes, ears, and hands in every public or private space. The simple fact that people are aware of being constantly spied on is enough to control or refrain their actions. Furthermore, the reader learns that the 1984 State is not only able to modify people’s activities and words, but also their way of thinking. Curiously, the number of surveillance cameras present in our cities is increasing to the point that people are talking about omnipresent mass surveillance, the same phenomenon observed in Piccadilly Circus. The advantages of these “security” cameras are indisputable, but one cannot help but question the purpose of these cameras, and the way that people perceive them. Do these cameras actually make people feel safer? Do they have the power to influence the way they act in public? And most importantly, are these adopted measures violating people’s right to privacy?

On the other side of the spectrum, Brave New World’s approach perpetrates constant pleasure on the citizens, obfuscating their minds, by providing a special drug that causes pleasing hallucinations, distracting the person from worrying thoughts, and therefore keeping them happy. This more positive approach counts on the fact that people will not ask for anything else if their senses are externally satisfied; by keeping them busy doing something they like, people will be kept under control and will avoid any interference with the government’s actions. In addition, the State makes the use of extensive propaganda to influence what people think and want. This classifies as a form of control since people do exactly what the State wants them to do. Although it may seem like a mellower version of dystopia, one can argue that it is actually more dangerous since people are being enslaved unknowingly, and even end up enjoying their state of slavery. Again, another disconcerting parallelism can be drawn between the fictional world and the one we know. As a matter of fact, we are constantly being bombarded by unsolicited inputs, and persistently being distracted by the ever-developing technology, which besides is able to track and register our every movement. After all, isn’t the Piccadilly Circus monitoring and targeting distracting propaganda? Do we actually have freedom of choice, or is it just a well-crafted illusion?

When it comes to our privacy being violated, or our liberties being restricted, the “I have nothing to hide” approach is certainly not the best one to take. Simply because one does not have secrets, does not give the right to anyone else to invade our privacy and dig deep into our habits and preferences – deeper than one could imagine. Dystopian or not, this is the society in which we live in, which seems to be going in a more perilous direction day after day. It is up to us to lift our heads from our smartphone screens and look at what is happening around us with critical eyes, because someone or something greater than us might be observing what we do, or could even be taking decisions for us.

Monica Landoni

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