Thursday, May 08, 2014

1984 + 30

Back in 7th grade we had some discussion in history class long since forgotten but was ended by the statement "Remember, 1984 is only eight years away". While the rumor had it George Orwell picked the title 1984 from switching the last two digits from the year he wrote the book, 1984 the year loomed large ahead in that cold war world we lived in.

1984 the year itself came and went without much hoopla beyond a unmemorable movie adaptation.

I was reminded of 1984 by a recent play adapted from the book at Brandeis where my daughter now attends. They told the story quite effectively in flashback during the torture of Winston Smith.

And now we sit three decades later with revelations that the NSA track who we call and contact and Google knows nearly everything about me, including where I am at all times. Dave Eggers recent novel The Circle draws a rather direct line from the Internet giants of today to the world of 1984.

The Internet also offers the greatest deterrent to 1984, encouraging free-flowing quick dissemination of information and ideas, at least in the countries that allow it.

We've hit the technical capabilities both to enable and prevent 1984. So what happens next?


  1. Transparency and internet freedom are two among the great issues of our times. I fear that not enough people understand this.

  2. Hopefully: net neutrality to keep the information free, quick, and flowing for anyone who wants it.

  3. I see several issues, only one of which was of concern to Owell

    1) Big Brother (Government) spying on everyone. This was Orwell's concern

    2) Big Brother (Corporations) We check off that we agree with facebooks (or whoever) policy and then our information is being sold to someone else.... so
    they can advertise to us. If its only used to target us for Ads then is it just an annouyance or a serious problem?

    3) Little brother (a term I first saw in the awesome book Blown to Bits). Individual citizens or groups of them can collect data and use it and post it. If a private citizen takes down the license plate number of everyone who visited Lance's house and his other neighbors house and got a good picture of Lance's neighborhoo--- that sounds creepy.

    4) We just GIVE our data away!. One of the best Onion videos was about Facebook being a CIA plot- if you want peoples data just ask for it.

    5) Target and other stores store our credit card numbers for their and our conviencance. The IRS stores our SS numbers. That in itself may be benign, but
    breakins DO happen.

    6) Spam. If Orwell or other writers had predicted spam I would be very impressed!

    bill g.

    1. Another Orwellian outcome is the irretrievable destruction of free-market insurance — healthcare insurance in particular.

      Once upon a time, insurance purchases could be conceived as free-market negotiations between rational Jeffersonian citizens … with folks like (mathematician) Nathaniel Bowditch and (composer) Charles Ives in the role of insurance-sellers.

      Nowadays, citizens negotiate not with fellow citizens, but with amoral privacy-invading corporate surveillance algorithms.

      Can human-versus-computer insurance markets be simultaneously efficient, unregulated, and privacy-respecting?

      The STEM community appreciates that the algorithmic answer is "pick two" … and USA's Republican Party (especially its ideologically libertarian wing) is severely challenged by the political dilemmas that are associated to this game-theoretic reality.

    2. Follow-on question  Do Computational Complexity readers conceive that on-line quotations for automobile and/or home insurance are not mediated by data-scraping privacy-invading corporate surveillance algorithms?

      Classroom exercise  Assess whether data-scraping services that evaluate graduate-school applicants can predict future academic performance comparably well to grades and/or letters of recommendation. Can graduate schools ethically develop and/or purchase such services and act upon them covertly? Why or why not? What fraction of today's computer science graduate students, after graduation, will work for enterprises that provide data-scraping services?