How Little Brother took over from Big Brother

As an innovator in industry and academia, Peter Cochrane has always had an eye on the future. In this column he crunches the changes being brought by technology and connectivity

Home life How Little Brother took over from Big Brother
How Little Brother took over from Big Brother
How Little Brother took over from Big Brother 01

No one predicted the value of today’s sharing culture, which is taking us in exciting new directions

Whenever I travel and have to eat on the move, I often have to declare that I am a coeliac. The response is generally the same regardless of where I am: “No problem, I’m coeliac, too,” or “My wife has that – let me sort it out for you”. 

Such replies were unthinkable just a few years ago and they are a sign of how people have become more open about their health – along with their lives, relationships, investments… in fact, everything. All this has happened in the past decade as social networking has transformed societies to be far more open and helpful.

Predictably unpredictable
It’s a development that defies the fears surrounding privacy that obsessed the future-gazing authors of the past. True, George Orwell would see a lot of his predictions coming true today – from the emerging “post-truth” political world to the rise of state surveillance, with security cameras in our streets, offices, shops and hotels. 

But no doubt he would also be amazed at the way we choose to photograph and video everything we do in order to post it online for all to see, along with other details about ourselves and our lives. While calmly allowing a stream of data from our cars, for example, that shows where we’ve been and when in an effort to improve driving conditions and road safety.

No philosopher or writer predicted the future in which we are now living. They didn’t anticipate the huge value inherent in a sharing culture that has seen Wikipedia destroy the Encyclopedia Britannica and the music and movie industries transformed along with the way we relate to each other. Nor did they foresee our willingness to disregard the inherent challenges to our privacy in return for the personal advantages that come from the new more open world.

New freedoms
Our species is inherently communicative, caring and sharing – always ready to help if we can. The old world of formality, solid behavioural boundaries, class constraints and the ‘oh so grey’ everything has long gone. We enjoy freedom of thought, expression and movement on a scale that would bemuse those shaped by the Industrial Revolution, the arrival of electricity and a lack of choice in everything, including music, radio and news.

Of our own volition we choose to share experiences, knowledge, skills, work and services on a global scale. 

While Big Brother – of Orwell’s 1984 – came to symbolise the danger of an all-knowing state that understood your worst fears and could turn them against you, it appears most people are happy with the seemingly more-friendly Little Brother.

A problem shared
There are many transformative exemplars of the power of sharing, from TripAdvisor to Facebook and eBay, but let me give you a personal example. In 2016, my wife had an accident and shattered her shoulder. Surgeons installed a plate and a dozen bolts and issued a dire prognosis. They said she had a mere 10 per cent chance of full healing with less than 15 per cent of movement regained – and worse, a lifetime of three-yearly corrective surgery. 

So I researched and shared our dilemma online. Out of the ether a US medic contacted me with valuable advice and my next step was eBay – yes, eBay. I found a fellow sufferer who had purchased an ultrasonic bone-growth stimulator to fully heal his damaged hand. An online chat and Skype call resulted in my purchasing his now disused machine.

We then collaborated with our surgeon, completed five months of self-treatment and a year of physiotherapy. The result? A 100 per cent heal with the recovery of over 95 per cent of movement. All of this would have been impossible without social networks. Now you might say this was exceptional because I am an engineer, but not so. An Australian farmer whose son was born without fingers bought a 3D printer, designed and produced an articulated prosthetic to enable his son. But he didn’t stop there – he shared the design and all the details on the net so other parents could help their children too. 

Social networks and the sharing culture are slowly transforming 1950s “do it for me” healthcare models into “do it yourself” global communities.

The internet is now our first port of call for help with our vehicles, appliances and devices when we have problems. Expertise on almost any topic is available on tap from Wi-Fi to washing machines.

Is there anybody there?
So what of Big Brother in this world of sharing? The dominant watchers and listeners in our society are not actually governments or companies, but machines – our devices, appliances and vehicles. Yes, even our cars can record and report their operational performance and our driving habits. So the sheer rate of information creation now makes it fundamentally impossible for any Big Brother to listen, watch or read everything. 

Just ask yourselves how much information you create, and how many microphones and cameras you own? There are well over 20 in my life before I even leave my home. Then I am constantly ‘clocked’ by traffic and/or security cameras no matter where I go or what I do. 

So here I am dictating this article to my laptop, occasionally stopping to answer the phone or chat to my wife. An hour ago I was talking to my car – and to Alexa, the AI app in my kitchen. No, I’m not losing it. I’m building and engaging in an environment straight out of Star Trek, where I talk to all my technologies and environments so the machines can learn more about me and my life as we build the next phase of a mutually-beneficial Little Brother society.

Predicting technological change is easy, but we have little idea what people will do with it. Whatever emerges, it usually leaves governments, legal systems – and Big Brother – in the dust.

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