The Samovar

Social sorting: a futurological indulgence; or paranoid delusions if you prefer
November 28, 2006, 7:53 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics

I read an article today from the New Standard about – amongst other things – how marketing companies are using sites like MySpace to build profiles of users. Since I wrote about ‘social sorting’ in an earlier entry on the surveillance society, I’ve been wondering what the future will hold when this sort of thing becomes more widespread.

Consider a future where you can potentially be watched and tracked automatically when outside your house; when your purchases, the things you watch on tv, the internet sites you visit are logged and contribute to a profile of you; etc. At the moment, the technology is pretty crap. Facial recognition software only works 70% of the time I seem to recall. The statistical models which companies use to profile customers are still relatively simplistic. Despite this, some of them have surprising predictive power. Think about how Amazon will suggest books to you that are exactly the sort of thing you’d like to read. The technology will only get better. Facial recognition will get better, and will be coupled with other technologies, like those that recognise people by the way they walk, those that recognise their voice patterns which will be picked up by systems of microphones if the police get their way. At some point, artificial intelligence will get to the point when it can actually do something, and the possibility of every one of us having an individual AI policeman watching our every move becomes a possibility.

Combine this with research by government, police and businesses about how to manage and control individuals and groups. Suppose that the police could predict exactly who would go to a certain political protest based on what they’ve been to before (or even what products they buy for that matter), and could pre-emptively arrest them.

My question is – what does the future hold in this respect? The surveillance society report makes a sort of prediction, but it’s quite short term and based on already existing technology. Even that is scary enough, but what happens when they actually get it working well?

Has sci-fi or anything else for that matter addressed this question? Not much comes to mind. There’s 1984 of course, and occasional films like The Minority Report. Often these are based on technological premises only though, and require romantic and implausible means for people to defeat them – V for Vendetta comes to mind. I’m maybe even more interested in what happens when research into how we behave allows even greater control of us. Is it possible we could find ourselves in an authoritarian society that it is not possible to escape from, like 1984? In the past I’ve thought not, but I have been reconsidering recently.

2 Comments,,2-2473501,00.html

Don’t know if you’ve seen that yet, but it’s a particularly scary one!

Comment by Chris

Yeah, I saw that. There’s also this BBC story about a water company in northern ireland which is planning to give people with good credit ratings longer to pay their bills than people will bad credit ratings.

Householders deemed as “high risk” – those with a bad credit rating, for example – will receive reminder notices 14 days after getting their water bill.

Customers who are thought to be “low risk”, on the other hand, will not get that reminder until 28 days have passed.

But it is when customers actually run out of time to pay that the differences are most stark.

“High risk” customers will find their case reviewed after 49 days of non-payment. At that stage, they may be referred to a debt collection agency or referred for legal action.

But “low risk” householders will be given 83 days before they land in hot water – a difference of almost five weeks.

Comment by Dan Goodman

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