Is Big Business the new Big Brother?
Imagine a huge room; a secret bunker thirty floors below Microsoft's Redmond campus. In that room, imagine a dizzying array of video screens, like the security offices of Vegas casinos, at least the ones in Oceans 11 or NBC’s Las Vegas. Now imagine, on each of the hundreds of screens, the images of people in their living rooms, dorm rooms, and bedrooms. People jumping around, waving, yelling and screaming. In my hypothetical room, Microsoft is using the cameras built into the new “Xbox Kinect” gaming systems to secretly spy on the consumers using them.
The Xbox Kinect attaches to an existing Xbox 360. It’s the next wave of gaming: a controller-free interface. But what control are we really losing? At the same time Microsoft is creating a new way for you to play video games, they could also be giving themselves a front row seat into your life.
Imagine Steve Ballmer, who's betting Q4 on the Kinect, pressuring the XBox team to do the most extensive focus groups possible. Some enterprising engineer says to Ballmer, “You know, this device basically is a camera and microphone in every user’s home. We could secretly make the world our focus group… just for a little bit.”
Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? But with the Kinect, we're adding a camera and a microphone into an operating system that we can’t control, all plugged into an internet connection that can silently communicate with Microsoft without us knowing. How much do you really trust Microsoft? How much do you really trust Sony, with their new PlayStation Move system, or the camera on every Nintendo Wii?
We used to live in a culture of fear, now we live in an era of trust. We bring surveillance equipment into our house voluntarily, hoping tech companies won’t be tempted to break the law and peek into our homes. Do we even realize this?
I still believe my fundamental right to privacy is being observed, even though cold, hard logic tells me to believe differently. I’m already resigned to the fact that my every online movement is logged, tracked and traded, while being cross referenced with my spending habits, medical records and credit card statements. I have the tools to defend myself, but I'm not willing to sacrifice my lifestyle. As long as convenience trumps vigilance, big business will always be able to take advantage of me. To big business, I’m a data set. A psychographic.
Why do I trust big tech more than big corporations, big government or Wall Street? Hasn’t corporate America already proven to us that we shouldn’t trust them? Because when I envision the leaders of big government or Wall Street, I imagine other people. People I don’t know. People I don’t relate to. But when I think about the leaders of big tech, I see an alternate version (a more successful version) of myself. And if I believe the people I identify with have lost their moral compass, what does that say about me?
But it’s more than that. My relationship with my gadgets is one of the most personal, intimate relationships I have. (Yes, second to my wife, but after that, it gets dicey.) If I was being betrayed by my iPad, I don't know if I could ever love again. If I found out one of my gadgets was secretly selling personal information about me and my family, it would drive me crazy. (Thinking of the famous scene from Godfather II, I imagine myself kissing my DVR and saying, “I know it was you, TiVo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”) To live in a world where I can’t trust those closest to me… I don’t want to live in that world.
Yes, I know that is already happening. But I still have to blindly trust. Because the end of trust is the end of hope. I still want to bury my head in the iOS and pretend that my tech only wants the best for me, with no ulterior motive. Is this a childlike way to handle the situation? Maybe so. Please, let me stay a kid for a little while longer. A kid with really cool toys.