Big Business is Watching You

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.

By Mike Elgan
Mon, November 15, 2010

Computerworld — 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 (MSFT) 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.

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