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OPINION: Big Brother knows more about you than you know

Have you ever checked your email or logged into a social media site and suddenly see an ad for a product or service you recently had researched online? How did they know I was looking for a widget, you wonder?

The reality is that those in the advertising and marketing business know far more about you than you know. On one such occasion I was struck by the thought that 1984 has become a reality.

Chances are good that you were assigned to read George Orwell’s fictional book “1984” in high school. Written in 1949, it envisioned what life would be like in the year 1984, a time when “Big Brother” (the name assigned the all-knowing and all-powerful government) was watching and listening on ever-present telescreens to every movement a person made. Thought police were everywhere to ensure you behaved as Big Brother wanted. We laughed in my Greenville high school English lit class, believing this could never happen in the real world.

Full disclaimer: I am not a subscriber of conspiracy theories and, while I sometimes think government has become too powerful and too invasive in my life, I don’t buy into the Orwellian fantasy of the government Big Brother. That said, there are parts of this classic I know have come true.

In this digital age there are folks who have incredible knowledge about you and me. A friend in the advertising business awakened me to the realities of the high-tech world today. As stated before, I don’t think this is government sponsored, but since it is difficult to identify any one person or group with this vast knowledge, let us just label it, as Orwell did, Big Brother.

It is no curious happenstance that if you go online to search for a product or service you will, within hours, find popup ads trying to sell you the very thing you investigated. Traditional means of advertising are disappearing as the digital advertising age takes charge.

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Suppose, my advertising friend hypothecated, I wanted to advertise my product to left-handed men over 60 who live in Raleigh and who drive a Honda, have eaten at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant in the past month, voted in the May primary election, go to a Methodist church and watch CNN. I can input those variables into a data base and within minutes will have a list of names of people who fit those parameters. From that list I can also know whether the best way to reach them is by email, social media or traditional television, radio or newspapers.

This hypothetical Big Brother follows purchases you make on your charge card, knows where you live, what kind of vehicle you drive and where you buy gas, what clothes you purchase, your income level and much more, because data is being gathered every minute of every day in almost everything we do.

I marvel at this phenomenon and at some level feel some importance, knowing something or someone even wants to know so much about me. But it’s also scarry and I must confess that I don’t like it. However, recognizing this is the reality of life today, I do question what is the next step in this intrusion into our lives? How far will this spread? And if it goes too far, can we stop it?

This dystopian thought process led me to another of our high school required readings from Charles Dickens. The opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

My poor brain was close to overload, but I finally concluded that in this time of great advancements we must also be extremely vigilant. As Ronald Reagan often said, “trust and verify.”

Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

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