Monday, March 27, 2006

Big Brother and the Internet ...

The year is 1960 and a bunch of faceless men in dark suits are sitting in a smokey backroom discussing how best to establish a system of surveillance that creeps into every aspect of the public's life. One young man pipes up and says he has an idea that would have the public clamouring to pay for the hardware to install in their own homes, to subsidise their own surveillance.

Does this sound like science fiction? In America of 1960, was it conceivable to anyone that, some 40 years later, Americans would be arguing not so much whether a right to privacy existed in our homes, but whether there was anything we could do to stop corporate spying and collection of our personal information? In that world, the notion that the American public would have financed the very means by which they are watched would have seemed too good to be true to our little cadre of back-rooms folks.

And yet, thats largely how the growth of the internet has gone over the past few decades. Back in 1960, when my fictional group of men were coming up with there ideas, the internet didn't exist. Instead, something called ARPANET was being developed by scientists and military installations around the globe to provide a way to share information easily amongst themselves.

Back in the early days of ARPANET, the idea that it would ever become a 'public' tool was literally ridiculous. Beyond the incredible economic barriers involved in computers and networking back then, the sheer complexity of the protocols and the interfaces meant that only the most dedicated people would take the time to learn how to use it properly.

Initially, there was no World Wide Web, or even HTML. The first 'internet' basically consisted of text email protocols and little more. Searching and getting information was a complex series of difficult queries, which returned dense, text based results. However, for the scientists who needed to share information on a massive, super-fast scale, it was the only way to do it, complex as it was.

The idea that such a mass of complexity would become what we see as the WWW today was quite lieterally laughable at the time. It wasn't until a more understandable protocol, html and www, was developed that it became clear that the internet could have public applications. The rest, as they say, is history, but its interesting to note that without the rise of the internet, or internet commerce, over the past decade, largely fuelled by customer demand, the issues of identity theft, or online surveillance, of profiling would not be nearly so pronounced.

When we think about Big Brother, we usually think of systems imposed in us from the outside. In this case, we've invited Big Brother into our homes willingly and excitedly, on the heels of broadband media and streaming music. If there really were a group of nefarious men in 1960 trying to set up a system like this, and someone had suggested to them that the emergin ARPANET would eventually provide a 2-way conduit into every home in America (ok, ALMOST every home, and soon every home), that everyone from marketers to government agencies can mine and monitor, would they have even believed it?

From my perspective today, it seems almost surreal actually. 40 years ago, a giant defence network was being developed to help share scientific information more quickly and easily, and today, that same defence network extends into the homes of nearly every person in the first world, and growing numbers of people in the third world. Looking back, you almost wonder if there was a group of men directing it all somewhere, lol ... it sure worked out well for anyone who might have been trying to set up a global surveillance network ...


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