Big Brother’s Good Side


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Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.
— George Orwell, 1984


In January 1984, Apple released a commercial, for its one and only national broadcast, to announce the premiere of the Macintosh computer (the commercial also aired one time on local television in Idaho on December 31, 1983). The award-winning commercial is said to be the first ever developed specifically for airing during the Super Bowl.

The commercial is set in a futuristic auditorium staged to represent the atmosphere characterized in George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Hundreds of people file into the auditorium, all looking alike and dressed in similar drab attire. A large video screen in the front of the auditorium shows the face of a man representing a Big Brother type of character discussing the importance of conformity. Then a woman, being chased by armored security guards, sprints into the auditorium dressed in a colorful jogging outfit and carrying a large hammer. She hurls the hammer at the screen, shattering it. The message is then announced that the Macintosh computer will be released in the coming days.

The directive of the commercial was meant to be revolutionary, in a sense, in that it indicated a need to stray from the mainstream, characterless conventions of the computers of the day and break to something new and different that would promote standing out in the crowd. However, in hindsight, the commercial was sort of a harbinger of a new cycle of oversight and control.

Technology companies (in many ways led by Apple) have been quickly developing more methods of tracking processes and individuals, observing and capitalizing on people’s behavior, and, in some cases, controlling what they see and do. Surveying has been a key part of market research for a long time, but that process typically involved a lot of voluntary contribution. Now, location services on cell phones, if activated, allow apps to know exactly where a customer is at any time. Should there be a concern of potential misuse of this data?

Online analytics may be the most common way of tracking behavior, and like a phone’s location services, this is done behind the scenes, often without the knowledge of those who are tracked. Tech companies rightfully promote these capabilities as being useful to the individual. If we are going to see advertising, for instance, it’s nice that it is appropriately targeted so we learn about companies and products that apply to us. But people often express concerns of too much exposure to personal information and the choices they make.

In another interesting development of tracking technology, Amazon was recently awarded two patents for wristbands that could be used to monitor employees in the work environment. The fundamental purpose of the band is to guide the employee’s hand in such a way to perform tasks more accurately and efficiently in applications such as picking and placing of packages. The counterview is that it could potentially be used to know the employee’s hand location at all times, and this information may sometimes be nobody else’s business.

Some people may see only a fine line between productive tracking and an invasion of privacy. But it’s hard to deny the ways these tools can increase efficiency. The shop floor is seeing huge productivity gains through the implementation of data-driven manufacturing, which monitors, collects data about and reports on the effectiveness of the manufacturing process. Machine tools and other types of manufacturing equipment are connected to a network to allow monitoring software to keep a constant eye on uptime and efficiency. Data from tooling can help to refine cutting parameters to improve accuracy and reduce scrap. On-machine inspection equipment can automatically facilitate in-process adjustments to refine the cutting process.

It’s important to realize that all of these tools have been developed not for nefarious reasons, but to improve the way we do business or the way we live. So many technological developments and modern conveniences may have potential for both positive and negative usage, but rarely are they deemed to be worthy of rejection because of the mere potential of misuse. Unintended consequences may be a risk of progress, but the positives outweigh the negatives while we move forward.