TOC Back to 1984, with the benefit of hindsight Your Turn

April 26, 2011

Why is George Orwell's master piece so famous when the future it forecast fell so far off the mark? Perhaps this is because, echoing its own plot, it reveals and taps our deepest fear. Isn't subjection to mind control the antithesis of what it means to be fully human?

But mostly George Orwell offered us a rich template. Even if the latter reflects neither the actual year 1984 nor our present time, it comes too close to the truth on some points to be dismissed as pure fantasy and, even when it fails, always inspires useful comparisons.

"In a state shop [...], dead-eyed middle-aged men [...] were staring at screens full of numbers", writes Simon Kuper (*). While the atmosphere he creates has a definite Orwellian feel, he refers to gambling. Whether in China, where he was traveling, or in the United States, as long as it benefits American casinos, the embrace of gambling by the state reminds one of Huxley's Brave New World more than George Orwell's Oceania.

Focused on football, the non American kind, Simon Kuper stresses what to fear most today is the influence of those intent on making money, not laws. "When the sums bet on games dwarf the players' wages, it's no wonder match-fixing has become a global, stable and mature industry".

Match-fixing of course is but one form of insider trading. While Raj Rajaratnam awaits the popular verdict of his jury, we recommend reading the quote Simon Kuper attributes to Nick Hornby. "Once we begin to doubt that what we are seeing is real, then we cease to care [...] and without the caring, it is all over". Replace care with trust, and Nick Hornby might as well be speaking of the whole of commerce and banking.

Isn't though George Orwell's most glaring mistake technical in nature? Forget forcing bulky telescreens on unwilling subjects. In hindsight and with a thirty years delay, society's ubiquitous electronic device is found to be a smartphone or a tablet avidly snatched by consumers.

Yet at second thought what characterizes the Orwellian telescreen is not what it is but how it is controlled. And for all their apparent smartness, cellphones and tablets are manipulated less by their users than by their makers. Aren't companies which sell them bent on controlling consumers just as Big Brother its fellow citizens?

As reported by Nick Bilton (**), "the iPhone and 3G versions of the iPad began loggin users' locations a year ago". I cannot wait to see IBM depicting Apple as Big Brother in an ad campaign. Meanwhile Apple's ominous intents remain wrapped in mystery on par for the firm.

At least "aviation communications and technology company SITA" clearly wants to track "travelers' movements based on the Wi-Fi-emitting devices they carr[y]" as they moved through airports, per Christine Negroni (***). Still "Dave Bakker, senior vice president for SITA Global Services" falls back on fluent Newspeak. "Only devices [are] followed, not individuals". Today even the FTC doubts there is such a thing as "non personally identifiable information"! Why not also intone Google's mirror mantra, users are only followed by my machines, not my employees?

Tablets, including electronic book readers, likewise bring out the worst controlling behavior from their makers and participating content providers. "Electronic book" for instance is pure Newspeak. A book is something its buyer possesses, to read, lend and copy for private usage without limits. An electronic book is a permission granting one access to a piece of readable content subject to the terms of the seller's service agreement.

And so it came that Amazon made news by "let[ting] users of its Kindle e-reader borrow electronic books from two-thirds of US libraries", as Barney Jopson and David Gelles report (****). If, that is, the publisher agrees. "HarperCollins [...] requir[es] that its e-books expire once they have been borrowed from libraries 26 times". I am not impressed by such grudging generosity, which can be terminated at any time without notice.

Newspeak apart, Amazon and HarperCollins are of course entitled to set the rules of their own game. Now the New York Times charges its online readers $260 a year for "Web access and an iPad app" according to Jeremy W. Peters (*****), why be surprised when Claire Cain Miller writes "Amazon is shaving another $25 off the price of its Kindle [...], with the help of advertisers" (******)?

If the business model behind content publishing and delivery ends up a mix of unit sales and subscriptions plus some advertising revenues, this has been the daily newspaper model for a long time. Offer control and user control are not to be confused. Is my previous accusation exaggerated?

This would be to miss Simon Kuper's lesson which is, once you have created a big enough market, such as getting the Chinese to gamble online on European soccer matches, and the right conditions for fixing the results, such as by making them dependent on a few "poorly paid players", the pressure to take advantage of this situation for making money unfairly is "the biggest threat" to what is otherwise a perfectly fine system.

Who will argue today consumer digital advertising is not a big enough market? Who can deny the technology behind smartphones and tablets, which Jonathan Zittrain calls tethered devices to emphasize their being centrally controlled, creates an opportunity to fix the results by spying on the users. Apple can track my every step, Amazon my every page turn, a nightmarish extreme neither Coach Bill Belichick nor Mitch's Firm could imagine?.

Forget George Orwell's vision of a highly visible, overbearing dictator. Simon Kuper's warnings of criminal organizations picking consumers' pockets unheeded is closer to reality.

In time of peace, eschew pure political power, instead fix a society's economy as legal insiders. By 1984 Deng Xiaoping had replaced Mao Zedong.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Why football is in a fix, by Simon Kuper (Financial Times) - April 16, 2011
  • (**) ......... Tracking File Found In iPhones, by Nick Bilton (New York Times) - April 21, 2011
  • (***) ....... Tracking Your Wi-Fi Trail, by Christine Negroni (New York Times) - March 22, 2011
  • (****) ..... Amazon to launch library service for Kindle, by Barney Jopson and David Gelles (Financial Times) - April 21, 2011
  • (*****) ... Times Rolls Out Its Pay Design For Web Users, by Jeremy W. Peters (New York Times) - March 18, 2011
  • (******) . Amazon to Sell the Kindle Reader at Lower Price, but With Advertising Added, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - April 12, 2011
April 2011
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