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Towards a 1984 Surveillance State

Michael K. Spencer

Those poor Hong Kong protesters, how do they ever find ways to outwit the surveillance around them? Americans like to think of China as some police state in the making, but few of us realize how facial recognition and video surveillance will also scale back home.

  • CCTV cameras in cities are the new normal
  • Facial recognition tech is improving fast
  • Video surveillance tech will become global soon
  • Data harvesting and predictive analytics on people is already widespread
  • Algorithms aren’t regulated online, and neither is our freedom.

Orwell’s 1984 is really about now, it’s about today. It’s about the kind of world we want to live in.

Increasingly the technology is outpacing the idea that humans deserve a few liberties like free speech, privacy, freedom of expression and a few other little things, like human rights.

We should be able to control our data and have the portability of our friends online. If we don’t like Facebook, we should have the ability to port our friends elsewhere. The internet was supposed to be a tool for us, not the other way around.

Sadly, we don’t live in such a world.

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Surveillance Capitalism is the New Standard

The internet and national security agencies have been spying on us, amassing profiles of our networks, preferences, interests and online searches. The internet has become a surveillance architecture by default, for living in the information age.

Reading 1984, George Orwell’s claustrophobic fable of totalitarianism, is still a shock. But along with the show Black Mirror, it’s no longer so strange somehow. Why is that?

Gone are the days when a store’s security cameras only mattered to shoplifters. You don’t say? Facial recognition startups in China are changing the game and BigTech companies in America are selling their tech to police, border and immigration authorities, and there’s a snowball effect.

America says they don’t want to be like China, but they are copying it now, not just the other way around.

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What’s 70 + 1949? The Answer is 1984 in 2019.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published 70 years ago. It’s hard to imagine. Hard to imagine this world resembles that world, to be honest.

You have to be pretty naive to think your privacy means something in a world where BigTech work with their national governments.

Even Edward Snowden’s revelations aren’t popular knowledge.

Newspeak, the Thought Police, the Ministry of Love that deals in pain, despair and annihilates any dissident, the Ministry of Peace that wages war, the novel-writing machines that pump out pornography to buy off the masses: Orwell opened our eyes to how regimes worked.

What if the internet has spawned such a regime? Not China, but the most powerful companies who write the status quo? What if I told you social credit systems and data police and AI judging you were inevitable? What would be your defense?

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Artificial Intelligence Won’t be Human Centric For Years

With the rising prevalence of surveillance systems constantly monitored by artificial intelligence, ubiquitous security systems can watch, learn about, and discriminate against shoppers (in the home too) more than ever before. But here again, it’s not just shoppers. These companies will soon have your health and financial data. What do you suppose they will do with it?

A book published on 8 June 1949, written out of the battered landscape of total war, in a nation hungry, tired and grey, feels more relevant than ever before, because Orwell’s 1984 also arms us. We can imagine now, thanks to Netflix, various versions of what dystopia and control might look like. Capitalism has been hijacked by a few, we call them the 1%.

Now, if you ask young people about capitalism or democracy, what do you suppose they will actually say? Their answers might surprise you. This world, that has left us with a planet that will warm 4 degrees in just the next few decades, could be in trouble.

The artificial intelligence that is so hyped could be another way to enslave, control, manipulate and bind us. This isn’t science fiction anymore, folks.

A new ACLU report titled “The Dawn of Robot Surveillance,” about how emerging AI technology enables security companies to constantly monitor and collect data about people — opening new possibilities in which power is abused or underserved communities are over-policed.

So who polices the AI made by these BigTech companies with backdoors for governments who fight each other? What kind of a world is that, in terms of ethics, human rights and the preservation of human centric design? Congress doesn’t know, the American president doesn’t know, but the Chinese Government has its own plans about this too.

Black Mirror and 1984

Orwell’s 1984 is a symbol of the probable impression we are heading towards. The data tyranny, the surveillance state, whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t matter. It’s profitable to control people, to keep people addicted to something while you lead them a certain way.

It’s 8 days removed from being 70 years ago when this book was published. A book published on 8 June 1949, that we constantly refer to now. We sometimes forget this is the world our children inherit, a world we wouldn’t want to live in ourselves (for another century).

The New York Times can publish their op-eds about China being an evil police state. What they don’t tell you much is what’s actually happening in America. What kind of a social credit system do you suppose Facebook’s Libra consortium could come up with? Paying us to watch Ads? A basic income masquerading as something good for people?

As a futurist I make it my business to think about this stuff daily. Big Brother, at once omnipresent and opaque? Google and Facebook have been building it for the better part of the last two decades. Now heading to a 2020 election, we are suddenly talking about it? About the DOJ probing them? Sure, that’s really believable.

In 1984 you might remember, Winston Smith, the protagonist, works as a censor in the Ministry of Truth in a constant updating of history to suit present circumstances and shifting alliances. He and his fellow workers are controlled as a mass collective by the all-seeing and all-knowing presence of Big Brother.

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The Tech Cold War Will Be an Excuse

The tech cold war with China means we are entering 1984 territory. To keep up, America must follow the police-state efficiency of a data-first world that will necessitate AI being everywhere, at all times, where our data will stream in Big Data and where all that we are can be crunched and where we can be recommended stuff in a surveillance architecture of consumerism, capitalism and democracy.

With technology automation in the next three decades coming faster in the 2020 to 2050 period, one thing people don’t realize is that AI-driven surveillance systems won’t just soon begin to impact our lives, they will become our lives. With a quasi basic income in place, what we do with our time will be a commodity, data will replace money as the key form of energy in our ecosystems and financial interactions. If data is the new oil, surveillance architecture is key.

The report I mentioned before I first saw covered by Motherboard, breaks down how AI-driven surveillance systems could soon begin to impact our lives. Instead of just keeping track of who’s in a store, surveillance systems could use facial recognition to determine peoples’ identities and gather even more information about them. Facial recognition can now recognize our emotions and hence our mental health states as well.

That data would then be out there, with no opportunity to opt out. Try opting out from an internet that already knows everything about you. Google and Facebook have shared data on you with their corporate and BigTech partners, there’s no going off the grid anymore. Even if you’ve never had a Facebook account, it doesn’t mean that cookies and your phones haven’t been tracking you.

Living without a data signature is like living without money, it’s almost impossible. With an IoT world of smarter and smarter devices, algorithms that run deeper into our mind, relationships and healthcare, there is no safe place to call home. The smart home will be like a Google chrome web browser, a funnel for data on us.

Now I’m not even saying this is bad. I’m saying this is the new reality.

Surveillance tech and the data architecture is far more advanced than people realize. Apps have been harvesting data on us for years. The problem that is even more dangerous is how the surveillance state augments and exponentially increases wealth inequality and makes the 1% even more powerful in the years to come.

Who will stand up to billionaires and the Chinese Government? I don’t think it will be America. America will have to become like 1984 or lose. Capitalism will either fail or have to be radically transformed in our lifetime to survive. The foundations of our system, from how we do democracy to how banks operate to how the Middle Class is deteriorating needs to be reworked. Until then?

Endless growth and 1984.

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Futurism articles bent on cultivating an awareness of exponential technologies while exploring the 4th industrial revolution.

Michael K. Spencer

Written by

Blockchain Mark Consultant, tech Futurist, prolific writer. LinkedIn: michaelkspencer



Futurism articles bent on cultivating an awareness of exponential technologies while exploring the 4th industrial revolution.