In the 1949 novel 1984, George Orwell imagined a brilliant but depressing future in which the government, a.k.a. "Big Brother," broadcast propaganda while simultaneously watching every citizen via ubiquitous "telescreens" in every home and in public places. Video feeds are monitored by the "Thought Police," who are constantly on the lookout for facial expressions and body language that reveal "thought crimes." They wanted to know what you were thinking.
Aldous Huxley offered an alternative vision in 1932's Brave New World. In Huxley's future, the government pushes the virtue of consumption as necessary for a strong economy. (That sounds familiar.) Citizens are also expected to take "Soma," a hallucinogenic recreational drug as the universal form of amusement and escapism, a literal opiate of the masses that replaces religion, vacations, hobbies and the arts, but which also serves as a way to pacify and socialize everyone.
Together, Orwell and Huxley predicted everything right, except three things.
First, they got the timing wrong. Orwell's future took place too early, in the 1980s, while Huxley was too late: 2540. Both of their novels could have been set in 2011.
Second, Orwell's telescreens served as an instrument of government propaganda and control. In our world, such technology exists, but starting next year it will serve the purpose of Huxley's Soma: to entertain, pacify and encourage consumption.
Third, the biggest error in both novels was the power of government. In the real future (meaning our present), corporations shape culture for commercial purposes, not government for political ones.
If you combine these two dystopian visions, set them in 2011 and put corporations in control, what do you get?
Big Business is watching you
Two major initiatives have emerged this week that serve as harbingers of how Orwell's and Huxley's visions will come together as one.
The first is Microsoft Kinect, which is a special camera system for the Xbox 360. Kinect enables players to control game play with body movement, and also to "log in" via facial recognition.
Dennis Durkin, who is both COO and CFO for Microsoft's Xbox group, told investors this week that Kinect can also be used by advertisers to see how many people are in a room when an ad is on screen, and to custom-tailor content based on the people it recognizes.
When you buy a Kinect, you're bringing into your home a Microsoft "telescreen" that can recognize who's in the room and interpret body language -- and eventually even facial expressions.
The second initiative is a joint effort by a U.K. university and a Canadian security company. Researchers at the University of the West of England and Aralia Systems unveiled a three-year project to monitor the facial expressions of theater-goers while they watch movies and the ads that accompany them.
The system will both capture movement and detect emotions using 2D and 3D infrared cameras as well as regular cameras. The idea is to gauge the collective response to whatever is onscreen and also collect demographics. Are people fidgety and uncomfortable? Is everybody laughing? Are people losing interest? Are people sitting in family groups, couples or alone? Aralia and UWE also hope the system will be able to catch movie pirates.
Both Microsoft Kinect and the Aralia-UWE system ultimately will identify and monitor the facial expressions and body language of people as they consume content on a screen, all for the purposes of knowing who you are and what you are thinking.
Why this is a real trend
These are just two recently announced technologies that give us a glimpse into the Orwellian-Huxleyan future that goes online next year. The reason this is a real trend is because having one system that can both gauge audience reaction and collect audience demographics -- and do so in real-time -- is the Holy Grail of the advertising industry.
I would be surprised if Google isn't working hard on a system that monitors user reaction to ads and Web sites using the webcams typically built into laptops and plugged into desktop PCs.
Such technology, applied universally to video games, TV, movies and the Internet, will revolutionize contextual advertising. Combined with other technologies, it will enable advertisers to serve up exactly the right ads for individual people at just the right moment. Advertisers will be able to test several, dozens or even hundreds of campaigns simultaneously, weeding out and eliminating the ads people aren't responding to and replacing them with the winning ads.
Once the individual technologies have been developed -- and most of them already have been -- it's only a matter of time before Moore's Law enables widespread deployment of ingenious applications that facilitate user acceptance.
And end users will accept this technology. The reason is twofold. First, human beings won't actually sit there and monitor video feeds. Computers will crunch the numbers and act on the data, serving up ads and aggregating demographic data. We've already accepted this kind of thing. Google's Gmail, for example, reads all your e-mail and serves up advertising related to the topics you discuss with family and friends. If this doesn't bother people, then an improved video-enabled version shouldn't either.
And second, people will prefer better targeted advertising. If the system gets so good that it can actually anticipate what you want, and can show you ads you'll enjoy by hawking products you really want to discover and buy, well, some people would actually pay for this service.
I predict that next year, the idea of cameras monitoring your face and body movement to serve up contextual ads and collect demographics will go mainstream.
Like Orwell's telescreens and Thought Police, camera monitoring will try to figure out what you're thinking while you're watching a screen. And like Huxley's Soma, it will do so to entertain you while getting you to buy more stuff.
Orwell and Huxley didn't see it coming -- separately, at least. But together, they pretty much nailed it.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.
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This story, "Big Business is Watching You" was originally published by Computerworld.