If you attended high school in the USA there is a very good chance you had to read a book called “1984” by George Orwell. It’s always been pretty much a basic read for high schoolers. I don’t know if it still is, but my guess would be it may not have the same impact it had when I read it in the late 1960s. In the book, individual freedom and privacy are disrupted by “Big Brother.” He has a presence everywhere in the form of cameras and other recording devices that monitor and control the populace. Big Brother is always watching everyone.
When I was in high school, 1984 was still a ways off in the future. When it finally arrived it was a relief that nothing in the book had come to fruition. There were no cameras on every street corner, let alone ones scattered throughout your household. But wait, maybe I’ve got this wrong…and Orwell didn’t. It may be his timing was just a little off. Stay with me here, Big Brother may, indeed, be watching.
When I got a new iMac desktop computer four years ago I thought it was pretty cool that there was a camera built into the monitor screen. Yep, you can see it if you look closely enough. I though it was a lot better than the separate clunky camera that drooped over the top edge of my PC monitor–the one I had to keep adjusting so the shot was framed correctly and the camera didn’t come crashing down onto the desk. It wasn’t long, however, that a rumor started making the rounds warning everyone that crafty hackers had found a way to actually turn your camera on without your knowing. Imagine the number of voyeurs who couldn’t wait to check that out. Well, this rumor made me paranoid enough to consider putting some opaque tape over the apple camera while I had already dismounted the PC camera and left it facing a blank wall when it wasn’t in use.
Next came a Christmas gift two years ago. It was a new-fangled gadget called the “Echo Dot.” This is a small black instrument that looks exactly like a hockey puck. Inside is a little person named Alexa who is almost like a genie in a bottle. Call out her name and she will answer just about any question you may ask, from wanting to know the weather, the score from last night’s game, how many calories in a bowl of oatmeal and what time will your amazon package arrive. If Alexa hears music playing in the room she will even take a moment to tell you who’s singing. Alexa is obviously listening to what’s going on in her environment. I told a friend about my new Echo Dot and she immediately went into outrage mode. “Don’t you know she monitors every word you say and everything you do on your iMac or iPhone and somebody somewhere is collecting all that data and it’ll eventually be used to sell you, harass you or otherwise invade your life?”
Next, I had to buy a new printer. I’ve had reasonably good luck with Hp printers so that’s what I got. Now, as you know, printers are like razors. The razor itself, or the printer, are not terribly expensive…but the blades and ink will keep you in lifetime debt. But, aha! Hp supposedly has felt its customers’ pain. Now it has a new “instant ink” program that you can sign up for. Hp says it will save you money. The instant ink cartridges have more ink in them than the Hp high-yield cartridges and they will mail them to you postage-free on a frequency based on your page usage. They say you won’t have to run to the store for ink ever again and you will save money to boot. So I signed up and within one week I got a supply of instant ink cartridges which look exactly like the extra set I bought with the printer. Then, over the weekend, my printer began putting out pictures with weird, horizontal zebra stripes. I checked my ink supply and determined that two cartridges were low, but not quite ready to be replaced. I replaced them anyway because I suspected that was the problem. I used the cartridges I bought with the printer–the official Hp cartridges you normally would buy at Office Depot. Guess what? I got an e-mail from Hp telling me that I did not use the instant ink cartridges they has sent me and therefore, they could not keep track of my page count and ink usage. In other words, my printer is talking to Hp! How else would they have known I used the store ink and not the instant ink?
Where will all this end? How many things in our household will be eavesdropping on our conversations and activities and delivering that information to outsiders. It could go from the sophisticated to the downright ridiculous. Imagine…you buy and have installed a new toilet. A week or so later you get your pre-ordered “instant” supply of toilet paper delivered on your doorstep. Meanwhile, on your laptop, there’s an e-mail from the Kohler company, the manufacturer of your new toilet. It reads: “Hello! We’ve noticed you have not flushed at the usual rate the past several days. This could result in your not receiving the correct count of rolls on your next toilet paper delivery. May we send you a free supply of laxatives to help you resume your normal rate?”
Big Brother may be knocking at the door any day now!