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Little Sibling

By Mark Ridinger

We are all familiar with the idea of Big Brother, famously put forth in Orwell’s 1984. And indeed, with the increasing density of public video cameras, and electronic “eavesdropping”, the government functioning as such a Big Brother is more a concern today than at any time before. But what of the ability for all of us—ordinary citizens—using the new digital mobile technologies from smart phones to smart watches and Google Glass to record what is happening around us with ease? The desire seems to be unquenchable; massive amounts of data are being captured and stored already. Wearable technology in the hands of nearly everyone and used insatiably will create not only a feeling but a reality of being recorded and observed nearly 24/7/365. Add to that the ubiquity of the Cloud, where Big Data goes to reside, and increasingly better analytic software like facial recognition, and what is created is hundreds of millions of intelligent chroniclers of all that is happening, not just in their own lives but yours and mine. In other words, is the real threat (or just as big of one) going to come not from Big Brother, but from “Little Brother”? Or better put so as to not exclude either gender: Little Sibling.

The impact of this on privacy—generically—has been discussed quite a bit, but is there another, less obvious and perhaps more subversive impact? Put technically: do we risk becoming objectified and with it, being shamed. Shame here is used in a very technical sense of the word; not so much in its colloquial use as in the feeling one often has after doing something morally or ethically wrong, for example. The French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was interested in this concept, and defined shame as what results from being observed by the Other as an Object (“shame of oneself before the Other”). Shame, in this sense, can be a powerful tool, motivator, and manipulator. If we become aware of being continuously monitored by one another, can we be shamed into acting in a way we otherwise wouldn’t? Perhaps those actions could be better at times, but what does it portend to creating behaviors that are not of our own intent, but mass-produced and homogenized? Imagine never ending and seamless dusk-to-dawn politically correct behavior; the PC of the masses.

Or worse. James Madison addressed methods to deal with what he called the problem of the tyranny of the majority in the Federalist Papers number 10. He suggested creating a society that was homogenous in opinions, interests, and thought. Fortunately he deemed that to be impractical, but is it still impractical today? The French political theorist, Tocqueville, a proponent of the then still emerging concept of American democracy, also worried about the tyranny of the majority. The great late historian Jacques Barzun wrote about this idea in his review of Tocqueville, “…and the tyranny was not legal only, but social also—pressure from the neighbors, tacit or expressed.” Therefore, will a technological dystopia emerge that allows powerful entities to set a policy or agenda, and use Little Sibling to enforce it, albeit unwillingly or unknowingly, in some sort of newfound social tyranny? Will the knowledge of being constantly observed and objectified, from and by our peers who then instantly upload their bounty to the social media cloud, create a mindless group think of the masses—of the majority? This would likely be far more potent of a force than being “nudged”, as some behavioral psychologist have advocated. This is not the stuff of conspiracy theory—the ability to use mass propaganda is well known and real.

So who or what would possibly try and use Little Sibling to advance some agenda or policy? Naturally, thoughts of government come to mind, trying to advance a new policy paradigm or win a landslide election. But what if it is coopted by the private sector instead—by the corporations that make and control the technological ‘levers’? In essence what advertising tries to do, but to an entire other level of effectiveness. Or what if Little Sibling was unknowingly recruited by just one, incredible charismatic individual, savvy in the ways of social media and capable of creating a cult of personality? Either way, without a doubt, whoever controls Little Sibling—to the extent that is possible—would have an extraordinarily powerful army at their disposal.