At Large

Column At Large

The Observer-Reporter staff column to discuss their views on stories and beats.

Big Brother is watching… And he knows your credit card number

January 26, 2013

As a lifelong science fiction nerd, I’ve had a blast correlating benchmark achievements in the 21st century with their literative companions of my youth. For example, I don’t know how many other people were excited for the creation of the electronic reading tablet, not because it provided easy access to instantaneous news and literature, but because it had a striking resemblance to Papa Wiggin’s digital newspaper in the novel “Ender’s Game.”

Living in the future is cool, but it also has its perils. A large portion of my sci-fi canon revolves around dystopian futures portrayed by authors like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. And just as it is exhilarating to watch innovations like the driverless car unfold before one’s very eyes, it can be just as draining to watch the warnings of the social perils these great writers spoke out against go unheeded.

Orwell’s “1984” is a cautionary tale about a Europe that is overwhelmed by a socialistic dictatorship hell-bent on invading the privacy of its citizenry in order to maintain an iron grip on the social interactions of its inhabitants.

Boy, oh boy, what Big Brother would be able to do with Facebook.

One of Ingsoc’s mottoes was “Ignorance is strength” and based on my newsfeed on websites such as Facebook and Twitter, America is indeed very mighty.

But in a strange twist of fate, the dark menace looming over the interwebs isn’t any type of governmental entity. Rather, as far as I see it, it’s a cacophony of multinational corporations and parasitic companies that join forces in order to swiftly separate you from every penny of your capital worth. And unlike the characters in those fictional futures, the real citizens of today are voluntarily signing up to be monitored.

Do I sound paranoid? Please allow me to proceed.

How many times during your daily online interactions are you asked to sign in to an application using Facebook or Twitter? Web games, photo-apps like Instagram, professional development sites like LinkedIn and Klout and GPS location services such as Google Maps all use Facebook and Twitter logins. Sometimes these are optional, but often they are mandatory upon registration. You may not notice it, but these applications are silently data-mining – compiling a complete picture of your interests and matching it with your credit-worthiness and purchasing power.

In the 2002 big screen version of P.F.K. Dick’s “Minority Report,” an interactive holographic identifies Tom Cruise’s character – and his need for a new shirt. Reality is not too far off from this narrative as mobile devices offer real-time GPS location data to vendors for in-store target marketing. Phone apps already use location information to bring the advertisements of businesses close to your proximity when using map and search services.

In “1984,” protagonist Winston Smith is driven to near insanity as he lines up every day in front of a television that records and scrutinizes his every expression during a mandatory workout. Microsoft recently submitted a patent for a device for its Kinect platform that would monitor everyone in a given room regardless of whether or not they were playing the game. According to reviews, the Kinect II will have the ability to recognize facial expressions.

During the climax of Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, is hunted down by a “mechanical dog” before being killed before a national audience. Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration cleared federal, state and municipal police forces to use drone aircraft in U.S. airspace. In addition to having the ability to carry deadly ordnance, these “mechanical birds” also come equipped with video cameras.

I have a feeling there’s a hit reality TV show in there, somewhere...

Aaron J. Kendeall is a staff writer at the Observer-Reporter. He can be reached at



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