Simon Baker (Program Director)

“Let there be a digital future, but let it be a human future first.”

Orwell’s 1984 makes us think of what may follow the current push for ESG responsibility — one to curb the dark side of social media and AI.

Visitors in recent days to Mobile World Congress, much smaller this year but still an important event, might have liked to recall when they strolled around the centre of host city Barcelona that here took place many of the events that inspired George Orwell, real name Eric Blair, to write 1984, one of the most telling political novels of the 20th century and one in which techniques of mass surveillance and manipulation of information play a central role.

During the Spanish Civil War, in the “May Days” of 1937, 84 years ago, Franco’s opponents turned for a while on themselves. Orwell got caught up in a shootout in the city centre, which saw the Trotskyist militia POUM, of which he was a member, the target of the Communist government based in Barcelona. The POUM militia were shot up as they held on to the city telephone exchange.

A Foretaste of Mass Surveillance

The world has changed and generally improved a lot since 1984 was written after World War 2, but some of the technologies Orwell foresaw are now arriving, if somewhat later than in the year of the title of the book.

The novel takes glum postwar Britain and imposes upon it a political regime much like Stalin’s Russia. It becomes really frightening through Orwell’s vision of the advantages given to oppressive regimes by surveillance technologies.

In 1984 “telescreens” installed in the homes of the middle class and intelligentsia not only pump out propaganda but at the same time see and listen to what they are up to.

The job of the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, is to rewrite history to match the political convenience of the present. It does not take a huge jump to see the ways in which the novel foretold how some of today’s technologies could be exploited.

Ambivalent Role of Communications Technologies

Generally the march of mass media has been positive for freedom of speech. Maybe Martin Luther could not have instigated the Reformation if Gutenberg had not invented mass printing close to 80 years before.

In the 20th century, the record is mixed. Exploitation and control of radio and the propaganda newsreels aired in cinemas were crucial to the Third Reich. But then the fax machine helped bring down Communism.

Satellite television brought Western news and values into countries that had not been exposed of them before. It also started the process towards a splintering of the media audience that has accelerated with the internet, with so many groups narrowing their exposure just to the material that reflects their own sympathies, while social media speeds untruths around the planet.

As MWC delegates run from meeting to meeting through the upbeat newsfeeds of the show, they might like to reflect that despite all the marvellous new technologies being unveiled, and the enhancements on view since the year before, it is the way technology is used that really matters, not what the technology is.

Mass surveillance is only growing and the ways in which it is used will be one of the defining differences between democratic and autocratic states in the next few decades.

ESG Shows How Opinions Can Change

There is a new momentum in Europe for business to encompass societal problems and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Large sections of society have realised that climate change is such a big problem that it will be insoluble unless industry works to that end too.

ESG departments are now all the rage and companies are scrambling, sincerely or not, to reduce their environmental footprint and be more inclusive in their work practices — and to tell consumers about all the progress they are making.

Faced with the huge impact of smartphones and social media on society, it does not take a big leap of the imagination to see what could be next up — that the IT industry may be expected to make a much bigger effort to play a role in reining in the darker side of its impact.

This may sound like an opinion piece in the UK’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper, but the surge in interest in ESG responsibility across Europe now shows how public opinion can change.

A Sharpening of Critiques

One of the leading academics to set up a critical analytic framework in IT and AI is the American Shoshana Zuboff, who has created the term “surveillance capitalism” — the monetisation of data captured through monitoring people’s movements and behaviours online and elsewhere. Zuboff is not only a reputed academic at Harvard: she also teaches at its business school.

Zuboff defines companies that try to manipulate our behaviour through monitoring all our choices as possessing instrumentarian power, and believes they are dangerous in trying to influence and observe our behaviour, and that they are insufficiently regulated.

Robert Proctor, a professor at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has defined a new area of study, “agnotology” — the deliberate creation of ignorance, for instance through spreading incorrect scientific information on social media.

Linked to this is the argument that the central role of social media in spreading falsehoods about vaccination or climate change is in danger of preventing democracies from effectively tackling such issues.

This sort of opinion could go mainstream. Just as we now see governments urging their citizens to make choices that reduce environmental impact, it’s not difficult to imagine a move to rein in smartphone addiction and the ills it propagates — public nudge campaigns not only to get people out of their cars and walk, but off their smartphones and talk.

The mobile explosion has been so quick, and so big, that its impact is not yet fully clear. Meanwhile the development and use of AI is just in its early stages, so issues are only going to grow.

Some firms have already found advantage from responding to rising public concerns. Apple is gaining more loyalty among its users with its strong stand on privacy of user data. Dell and HP are helping their buyers to navigate questions of data security on PCs too.

Zuboff has a catchy phrase: “Let there be a digital future, but let it be a human future first.”

No doubt that is what she tells her students at Harvard Business School. 1984 helps us to understand how important that sentiment may be for everyone.

Finally, back to Orwell. He survived the May Days unscathed, but less than two weeks later, now out of Barcelona and back at the front facing the Franco forces, he nearly paid the ultimate price for his political commitments. His lanky frame made him a target in the trenches for snipers, and he was shot through the throat. By a miraculous angle of entry and exit, the bullet missed his main artery, his vocal chords and his spine. A couple of centimetres to one side and he would not have written either Animal Farm, published in 1945, or 1984, which was completed in 1949 as Orwell’s last work before his death from tuberculosis the following year.

 

Join our webcast on the 8th of July at 15:30 BST to hear what our analysts have to say on the impact of the Mobile World Congress announcements on the industry as a whole. They will discuss what the many 5G, IoT, edge, artificial intelligence and cloud-related developments will mean for ICT providers such as telecommunication service providers, hyperscalers, network equipment producers and device makers

To learn more about our upcoming research, please contact Simon Baker, or head over to https://www.idc.com/eu and drop your details in the form on the top right.

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