Nudge, nudge: George Orwell is watching


My telecom provider and I were texting each other one gorgeous, summer day a few weeks ago. It had sent me a reminder to pay my bill, which wasn’t actually overdue. I told it to quit bugging me. I did this even though I knew I wouldn’t get a reply from a faceless robot; somehow, the exercise appealed to my sense of mischief.

But a part of me wonders whether my communique found its way to a secret data bank, buried beneath a glacier in Finland, there to be used against me at some future date. I mean, isn’t it true that not one scrap of information nowadays is ever really lost? Isn’t that what we are told, over and over again?

Now we learn, courtesy of the Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry, that some government’s know all about using our personal information to mould us into good, little, bills-paying, law-abiding citizens.

“Canada is looking into (the) growing field of behavioural economics,” he writes. “Finance Canada documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through Access to Information show Michael Horgan, the deputy minister of Finance Canada, was recently briefed on the activities of (a) three-year-old British team, which has attracted interest from governments around the world. . .It’s known as the ‘nudge unit,’ because its mission is to ‘nudge’ citizens into acting the way the government wishes they would.”

Mr. Curry reports that the special bureau was “pioneered in Britain, (and) officially tagged with the 1984ish name Behavioural Insights Team – about a dozen policy wonks, mostly economists, who employ psychological research to subtly persuade people to pay their taxes on time, get off unemployment or insulate their attic. The goal: To make consumers act in their own best interests – and save the government loads of money.”

I’m all for governments saving money. But I’m also just a tad perturbed by the moral implications of this practice. For their part, officials at Canada’s Department of Finance concede that there is something big-brotherly about the whole thing, though they are sure that “transparency” will obviate any risk of ethical transgressions.

Uh-huh. . .How, exactly, would that work? By informing citizens that, henceforth, the long arm of the law will by “urging” them to fulfill their various obligations to the state through incessant, subtle, electronically communicated “pokes”? Hey, we may not like it. We may think it’s creepy. But, at least, they’re being “transparent” about it.

The fact is society can’t function without its various nudges. Arguably, society is nothing except one giant system of disparate persuading and coercing and kvetching and schmoozing.

Apple reminds me that it’s August. Shouldn’t I be thinking about a new iPad for autumn? Rogers wonders whether I’ve properly assessed my data and cable needs. Shouldn’t I reconsider my monthly package? Scholar’s Choice knows I’m a grandparent. Do I know about their fantastic discounts for folks in my purchasing demographic?

We nudge (sometimes, shoving) our kids to be kinder or more disciplined. We urge our educators to be more efficient and empathetic. Our courts call corporations “people”, hoping, perhaps, that they will not behave like the soulless, vacant entities that, in fact, they are. We nudge them to embrace the better angels of their various ventures in capitalism.

Does any of this work? Sometimes. Nothing’s perfect. And that’s the point: nothing should ever be perfect.

On the other hand, Government, by its very nature, is all about perfectibility. And when it says it wants people to “behave” accordingly, it’s not selling a product or a service or even an idea. It’s pushing an ideal of human conformation that simply makes its institutional life easier. That’s just one or two steps away from totalitarianism.

If George Orwell were still alive, he might say: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

That is from his masterwork 1984, which is, in increasingly sinister ways, beginning to resonate in 2013.

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