Big Data Is Watching You – And Wants You To Be Happy


Christopher Hitchens once said, “Everyone has a book inside them, which is exactly where I think it should, in most cases, remain.” Just as I won’t take my religious opinions from his, I’m minded to ignore this piece of advice.

I’m quite a fan of futuristic dystopias, such as Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World. This book, and others like it, takes contemporary social, political and scientific trends and extrapolates them into the future. For instance, the book begins with students being shown babies being born on a production line. After all, Henry Ford, who made the assembly line famous, is the closest thing to a God in the future. Their dates are labelled A.F. (After Ford), to record how many years have passed since the first Model T was produced, and “Our Ford” replaces “Our Lord”. Soma, a psychedelic drug, is universally consumed, and sex has wholly lost its procreational character, becoming fully recreational.

The world is governed by a World State (inspired no doubt by the League of Nations) in a command economy (ditto the Soviet Union). Every one is kept beautiful and youthful-looking, until they die a pleasant, peaceful drug-induced death aged 60. Mass production, recreational drug use and sex, supranational institutions and government services, plastic surgery and euthanasia – these are all things that are prevalent now, but Huxley perceived these trends in the 30’s and takes them to an extreme.

Well, what of my idea? In a footnote in a previous post I mentioned Utilitarianism. This, put simply, was a philosophy that saw happiness as the greatest virtue. It sought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. In its crudest form, it thought that one could calculate exactly how much pleasure or pain someone felt (how intense is the feeling? how long does it last? etc) as a result of each action. So if a government was wondering which course to take in its legislation, it would simply need to work out how many units of pleasure and units of pain would result for everybody, then take one from t’other to see if it was a good or bad idea. Of course, this crude form is nonsense – we can’t put numbers to people’s happiness, which is after all very subjective, with different people being made happy in different degrees by different things. And there are other virtues than happiness, such as sacrifice and duty, which might be unpleasant.

My idea is to take this crude Utilitarianism to an extreme as Huxley took the assembly line. Jeremy Bentham would stand in the place of Henry Ford in this imagined future. Of course, it will be easy to measure pleasure and pain – no need to mess with hedons and dolors. Chips in people’s heads would measure them directly from the brain. This chip would measure and store how every person reacts to each stimulus. How much does a pay rise, a park, a kiss, an illness – cause the pleasure or pain centres of the brain to light up? Indeed, during sleep, State-designed dreams, aimed to simulate all conceivable eventualities, are pumped into people’s heads – all so the government has all the Big Data it needs work out how each citizen would react to every event.

All this can then can be crunched by a super computer – say the Hedonic Calculator – which simply has to work out how to maximize the sum total of human happiness and minimize its suffering.The greatest happiness of the greatest number – this is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.

Of course a book needs more than a cute idea – characters, jokes, … a plot. But there’s the seeds of an idea here.

P.S. Brave New World presents a hedonistic future much like this one. I wonder if this idea is a little derivative? But then, Brave New World and its close relative George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four share a common parentage in Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We.

P.P.S. My story would have some lighter elements than those books just mentioned. I can imagine a cult of people who reject happiness and gather together, moping over The Smiths records and Ingmar Bergman films.


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