Utopia or Dystopia: Is This Our Future in Cyberspace?

[This essay is cross-posted from my Strategic Ramblings blog.]

Imagine the following scenario:

You are at a store. There isn’t a human employee to be seen. There are two or three people working in the mammoth superstore, but all are out of sight. One of these employees sits around reading magazines, because her only job is to handle increasingly rare cases in which something goes wrong. You pick up items and as you do so, through the “magic” of radio frequency identification (RFID), they are added to your digital tab as you put them in the cart. As you go methodically through your short list, you pick up some tampons that your wife requested. In an automated process, the system accesses your social network files and easily notices that your wife’s time of month happens to be approaching, and the system seamlessly transfers an e-pon from her account to yours without you even noticing. The system knows her time both from a clustering of purchases around a certain date and by a particular purchase made on a business trip in London (no one buys personal care products in a foreign country unless they have immediate need.) Unbeknownst to you, your wife’s time of month is but one piece of information contained in a huge file on her in a server farm in a nondescript complex in Kentucky. Every purchase she has ever made resides somewhere as raw data, and computers analyze and process the information so that it is useful for marketing. There is a similar file for you, as there is for everybody. Since there is no checkout line anymore, the system sends e-pons and little reminders to your smart phone or digi-pad to facilitate impulse buys.  You walk out of the store through a narrow channel, and your account is debited for the purchases you made wirelessly. The first set of sliding doors opens as cameras scan your face and facial recognition software identifies you as the individual tagged to the smart phone by which the purchases were made. The outer doors roll open smoothly.

As you walk down the street occasionally a camera will catch sight of you. Facial recognition software identifies you and links to a consumer history database for the purpose of shooting you e-pons or changing a sign to display an advertising for the sequel to a movie you saw two years ago and again recently rented via your internet/TV system. You pass a blond woman who is so stunning you can’t help but let your eyes linger a bit too long. Little do either of you know there are a much more malicious pair of eyes tracking her. It turns out that an employee for the data management /marketing consultancy that runs the system linking cameras via facial recognition programs to social networking sites has become infatuated with her. He is an electrician and only works when something is broken, and, thus, has too much time on his hands for tracking this lady around. He can follow her routines by accessing systems that are totally automated, and, thus, considered beyond corruption. Computers don’t know or care that the woman is beautiful; they only know to do what they are programmed to do, which is to try to sell her stuff she may not realize she needs.

Your phone chirps. You sigh as you listen to the message, “Your Friend Emma is two blocks away. Perhaps you would enjoy catching up over lunch together at Antonio’s – the finest deep dish in town.”

Emma is a co-worker who “friended” you on Facebook, but, subsequently, had a bad breakup with your best-friend from work. You’d like to avoid her because you don’t want to hear her implorations to put in a good word for her. However, she is, of course, likely receiving information about your location in the same manner. You tell yourself that you should drop her from your network, but you do still have to work with her. All the computer knows is that, as it scans files of your social network, it sees that a contact in the file has been identified by a nearby camera , and this seems like a good opportunity to sell some pizza.

Emma does find you. You think that the worst part of this is the painful lunch discussion. Little do you know that by having lunch with her, you became part of the widening scope of a criminal investigation. It turns out that Emma’s cousin, with whom she was once close, is involved in the black-markets. These are markets for untagged goods purchased with “cash” by those suspect individuals who wish to stay “off grid.” After the great nuclear terrorist attack of 2016, courts found that locational and commercial information was not subject to fourth amendment requirements, and, thus, law enforcement can obtain that information without a warrant or notification to the investigated. Because terrorists are among those using black markets, investigations of them face the same “relaxed” privacy standards as have been legislated for terrorist investigations. Now besides the commercial file, there will be a duplicate FBI file of where you go and what you buy.

Is this all paranoid dystopian ramblings or the future confronting us.

FYI- Facebook will soon be autotagging your pictures using facial recognition software and the massive databank of facial maps from photos to which they have ready access.

About B Gourley

Bernie Gourley is a writer living in Bangalore, India. His poetry collection, Poems of the Introverted Yogi is now available on Amazon. He teaches yoga, with a specialization in pranayama, and holds a RYT500 certification. For most of his adult life, he practiced martial arts, including: Kobudo, Muay Thai, Kalaripayattu, and Taiji. He is a world traveler, having visited more than 40 countries around the globe.
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4 Responses to Utopia or Dystopia: Is This Our Future in Cyberspace?

  1. peter says:

    Aawww..!!! awsome and horrid…
    As a sliding scale of progressively worse and worse , your scenario is quite possible unless changed by somebody…

  2. B Gourley says:

    I think people would be greatly surprised how much is already in place for it to be a reality. I’ve been reading a book “No Place to Hide” that talks about the firms that already gather up information on what we purchase. Of course, in a society using paper/coin currency this only works with those little voluntary “Preferred Customer” cards. We do know that customized advertising is where firms are trying to go, but now it’s in its infancy except with Amazon and online places like that, which generally do quite a good job recommending things you might like based on your consumer history / profile.

  3. novice says:

    This is too close to the truth for fiction. I guess we should enjoy using cash and keeping some anonymity while we still can.

  4. Vinita says:

    this post should someone print out and put on every train in paris

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