THE BLOG

1984 Is Only a Year Away

28/06/2013 17:25 BST | Updated 28/08/2013 10:12 BST

It's perhaps appropriate that the biggest news this month, a month that marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, is a story about privacy.

What would Orwell, whose dystopian novel 1984 painted a nightmare vision of a society under constant surveillance, have to say about the current scandal engulfing the U.S. and British security services? Prism, the internet monitoring system drawing on the vast data pools the likes of Google and Facebook hold on citizen's across the globe, sounds more than a little Orwellian.

What for that matter would he have to say about Google's Glass; which seemingly has the potential to render every private moment public, every gesture, experience and of course purchase, recorded for posterity and future reference.

His vision of the future might have been 30 or so years early, but the technology that can bring the world of 1984 to life is now with us. Governments, technology companies, organisations of every kind and, of course, brands are being confronted with opportunities to collect and use data about consumption and behaviour on a monumental scale.

We are all becoming aware that every single day we leave a digital footprint behind that records our movements via our mobile phones, our media consumption or shopping etc. But we are for good or ill on the brink of a world where almost every experience or touch point between people, colleagues, retailers, transport, government, utilities, media, search, advertising, healthcare, education is digitally augmented, recorded and integrated into a personal behavioural history.

The hardware that will bring this to life such as Glass, face-recognition software, radio-frequency identification systems; nano-processors enmeshed in every conceivable location from your car to your mug to your underwear is already coming to market.

So George Orwell might say "told you so", but even he would have been gobsmacked by the absolute reach into people's everyday lives that today's emerging technologies might have.

Government, business and brands could soon have the capacity to know who we are, what we're doing, what we're seeing, our mood, location and behaviour at any given time.

Privacy from Big Brother-style government monitoring may be capturing the headlines, but such technology also creates huge potential for brands to subtly and constantly influence behaviours.

Imagine for a moment a new kind of tech-driven loyalty system. With a huge number of subscribers, it knows almost everything about them. As a result it can reward them for "desirable behaviours," or at least everything they believe or are persuaded to believe is a desirable behaviour.

This can include the obvious things like purchases, but also for looking at an image, reading an advert, logging in to a system, test driving a product, reading the news, watching the news, watching a film, trying something new, not trying something new, having a good review from your manager at work, passing an exam at school, passing a driving test, being on time for the crèche, cleaning your teeth, taking your vitamins, completing a course of antibiotics, voting in the general election, voting for a political party. When you think about it, is there really anything, any action that cannot be incentivized?

Very soon, every action that this new system's subscribers believe to be a function of their own free will could have an additional external vector, perhaps not a decisive influence, but an influence nevertheless.

The opportunities, potential abuses and consequences of such a scenario are huge and profound. We would lose the purity of our decision making. Of course you could argue that society is already awash with external influences such as advertising. The point is though, that these are fragmented and are not joined to a single data management system.

There is of course one fundamental difference between Orwell's futuristic vision and today's reality - democracy. In most of the West, the debate about how far Government's technology companies and other businesses should go in sharing and using personal data is growing in line with awareness.

Governments will face on-going scrutiny in their attempts to balance the need to monitor certain individuals and groups to prevent terrorist outrages with the need to ensure our rights as citizens to at least a modicum of privacy are maintained.

It is in the private sector and in-particular the world of retail and branded products, where the relationship between knowledge and influence will create the most opportunities, but also generate on-going dilemma's.

Just because a brand can use emerging technologies to "get closer" to consumers through informed targeting, doesn't mean to say they should.

There is a danger that, like Winston Smith, 1984's tragic main protagonist, consumers will start to turn against big brands and corporations. Go too far and brands may risk permanent alienation or reputational damage.

You can already see the seeds of this check on technology and data usage in the reaction to Google's Glass technology with the rapid coinage of phases such as "Glass-holes"; some people simply don't feel comfortable with the idea. When Sir Martin Sorrell fires a warning shot across the bows of tech-giants such as Facebook and Google about their attitude to consumer data, you know the issue is well and truly on the agenda.

Brands will need to balance trust and knowledge very carefully and consumers will increasingly expect a say on how information about them is used.