When George Orwell wrote his novel 1984, the year was actually 1948. Urban legend has it he simply transposed the last two numbers to suggest the time his fictitious Big Brother would watch over and control the behavior of all humans. (One of his alternative titles was The Last Man in Europe, but his editors apparently yawned at that prospect as a non-attention-grabber.)
You’ll recall from high school English class that the novel’s lead character, Winston Smith, wrestles with the Party oppressing everyone in the land of Oceania. Winston pooh-poohs the ban on individuality in his quest to woo Julia. That’s a criminal offense resulting in the opposition’s attempt to reform nonconformist Winston.
Were Orwell writing today, he might well call his dystopia something like Facebook. Or Equifax. Or the National Security Agency. Or Wells Fargo. Or Amazon. Even Kroger. Those entities might not yet control us, but they certainly know all about us.
It seems every company and government agency is intent on gathering as much information on our habits as possible. Vast data on what we buy and with whom we communicate on an individual basis is captured, stored, and now often sold to the highest bidder (or, apparently, anyone with cash in hand).
Buy or sign up for virtually anything online, from the latest set of ever-sharp kitchen knives to a charitable cause, and you’re bound to be inundated with tangential offers and/or more information than you could possibly ever read. (In all cases, there is a plea to separate you from more of your money.)
Grocery stores love to send me coupons for fifty cents off some of my favorite items. It’s sometimes embarrassing to find out my checkout list seems to always include potato chips, ice cream, and peanut butter. I seldom (well, never) get any enticements to purchase Brussels sprouts, organic kale salad, or fresh pomegranate juice. My local Kroger manager could probably tell you exactly what I have in my refrigerator, pantry, and freezer at any given moment.
What used to be called a drug store really keeps a close eye on my spending habits. You have to be careful about what you buy at those places. Make sure Listerine is definitely your mouthwash of choice. Because even if you don’t like it, you’re going to get an email or in-store coupon with an offer you can’t refuse on the next bottle you buy. Forget it if you want to switch to Scope. It will forever be full price for you. As far as CVS is concerned, you’re stuck in Listerine mode in perpetuity.
Go on a political candidate’s website and, heaven forfend, make a donation, and you get daily, if not hourly, updates on his/her positions on the vital issues of the day. And always this message: “We can’t continue our great work without the support of generous people like you who are keenly aware the country is going to hell in a hand basket. Please donate $10, $25, $100, or even $1,000,000 to NAME for a better America.”
Sports teams are eager to provide their fans with the latest scores and updates on team machinations. In a sports bar setting, you can’t hear very well because everyone’s phone is constantly pinging with breaking news all team supporters need to know right now.
Check out a book at the library or buy one online and you get a list of “You might also like . . .” suggestions.
Your bank knows exactly where you spend every nickel. The NSA is aware of the conversations you have with your best friends. Credit agencies move you up and down their scale of good and bad risk on a regular basis. And now it seems as if Facebook remembers more about you than even you do. Don’t recall what you had for dinner two weeks ago at that little Italian place on the corner? Facebook does. You posted a picture of it.
As little kids, we’re taught to share. “Let Frankie play with your toy.” “It’s your sister’s turn to swing on the swing.” “You got to go first last time, Sally.” That’s all well and good. Makes us nicer adults. But I don’t think Mom and Dad had in mind making sure total strangers were privy to every single move we make and every penny we spend. Unfortunately, Orwell’s book would hardly cause a ripple today. We might not have oneBig Brother in the 21stcentury, but he’s sure got a lot of little siblings.
©MMXVIII. William J. Lewis, III — Freelance Writer in Atlanta