Orwellian Future?
By Michael Grebb, Wed Jan 22 11:00:00 GMT 2003

Progress in biotechnology and wireless systems could mean more Big Brother. Is that so bad?

Even the most vehement critics of modern society's obsession with pervasive technology might be hard pressed to oppose gadgetry that could help someone with epilepsy detect and prevent seizures. And it's equally difficult to quibble with technology that could monitor the sick and elderly without shackling them to a hospital or nursing home. And who would stop a parent from using global positioning satellite systems to protect their children from pedophiles and kidnappers?

And speaking of criminals, who would dare argue that a convicted felon under house arrest shouldn't have to submit to constant monitoring to ensure they don't venture out to commit crimes?

Obviously, few reasonable people would last very long in the arena of popular opinion by opposing such measures. But in this new world of biotechnology, biometrics, and increasingly ubiquitous wireless technologies, what used to seem reasonable may someday become far more pervasive and--some say--perhaps even Orwellian in its true nature. And once biotechnology and wireless systems mesh, it's unclear how far society might go in perfecting or controlling the human condition. The same technology that will soon allow surgeons to implant a device in an epilepsy patient's brain to prevent seizures or remotely administer vital drugs to an elderly patient could also be used to track normal citizens' every move or--in the not-so-distant future--even monitor or control emotions.

An Orwellian Future?

It's unclear how far citizens would allow governments, healthcare providers, or even parents or guardians to go, but such questions are increasingly more socio-political than scientific in nature. In fact, the technology to implant computer chips and other components within human bodies for a variety of purposes either already exists or will be perfected in the next few years. The only question is how far governments, the private sector, or even citizens themselves will go to modify their bodies with technology linked to a wireless network of some sort. "Each society governs its own use of technology," says Josh Calder, an analyst at Washington, D.C.-based Social Technologies. "We merely have to demand that our values are reflected in our technology use."

Calder says that countries such as the U.S., which have an almost religious affinity for personal rights, are less likely to evoke intrusive measures than other societies that might view the use of such technologies differently. "Places like Singapore and Japan, which give greater weight to society's interests, will use them in ways that might feel like Big Brother to Westerners, though [people in Singapore and Japan] will not feel it as oppression."

Such fears tend to evoke visions of totalitarian societies using wireless infrastructures to implant devices in its citizens for nefarious purposes. But such fears might be misdirected. Experts say a far more likely scenario is that "free" societies will institute at least some of these measures on their own in the name of security. Already, the United States and governments around the world are asking citizens to sacrifice some individual rights to help combat global terrorism. Citizens appear willing to comply, at least for now. After all, weapons of mass destruction are more powerful and widespread today than in any time in human history--a prospect that terrifies many people.

"It's probably easier than its ever been to harm a lot of people quickly," says Jonathan Aberman, chairman of the Washington, D.C., office of law firm Fenwick & West. "People are frightened. When people are frightened, they want to be protected. There will be more of an acceptance to give up privacy rights in exchange for being protected." Ted Claypoole, an attorney at Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice, agrees that such expectations can change based on the environment. "We're getting further and further into an Orwellian scenario," he says. "Social norms change. With another 10 terror attacks on the homeland, you may have people actually clamoring for this and requiring less privacy."


Such intrusions could come gradually and for only certain classes of citizens, making it less likely that the majority would object. For example, judges could start giving violent criminals a choice of either going to prison or submitting to surgery that would implant a chip that monitored brainwaves and could detect when certain brain chemicals had been released. The chips would need only a small wireless module to send the information to a central monitoring station, which would be on the lookout for any adrenaline rushes accompanied by erratic brainwaves--the kind of activity that would suggest a violent episode. The central computer could then send a signal back to the chip instructing it to stimulate the brain to debilitate the person before he or she could carry out a violent act. "Brain science is advancing rather rapidly," says Calder. "You could just make a 'Clockwork Orange' thing in which any adrenaline rush creates debilitating nausea."

The result, of course, would be that the individual wouldn't be able to carry out such an impulse, helping to protect society at large. But such ideas--on top of rating high on the creepiness scale--also raise numerous issues. How would the computer really be able to tell the difference between similar emotions? "How could you tell they were angry and not just excited?," asks Claypoole. In addition, such technology could applied to serious but lesser crimes such as drunk driving. Why not simply implant a wireless chip that could send an alarm signal to the local police if the person's blood-alcohol level reached a level forbidden by the court? "The more intrusive you get, the trickier it gets from a legal standpoint," says Claypoole.

Of course, society at large has a history of devaluing the rights of criminals, suggesting that such glitches might not be enough to create popular support against such measures. In similar fashion, society might accept similar monitoring of mentally ill patients, especially those whose families authorized implants in order to get them out of expensive and often less-than-pleasant mental institutions. A severely schizophrenic patient who can't be trusted to take necessary medication on his own might be released on the condition the state implant a device designed to track and detect hallucinations, sending the data back to a central office monitored by psychiatrists. With a push of a button, they could either remotely administer drugs or even simply use a tracking device to ensure that the person was safely at home during the episode. If the person was driving at the time, a separate device might bring the car to a stop as a safety measure.

The question is whether society draws limits on what kinds of activities such devices could monitor? "Suppose you could detect a brain pattern for abusing kids," notes Calder. "What constitutes a disease? What constitutes mental illness?" In some countries, behaviors that don't conform with social norms could justify intrusive biotechnology. "Some societies would say that women who don't obey are subject to brain modification," he says.

Biotech by Choice

Let's say most reject government-imposed implants. Even then, experts say wireless biotechnology could still bloom as people seek greater convenience and easier access to information. After all, people already accept the need to have myriad wireless devices in order to stay connected with the office, loved ones, friends, or even just the Internet at large. "There is an insatiable demand for information," says Aberman. "The more people crave information, the more they are going to want to be immersed in it at all times."

It requires only a small leap that at least some people would want to use biotechnology to implant such circuitry directly into their bodies--not because they are threatened with jail or are mentally or physically ill, but because they actually want to have an implant to make their lives easier. "You could just swipe your hand over something to buy things," says Calder. And how about a wireless personal digital assistant hard-wired directly into the brain for easy access to phone numbers and data on the Internet? Why not connect it directly to the ear canal and vocal chords so that the person can call and converse with others via a wireless network? One could imagine a society many decades from now in which entire castes of citizens choose to modify their own bodies with wireless and other devices to "better" themselves, leaving those who reject (or perhaps simply can't afford) such technology to a second-class existence. "Will the lines between what is human and what is machine blur in the next 30 years?," asks Aberman. "It may be that being human has nothing to do with flesh and blood. The 21st century is going to be incredibly challenging."

Indeed, the "worst-case scenarios" contemplated by futurists worried about biotechnology and wireless systems converging may result from modern society's own obsession with being connected. Adam Guy, a wireless analyst at Infotek Research, says people have become so addicted to wireless technology and information that research shows that many consumers would be willing to get unsolicited commercial messages--the equivalent of e-mail "spam"--on their cell phones in exchange for just a few extra minutes of free airtime.

Modern society may someday reach a point in which biologically implanting wireless devices will be as common and desirable as having a cell phone or PDA is today--even if it meant sacrificing a bit of privacy. "My sense is that we would really forgo the right to privacy if the price is right," says Guy. So in the end, it may be convenience--not oppression--that propels us into an Orwellian future. Whether it turns out to be double-plus good is anyone's guess.

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Michael Grebb has also written for Wireless Week, Business 2.0, and Wired News. From Washington DC, he covers the impact of mobile technology on modern society.