“We Are Always Watching” was initially inspired by a really creepy true story. Can you tell us about it? You just gotta love New Jersey. In the land of Tony Soprano, there’s a million-dollar house in a quaint suburb that has stood dark and vacant. In 2014, a family bought what they thought would be their dream home. As soon as they moved in, they found cryptic and sometimes terrifying notes from someone who called himself (or herself) The Watcher. It appears this person is the third generation of stalkers keeping a close eye on the inhabitants of the house. Here’s just one of the notes: “My grandfather watched the house in the 1920s and my father watched in the 1960s. It is now my time. … I have be (sic) put in charge of watching and waiting for its second coming.” Naturally, the family picked up their kids and left. They tried to have the house razed but the local zoning board forbid it. They then rented it to another family who recently started receiving Watcher notes as well. It’s really eerie that this keeps happening and the Watcher can’t be caught.
George Orwell coined this phrase in the third paragraph of the first chapter of his novel “1984.” He writes, “It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU…” Later it appears on posters and television ads as a political slogan. This is political satire, and Big Brother in this story is the supreme authority of a totalitarian state called “Oceania,” where “the Party” has the highest authority over the people.
The phrase refers to the government’s surveillance of the people with listening devices and cameras, in a totalitarian society, where Big Brother is the head of the totalitarian regime. Everyone in this society is under surveillance by the authorities, which reminds people of an endless catchphrase “Big Brother is watching You,” showing a dictator’s mindset of a Big Brother. Generally, the idea conveys a line of propaganda, meaning citizens have to follow what a dictatorial government wants them to do, and if they do not, Big Brother will know, as it spies on them all the time.
Totalitarianism is a form of government and a political system that prohibits all opposition parties, outlaws individual and group opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high if not complete degree of control and regulation over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. In totalitarian states, political power is often held by autocrats, such as dictators (totalitarian dictatorship) and absolute monarchs, who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media in order to control the citizenry. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” a book that recounts the ways in which corporations and governments are using technology to influence our behavior. Zuboff is just the latest to chime in on “totalitarian technology” (or “total tech”), a term that describes devices and algorithms by which individuals forfeit their privacy and autonomy for the benefit of either themselves or some third party. 👀
Total tech is pervasive in the increasingly data-driven world of retail. Many shopping apps tap into your phone’s GPS to access your location, allowing retailers to send you advertisements the moment you’re walking past their storefront. Personalized pricing enables retailers to charge you the exact maximum that you would be willing to pay for a given product. Your personal data isn’t safe at home, either: Digital assistants like Amazon Alexa store your query history, meaning they know everything from your unique shopping history to your travel patterns to your music preferences.👀👀
Employers are also using total tech to track and monitor their workers. A growing number of companies use biometric time cards that scan an employee’s fingerprint, hand shape, retina, or iris. UPS outfits its trucks with sensors that track the opening and closing of doors, the engine of the vehicle, and the clicking of seat belts. Amazon is patenting an electronic wristband that would be used to track hand movements—making sure, for instance, that a warehouse worker stays busy moving boxes. Global freelancing platform Upwork runs a digital “Work Diary” program that counts keystrokes and takes screenshots of workers’ monitors.👀👀👀
Uptake of total tech has been particularly striking in government and politics. The New Orleans Police Department runs a “predictive policing” program that uses Big Data to compile a heat list of potential criminal offenders. The TSA operates its own total tech program, called Quiet Skies, which monitors and flags travelers based on “suspicious” behavior patterns. Travelers can land themselves on the Quiet Skies list by changing their clothes in the restroom, being the last person to board their flight, or even inspecting their reflection in a terminal window.
*** More nefariously, software developed at Stanford University enables anyone to manipulate video footage in real time. Now, anyone with a grudge could alter the facial expressions of a prominent politician making a speech, and then dub in new audio that completely changes the speech’s contents. *** 👀👀👀👀
Abroad, China is the poster child for extreme total tech programs. By 2020, China’s “social credit system” will monitor the behavior of each and every citizen, keeping tabs on everything from speeding tickets to social media posts critical of the state. Everyone will then be assigned their own unique “sincerity score”; a high score will be a requirement for anyone hoping to get the best housing, install the fastest Internet speeds, put their kids into the most prestigious schools, and land the most lucrative jobs.
We can look to history for the answer. The last time we saw a mood shift toward national community assisted by promethean new technologies was the 1930s, when in the midst of the Great Depression, beleaguered citizens empowered FDR and his New Deal Democrats to make sweeping changes to society. Back then, government harnessed huge technological breakthroughs to arm the nation and vanquish the enemy (in this case, fascism)—from mass radio broadcasts to mass assembly lines, from radar and code-breaking computers to proximity fuses and atomic fission. National leaders backed by a resolute public used new technology to achieve a peaceful and democratic world in which dangerously authoritarian regimes could be kept in check. Today, the players may be different—but the story could wind up the same.