Public employees who dutifully studied their George Orwell in high school might not have been prepared. They were only keeping an eye out for Big Brother, but Little Brother is watching you, too.
In his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell warned us about Big Brother, the symbol of the totalitarian state that examines your every move and knows what TV shows you watch, what library books you read, even what you say to your friends. Sort of a cross between Facebook and Google — except owned and monitored by the government rather than giant U.S. corporations.
As technology continues to develop, Orwell's warning is more important than ever. Closed-circuit TV surveillance is everywhere. Face recognition software really works. So much of everything we do floods through a single pipeline, the internet. Big Brother is still out there and getting more powerful every day.
But Little Brother — reinforced by the public masses armed with digital cameras and easy access to social networks that disseminate information — is nothing to scoff at.
Power to the people
So far, digesting all the information being collected is impossible, says Wally Kowal, president of Kitchener-based Canadian Cloud Computing. "It's just the sheer volume of the data," says Kowal, whose company is setting up a cloud to store information in Canada governed by Canadian law, out of the reach of U.S. authorities.
He warns that there are already computers out there monitoring and mining information that you thought was private. He says they can scoop it up, "mirror" it and send the stream of data on without you noticing. However, Kowal says intelligent systems that can "connect all the dots" don't exist — yet.
But as transit employees in Toronto discovered recently, another kind of intelligent system is already in place. These systems, driven by social networking tools, are a powerful force for discipline and retribution. And they have changed the balance of economic and social power.
It used to be that establishment figures had all the clout. A uniform or a suit and tie meant you knew people and could pull strings. That you had the power of institutions behind you. And that you were a member of the class that controlled the closed-circuit TVs on elevators, buses, shops and street corners.
Now, Big Brother's annoying relative is here as well. As if remembering to act normal in front of Big Brother weren't difficult enough. Now, we have to watch out for young punks with good electronics.
Little Brother is watching.
Little Brother matures
Little Brother isn't exactly new. As long ago as 1991, George Holliday played the role of Little Brother when he videotaped the police beating of Rodney King.
More recently, in 2007, Paul Pritchard was watching (and recording on his phone) when the RCMP shocked Robert Dziekanski with a Taser several times, resulting in his death.
The difference between those incidents and now is that mobile-phone-mounted cameras are ubiquitous and the video on them is even easier to circulate. Search a few versions of the phrase "police beating video" on the web, and you will see what I mean.
The job of Big Brother is to keep the little guy in line. The power of Little Brother is different. His power grows according to the status of the subject he's watching. A person in a uniform, a business suit or a well-known face doing something they shouldn't be doing is far more vulnerable today than ever before.
Little Brother is treated with the same kind of ambiguity with which we treat whistle-blowers. Ostensibly, they are heroes, rooting out unspoken evil or sloth in big organizations. But while whistle-blowers are officially praised, they are institutionally reviled. They turn power on its head. The established order rebels against the turning of the tables.
Turning power on its head is useful.
Just as public figures, whether in politics or business, are constantly reminded that every word they write may be subject to public examination, now, with Little Brother around, they must guard their every public act, too. Donning a funny hat, even for a few seconds, is political baggage to be carried forever.
Public figures are resigned to the paparazzi. They quickly learn to watch their Ps and Qs. Ticket-takers and bus drivers have been warned.
But now, even lesser mortals are vulnerable. Yes, you, too. An urgent outdoor pee on the way home from the bar might seem a relatively harmless lapse. Not so much if it is recorded by Little Brother and posted on the web.
Even your own dad can do it to you. How will "David After Dentist" feel when he reaches his teenage years, that time of life when even last year's school photo is embarrassing.
Big Brother is dangerous. That's why we need laws that restrict big government and big business from peering too deeply into our lives. That's why it is crucial to keep data encrypted and keep computer servers isolated. Big Brother is oppressive.
Little Brother is like the snoopy neighbor who peeks out from behind the curtains every few minutes, protecting you from burglars but exerting an irritating social pressure at the same time. He can be annoying, but Little Brother is ultimately a useful pest.