“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself – anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face … was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime.”
– George Orwell, 1984
Science fiction novels and films can be powerful tools for social commentary. Zombie stories warn of the breakdown of society in cataclysmic situations. Robot uprising tales talk about our overreliance on technology and our capacity to create our own demise. Futuristic tales of iron-fisted totalitarian governments warn us to keep an eye on our own government to ensure they don’t seize too much power or take away too many civil liberties.
Of course, for these warnings to actually be effective, we have to pay attention to them and learn from them. Yet, time and time again, it seems that instead of viewing these stories as cautionary tales, we use them as self-fulfilling prophecies. We create a supercollider that can potentially create black holes or adorable, arrow-wielding robots that can kill us all. In short, we are morons.
The latest group of morons looking to ensure a dystopian future is Verizon. It seems the media conglomerate recently filed a patent (that was thankfully denied) for a very scary piece of futuristic technology. The patent, which was entitled “Methods and Systems for Presenting an Advertisement Associated with an Ambient Action of a Use,” would essentially allow Verizon to snoop on viewers in their own homes, then provide them with targeted advertising.
According to the patent application (which FierceCable.com first uncovered): “If detection facility detects one or more words spoken by a user (e.g., while talking to another user within the same room or on the telephone), advertising facility may utilize the one or more words spoken by the user to search for and/or select an advertisement associated with the one or more words.”
But it’s not just spoken words. The technology would potentially monitor your actions – like exercising or eating – and your mood to serve up ads that match your physical and emotional state. It would also look for inanimate objects in the room as clues on what to try to sell you. (“Three bongs in plain sight? Fire up the Cheetos ads.”)
“If detection facility detects that a user is playing with a dog, advertising facility may select an advertisement associated with dogs (e.g., a dog food commercial, a flea treatment commercial, etc.),” the patent application states.
(I wonder if the type of dog matters – like if it’s a Jack Russell terrier, it offers doggy valium or if it detects a Pomeranian, it advertises muzzles. Or doggy blindfolds for amorous poodles.)
If watching your every move isn’t troubling enough, Verizon would also like to spy on your iPhone to read your texts and monitor your web surfing while you watch TV. Again, so that they can offer you ultra-specific advertising.
“If detection facility detects that the user is holding a mobile device, advertising facility may be configured to communicate with the mobile device to direct the mobile device to present the selected advertisement,” the patent application states. “Accordingly, not only may the selected advertisement be specifically targeted to the user, but it may also be delivered right to the user’s hands.”
(“Stop talking to grandma and look at these half-priced slacks!”)
Why does Verizon think customers would be okay with this? Why would anyone willingly allow themselves to be monitored in this way? Does their corporate greed really blind them to just how intrusive this idea is? In fact, the only upside to their technology is that if they had it implemented, they could have monitored how livid I got reading the description of their patent. (They would no doubt start showing commercials for anger management classes and adorable kitten videos to keep me from throwing their creepy stalker box through the window of a Verizon store.)
In their pursuit to make a few extra bucks, Verizon has created the exact technology George Orwell described in 1984. That’s the same book that coined the term “Big Brother” to describe government monitoring. In fact, the book was so prolific in describing regimes keeping tabs on their citizens that the term “Orwellian” is used to describe any unethical government monitoring.
I guess I’m supposed to be okay with this because they are only invading my privacy to give my information to advertisers, not the government. And I’m sure instead of thinking of all the ways this device could be misused, I’m just supposed to be happy that my TV knows me so well. When Verizon patents their own version of Skynet or the computer from The Matrix, I guess I’ll just trust them to use those safely as well.
And when the inevitable Verizon-induced zombie apocalypse happens, I guess I’ll take comfort in the fact that my TV will tell me the best place to get a shotgun.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.