How transparent are we? What price are we paying with our profiles which become ever more clearly defined with each click? Are we at the beginning of a process that will inevitably end in nightmare scenarios? Or is “Big Brother” actually better than its reputation might suggest? Could the intelligent use of our data traces perhaps even make our world a better place? And if not today then perhaps by 2048?
George Orwell’s bleak futuristic vision of a complete surveillance state entitled “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published in 1948. The novel’s hero Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth where his task is to manipulate and erase uncomfortable facts and information, thereby falsifying historical truth for the public and posterity. His life is overshadowed by supply problems, constant surveillance, angst and a dearth of personal relationships. His attempts to escape the system ultimately end in failure. He is re-assimilated by means of brainwashing. Today, 30 years after the period in which Orwell’s dystopia was set, the Wikileaks whistleblowers and Edward Snowden make it seem more real than ever.
We certainly live in a world today where we leave behind detailed data traces. It is not the microphones and helicopters of the state apparatus in Orwell’s novel that are monitoring us, but instead commercial data hunters, the manufacturers of our mobile devices and logistics and telecommunications companies that log, measure and evaluate our activities on social media and shopping websites, our locations, conversations and interaction. Above all though it is the leading search engines which receive up to 4 billion search requests a day and always know where we are, where we are going, our needs and which contacts, brands, content and locations we interact with and at which degree of intensity. However, it is not just us as users, but our entire set of circumstances that is made clear and tangible.
An incredible five billion gigabytes of data is generated in this way every 10 minutes. By way of comparison, it took from the dawn of mankind until the digital revolution in 2003 to create the same volume of data. The “Internet of Things” will scale up data volumes n-factorial thanks to total interconnection. On one hand, we will provide relevant information about our condition and state of mind with wearable devices. On the other, the smart home - the place where we will live in future - which interacts with us and our lifestyle habits will enrich our contextuality by adding new dimensions. This will provide absolute knowledge about us and our direct environment. IT has turned this into a science in the research disciplines of artificial intelligence and pattern recognition. Still a long way off? No, that is the current state of technology. The Internet of Things, as Professor Gunter Dueck, former chief strategist at IBM, acknowledges, would have long since existed if we only had effective network coverage.
In future we will not just carry devices on us but also in us. They will provide information about the best nutrition for us, when to avoid imminent dangers, how to maintain good health and how to move most efficiently. They will control the supply of our homes and apartments with electricity, lighting, heating and water in an optimal and resource-saving way. This will always be in line with our presence, requirements, state of health, the time of day and year and the prevailing weather conditions. Our physical and psychological requirements will be met automatically and efficiently.
Does that represent a nightmare scenario? The end of any self-determination whatsoever? Or might it herald the emergence of a new level of independence? Will Google - as a synonym for all data collectors - become the Big Brother in a new world of total surveillance? Or could it form part of a curative system that protects rather than keeps us under surveillance?
Let us turn our attention back to Orwell’s protagonist. While he had to contend with being overburdened with excessive demands, supply problems and a lack of personal relationships, people in our vision of 2048 will be freed from such constraints. Why?
These are not philosophical contemplations but rather very simple answers to the question of why companies like Google collect information about us. It is a matter of relevance and efficiency. As users we provide the raw material for the system whose customers vie for attention. Only the most worthy achieve visibility. Search engines separate the wheat from the chaff on behalf of us as users. As an example, entering the search term “big data” into Google generates around 854,000,000 results in a fraction of a second. Those which are most relevant to us are listed prominently. The better the system knows us, the better the outcome. When we browse, the most favorable route for us to take is displayed. We find the shop with the best offer and the advert with the most relevant content - advertising that we gratefully receive - if the system is perfected - as recommendations providing useful and even helpful information rather than publicity.
There will be a shift from the major distortion of oversupply in the northern hemisphere and the well-documented shortage of supply in the southern hemisphere towards an intelligent distribution of raw materials which also include food, medicines, education and security as well as information.
The systems will also support our thought processes. Did we really turn off the cooker before leaving the house? Is there enough milk in the fridge? Are we dressed warmly enough? They will help us in our everyday lives with planning breaks, visiting the doctor and shopping, etc. They will create more time for us. They will provide us with safe and rapid transport in self-propelled vehicles that are constantly in motion and always there where they are needed. They will optimize the flow of goods from manufacturers to households. This also signifies the end of any surplus production, the throwaway society, hypermobility and waiting periods and downtimes. Supply and demand converge. The market will no longer be divided into sine worlds and consumers no longer pigeonholed. What matter are the requirements of individuals.
The only thing such systems will not be able to relieve us of is freedom of thought and action. They will ideally provide recommendations and propose alternatives. Creative ideas come from our social networks, both offline and online. And we will know how to use our newly acquired freedom well with time for more human engagement, social interaction, creativity, values and all that which machines cannot experience, but also for a new perception of democracy where individuality and equality predominate rather than Big Brother.