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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

Is The World Slowly Moving Towards The Orwellian Abyss?

(Picture Credit - BBVAOpen4U)

News outlets will tell you that society is slowly becoming less secure as time passes, and in no place is it more prevalent that with large corporations. Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of technology firms such as Amazon or Microsoft using our data to make life better and easier for us as consumers, but there's a fine line here that shouldn't be crossed.

Orwell's visions laid out in his seminal work 1984 has often been used as a focal point for technological innovation. Indeed, with the advent of smart home devices, complete with both screens and built-in cameras and microphones, it comes as little surprise that this is where the comparisons start to begin. If you've read the book, you'll know that Winston's flat, much like everybody else's, is fitted with a constantly monitored Telescreen. With this, it surveys his entire life. As a result, with smart home devices such as Amazon's Echo line, there's always been allegations of the American firm listening into what otherwise could be deemed as private conversations that they've got no business to be a part of, contesting the idea that these large firms are being far too intrusive for anyone's liking.

Sure, there's merits in listening to some conversations, with the aim of improving a user service, in the same way that communication firms such as Virgin Media or Sky may record phone calls for user training purposes, which in turn should help to improve the service. We're all aware of this practice, and for businesses such as those, it makes a lot of sense to do so. Whist big tech firms such as Amazon or Facebook are, on the surface, providing a different service, they still have a need for such data. The true purpose of Amazon listening in to a minute fraction of any of our probably futile conversations with Alexa about the weather or playing your playlist of music is to improve the service, but, when digging deeper, other such purposes become a little more apparent.

It's no real surprise to anyone that Amazon listen in to these conversations, but there's a growing paranoia surrounding the extent to both what they know about us as consumers, and how much they're actually aware of. One of the BBC's latest Panorama documentaries explored this very topic in some detail, offering some intriguing discussion points in the process. The documentary demonstrated in clear detail how former Amazon executives are frightened by the direction that the supersized commerce firm is headed into, with the idea that, even since the very beginning back for Jeff Bezos and co in the late nineties, one of the best methods to ensure success was to harness the power of data. The emergence of click-based metrics and tracking cookies enable Amazon to build a persona of each individual customer, to then push certain products to the user. Amazon themselves have said that, despite a patent for conversation-rooted targeted advertising being filed way back in 2014, it isn't representative of the future of the firm.

With all this though, it's integral to understand the difference between understanding customer buying habits and invasion of privacy. With the way that Amazon appear to be going about things, it's erring on the side of an invasion of privacy, especially given the fact the whole charade of building characters out of buying habits. Spending evenings with beer and pizza, as some Amazon employees do, in such character building sessions does seem a bit obsessive, don't you think? In addition, whilst businesses often have an idea of who a product is aimed at, with the sheer size of Amazon's marketplace and variety of products sold, think how many such characters have been built over the years. It's frightening.

With this though, harnessing the power of data isn't all bad. Whilst it's only a small example, the data collected by Spotify has allowed for some interesting things. As a pretty big user myself, it's nice to mooch through the Discover Weekly playlist or the Daily Mixes that the service creates based on my listening habits. For these purposes, the collection of data makes sense, as it can be put to good use, and hopefully push undiscovered acts to new heights,

It's clear that the world hasn't been plunged into the Orwellian abyss just yet, but we are hurtling towards it quicker than expected. If firms such as Facebook and Amazon continue to indulge in dabbling in people's private lives, it's not going to end well for society. That being said, we'll have to wait and see what the next set of technological innovation brings and indeed, the next methods of prying into people's private lives.


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