Tag Archives: George Orwell

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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Spying minds really want to know

Is what lies beneath enough?

Who’s got the dirt on you?

Good morning, pipsqueak. This is your big brother calling. How are you doing? Feeling good and rested, ready to take on the world? Sure you are. You’re going to seize the day, follow your bliss, as they say – just as soon as you gulp down that happy pill your doctor prescribed for you last month.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you junior? Remember that afternoon three weeks ago, when the paramedics had to scrape you off the pavement outside the grocery store, following your 19th nervous breakdown?

Didn’t think I’d find out about that, did you? Never mind. I know a lot of things about you and just about everybody else in this ridiculous country of fools and sleepwalkers who believe that just because I scrapped the long-form census, I give a fig about your personal privacy. What a joke, which is, at it happens, entirely on you.

How’s that new car working out for you? You know. . .the one you bought with four credit cards because your wife wouldn’t let you raid the kids’ college fund. I bet she was mighty cheesed off when you rolled up in that baby. In fact, I know she was because that’s what she told some guy named Hank, with whom she’s having an online relationship. Oops, have I said too much? Listen, pal, a word to the wise. . .what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. Just saying, is all.

Speaking of birds of a feather, you know that chum three cubicles over from you at work? He’s the one with whom you’ve been collaborating for months on that big presentation to your company’s brass. Don’t trust him. He’s planning to stab you in the back, take credit for your ideas and sell you down the river as a lazy no-nothing. Fact is, all he does all day is play computer solitaire when he’s not following Lindsay Lohan on Twitter. Hope that’s useful to you. Your welcome.

Truth is, I care about you bro’. I care about the fact that you lied on your resume where you claimed to have a degree from the University of Toronto whereas you actually have a diploma from the Community College of Tofino. I care about the fact that you list your hobbies as golf, marathon running and skydiving instead of tap dancing, gardening and ventriloquism. You really should be more circumspect.

Not that I plan to do anything with such information. In the scheme of things, you’re just not that interesting, let alone important. I’ve got enough work scrutinizing the “metadata” stemming from the Internet comings and goings and phone calls of millions of other citizens through the Communications Security Establishment Canada. Technically, I’m not “allowed” to listen in on actual conversations or surveil specific emails and text messages. But, well. . .you know. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat.

As my buddy Ronald Deibert might say: “Don’t kid yourself.” In fact, the U of T political science professor and expert on global security did sort of say that in a commentary he penned for the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, to wit: “What is metadata? Take my mobile phone. Even when I’m not using it, when it’s just sitting in my pocket or on my desk, it emits an electronic pulse every few seconds to the nearest wifi router or cellphone tower that includes a kind of digital biometric tag.”

So what, you might say. So, don’t be so stupid. Or, as Mr. Deibert notes, “Think metadata is trivial compared to content? Think again. MIT researchers who studied 15 months of anonymized cellphone metadata of 1.5 million people found four ‘data points’ were all they needed to figure out a person’s identity 95 per cent of the time. In 2010, German Green Party politician Malte Spitz and Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper requested all of the metadata from Mr. Spitz’s phone carrier, Deutsch Telekom. The company sent back a CD containing 35,830 lines of code.”

Anyway, goofball, try to take better care of yourself this summer. I notice you’ve been hitting Amazon.com of late for some reading material. Might I suggest you start with Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and end with George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Either or both are excellent field guides for the shape of things to come.

That’s it for now.

We’ll talk again soon.

That’s a promise, pipsqueak.

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