Big Brother: shovel or snowman?

Googling “Big Brother” returns 43,500,000 results but Googling “big brother” Orwell removes all but 623,000 results. 

Big Brother is a character in George Orwell‘s novel 1984 (aka Ninety Eighty Four.)  Published a year before Orwell’s death in 1949, the book has a clear doom-and-gloom (dystopic) view of future society. Orwell perceived a future in which the world is divided into three areas: Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania – which includes the United Kingdom (renamed Airstrip One.)  Under the 24/7/365 watchful eye of a ruling technocracy (known simply as The Party), people’s every move and every thought is watched, scrutinised and diarised.  The Party is led by the know-all, see-all master of all Oceanians’ destiny – known only as Big Brother.The story’s protagonist is one Winston Smith, a person responsible for re-writing historical facts and reconstructing events in old newspapers and magazines so as to suit The Party’s view of history and in line with its political strapline that “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” In the sixty years since the book was published, Big Brother became synonymous with tyrannical forces that invade people privacy, de-humanise them and trample on their democratic rights.  The statement “Big Brother is watching you”, used to remind citizens that they are constantly monitored by Big brother, became synonymous with controversial surveillance facilities, powerful socio-political systems and oppressive regimes (PDF).   

This, at least was the case until the term was borrowed by a Dutch TV reality show that became a world phenomenon. This TV show is likely to account for most of the other 42 877 000 Google – non-Orwellian – results.  This means that only one in a hundred searchers still refers to the term Big Brother in its Orwellian context today.  In fact, using Google Trends to compare “big brother” Orwell and “big brother” proved futile, as the Googleator announced that the comparison failed because ““big brother” orwell does not have enough search volume for ranking.”  “big brother” outranked  “George Orwell” 27 to one. 

For some people, though, Big Brother is Orwell, all Orwell and nothing but Orwell – a quick, effective way to flag someone – or something – as an Orwellian villain. An article in the e-Justice blog alludes to the ever-growing amount of information that is being made available to Google through the consensual use of the search giant’s myriad of applications.  Frank Watson, who posted about this piece in a recent edition of Search Engine Watch, called his posting Is Google Big Brother? 25 Surprising Things Google Knows About You.   The actual piece lists various Google applications and extrapolates how using these applications might compromise one’s privacy.   

Now, this is not the first (or last) evidence of Googlephobia online – a few years ago I read a piece called What Google Could Do If They Were Evil – but the e-Justice piece is less of an exercise in alarmism. Instead, it lists opportunities for Google to learn about us by mining specific applications for relevant information.  Naturally, says the piece, Google ‘knows’ what you (and a billion other searchers.) are searching for. AdSense, Google’s advertising platform, uses cookies to help Google to ‘know’ which sites you’ve visited. Similarly, Google Checkout ‘shares with Google’ (according to the piece) your banking details and shopping preferences.  GMail allows Google access to keywords in e-mail you send and receive, as well as the identity (e-mail addresses, names, company, job title etc.) of those you’re corresponding with. Also available are your schedule (Google Calendar), your video and music preferences (Google owned YouTube), graphics and imaging deeds and needs (Google Picasa),  which books and articles you’re reading on Google Scholar, Google Books and Google University Search, your problems and areas of knowledge – based on questions you ask and answers you provide through Google Answers. 

Google Mobile, GMail, Android and Google SMS may be used to reveal your cell number and mobile communication details. Finally – if you set Google Alarms – you simply tell Google what’s important to you. Add your GPS and mapping activities and we seem to have a globe-embracing, meticulously triangulated, controlling entity that makes Big Brother look like Jiminy Cricket. 

Forewarning or paranoia? 

Orwell shared his vision of a frightening, dark, cruel and oppressive world with people who witnessed  Russian Stalin, German Hitler, Italian Mussolini and Spanish General Franco first hand.  Emerging from the horrors of the Second World War (WW2), almost the entire population of the world were war victims, refugees, prisoners, former oppressed, former oppressors, remnants of past victorious armies – and their vanquishers. Writing for post-war society, Orwell’s dystopia was every-bit real as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Spain or Stalinist Russia. Orwell’s Big Brother was an omnipresent threat to each and every individual under his rule. Big Brother watches YOU, the individual, with your dreams, thoughts, actions and relationships. Big Brother sought to question, control, and then diminish your ability to choose, your individuality, the very core of your humanity.  Placing his story in the far future – almost forty years later WW2 — was Orwell’s way of demonstrating a sarcastic belief that the world will stuff itself up well and proper much-much sooner than the futuristic 1984.  Twenty five years after 1984, many believe that George was spot-on right. 

Initially, Google comes from a fundamentally different paradigm. As far as the individual is concerned, the social driver behind Google is consumption, not political domination.  Orwell’s Big Brother derived power from controlling the way people think and cat, Google strives to influence the ways in which people spend their money and- ideally, what they spend it on. Google apologists argue that the world’s largest search engine is a conduit of business needs and imperatives and therefore has no interest in the individual itself. Google bashers, on the other hand, whip up age old techno-panic: what good is it for Google to have all that information about all these people, they ask, can you imagine –  they fret – how damaging can this information be in the wrong hands? 

The main difference between Orwell’s Big Brother and Google leads us to an unidentified, fictitious, movie character who said “when it snows you can either shovel or make snowmen.  The choice is yours” The individual who’s life is dominated by Goggle enjoys a fundamental advantage over Winston Smith and others who populate Orwell’s world – with Google you have a choice – you can avoid online activities –  don’t register, download, interact, transact and, of course, search. Find your way around without Google Map or Google Street-wise, limit your cellphone activity to communication and text only, don’t use GMail, don’t; buy through Google Checkout, order your browser to reject cookies – all these are possible and they are likely to keep you off the Google radar. Shovel or Snowman, the choice is ours. 

While the great Google debate goes on, other voices argue that Google Snooping is the least of our problems and that information and knowledge are being interfered with on a daily basis. A growing number of people feel that major knowledge repositories – such as Wikipedia, the collaboratively written encyclopaedia – suffer from a severe case of ‘corrective editing’ by interested parties. An active Internet forum named The Wikipedia Review  sets out to discuss “…the English Wikipedia, its content and conflicts, and its participants’ editing practices.” These modern Winston Smiths monitor Wikipedia for inconsistencies (such as deletions of data, publication of false or misleading information etc.) which they then describe and discuss in the forum.  They also monitor for usage of ‘doctored’ information in various public cases

Orwell’s brilliant description of meddling with historical documents comes to mind: “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” 

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