Editorializing with Andrew Sutton – The corporate surveillance state or: How I learned to stop worrying and love my grocery ordering robot

In 1949 George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four, the seminal dystopian big government and authoritarian surveillance state novel.

The novel has become so influential many of the terms coined in it have entered the lexicon. Big Brother (the surveillance state), doublethink (denial of truth), prole (as in proletariat – referring to the lower class), and even “Orwellian” have come into somewhat common usage. The novel has been included on Time’s list of the 100 best English language novels, and it is number six on Modern Library’s 100 best novels list.

The book resonates so well with us because it confirms an idea we hold to be true: the individuality which has come to define western civilization is a natural good. The idea the state would or could control not only every aspect of our lives, but also the way that we think – war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength – is so grotesque to our understanding of our society that reading about it being subverted is incredibly satisfying. It not only confirms our belief individuality is the final form of society, it thoroughly dissects the opposing viewpoint.

So now recall with irony the Apple ad which launched the Macintosh computer in… wait for it… 1984. As a group of grey proles march into a theatre, a talking head is dishing up a load of authoritarian word salad on the screen. Enter our hero, a woman dressed in red and white who runs down the aisle and hurls a sledge hammer into the screen, which then explodes (somehow) and blows the minds of the proles. Scrolling text then informs us that the Macintosh will show us why the year “1984 won’t be like nineteen eighty-four”.

Just imagine the high fives around the yuppy filled conference table when that ad was pitched. The creepiest thing about marketing, in my mind, is how it uses that which we find empowering and just to sell us things. As if any product has the power to create a just society.

The irony here is Apple is now one of the largest tech companies in the world, wealthier than most nations on earth, and in control of much of our data. Of course, not as much as Google, Amazon, and Facebook – most of whom have introduced so called “smart speakers”. Their intelligence lies in their ability to respond to questions and connect to the many online services which we subscribe to. They can order things off Amazon, play music from Spotify, tell you the weather outside, and add things to your schedule. They know you, and so their parent company knows you.

As with many things, the issue here is one of trust. The ethos into which that Apple ad tapped was one of inherent distrust in big government – but there is another side to that coin, one which has been increasingly more relevant as the scrappy startups of my youth have become corporate behemoths.

If data is the oil, we are the oil field – one which currently requires very minimal oversight and protection. But it requires an enormous amount of trust – which it gets by pretending that it’s not a data collecting device but rather a device which exists to serve you to make your life easier. But make no mistake – it exists to generate data, data which is then used to sell you things. For now. I can only imagine what novel Orwell would write about the control these companies have over our lives.

Andrew Sutton