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Big Brother is Watching You

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I can remember 1984 well, as it was the year after David Bowie’s biggest tour for the Let’s Dance album, and also ten years since Bowie had produced an album dedicated to George Orwell’s classic book 1984. The album was Diamond Dogs, featuring time-tested tracks like the title track and Rebel, Rebel.

The good old days.

“Big Brother is Watching You” George Orwell, 1984

Back then when I first started work, before Jurassic Park but after Star Wars, it was simple. You were at work and then you were not. Life was good. You went to the office at 09:00 and usually left around 5:30 to grab a few beers with the work mates.

Then email arrived. Oh, oh. But email was OK. It was contained at work. However, I learned early on the foibles of email when I sent a note out to the UK salesforce saying that the try-and-buy program operating in America would not be introduced over here. It’s a long story but, to keep it short, the UK leadership team had made this decision, but I was the one who communicated it over email. I soon learnt that email could get you in trouble when, on my first trip to meet the American leadership team, the Global Head of Sales came up to me and said: “so you’re the little shit who cancelled my program. Explain yourself.” Not the easiest way to found your career in a new firm.

Then the mobile phone arrived. That was good. It let you tell people you were running late, send text messages and do things like chase snakes.

Unfortunately, a thing called Facebook arrived in the mid-2000’s and was followed rapidly by twitter. Then my friends started using LinkedIn for being social and lines got blurred. Then my Asian friends asked me to use Whatsapp, WeChat and Line. Meanwhile, my telephone was no longer usable as a straight telephone as, due to the charges when travelling, I switched to Skype. Then Facebook spun off Messenger into a separate app, and another firm I’m involved with turned to Slack for all communications. Now I don’t know where to look.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” George Orwell, 1984

I wake up in the morning and routinely scan twitter for mentions and messages; then jump onto Facebook which usually makes me leap over to Messenger; once done, I read through the last 27 new messages on Slack, and accept all the connections and notifications and messages on LinkedIn; a couple of Whatsapps later, I finally get around to checking email.

In all of this, my brain is looking for the wood from the trees, the wheat from the chaff and the gold from the mud. I’m drowning in a sea of social mud. For every email worth reading, there are 20 that shouldn’t have come; for every tweet, there are 20 that weren’t worth the time; for every Facebook update, there are 20 that are just asides. You get the drift.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984

And the one thing that is clear in all of this is that the line between work and play has disappeared. Is checking my social and work updates in the same app work or play? If I start checking my apps from the moment I wake up to the last part of the day as I get into bed, work or play? And does anyone work 9-5 anymore, and then leave and relax? No updates, no emails, no nothing, except when working?

I don’t think so. In fact, it’s led to a world where your life is recorded for all to see for eternity. Employers are now regularly checking your past for your tweets, updates and thoughts, to see if you are who you say you are: a decent, respectable, hard-working character; or are you the little misogynistic, racist who posts anti-Semitic tweets, as found from 2012.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” George Orwell, 1984

And as I write this, I wonder why so many of the people I talk to about Ant Financial and Alibaba say: oh, but they’re just operating this model to give the Chinese government information about Chinese citizens.

Imagine a world where many of your daily activities were constantly monitored and evaluated: what you buy at the shops and online; where you are at any given time; who your friends are and how you interact with them; how many hours you spend watching content or playing video games; and what bills and taxes you pay (or not). It's not hard to picture, because most of that already happens, thanks to all those data-collecting behemoths like Google, Facebook and Instagram or health-tracking apps such as Fitbit. But now imagine a system where all these behaviours are rated as either positive or negative and distilled into a single number, according to rules set by the government. That would create your Citizen Score and it would tell everyone whether or not you were trustworthy. Plus, your rating would be publicly ranked against that of the entire population and used to determine your eligibility for a mortgage or a job, where your children can go to school - or even just your chances of getting a date.

A futuristic vision of Big Brother out of control? No, it's already getting underway in China, where the government is developing the Social Credit System (SCS) to rate the trustworthiness of its 1.3 billion citizens.

But what gets me, when I think about this, is that we don’t really care. If we’re generally decent, law-abiding citizens, does it matter if the government gets access to all of our data? It is only people who are trying to avoid the government that would want to shield their data.

Equally, is it unique to China? Not at all. After all, do you really think the NSA, GCHQ, Interpol and other law enforcement agencies aren’t accessing all of your Facebook, Twitter and Instagrams to find out the same details as the Chinese government is getting?

I don’t think so.

I'm not saying that the NSA spying on us isn't a terrible invasion of the privacy of private citizens; I'm just saying that we probably give away more than is supposedly being taken from us.

What is the point of my update?

I guess it’s that the world has pivoted radically from a separation of work and play, and from public activity to private thoughts, to one where work and play is merged seamlessly, as have your private thoughts become public activity. To fear government of other agencies knowing our private thoughts is tough but, as Black Mirror regularly shows, we are happy to give away our private thinking if it makes us happier and feel more loved and wanted. That’s what a lot of what we call social is really all about: feeling connected, included, loved and wanted. We have followers and friends, and there are more of them than we ever had in our old separated work and play world.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” George Orwell, 1984

Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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