ANOTHER VIEW

Big Brother made respectable

CHARLES GORDON April 4 1994
ANOTHER VIEW

Big Brother made respectable

CHARLES GORDON April 4 1994

Big Brother made respectable

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

On a Friday afternoon, a guy goes into one of those big chain video stores. His goals are limited. He doesn’t want to rent the newest Hollywood blockbuster. He wants to rent The Naked Gun 21/2 (not for himself).

This isn’t his neighborhood store, but it is on the way home from work, and it is so big that it must have at least half a dozen copies of The Naked Gun 21/2 (not for himself), so he fights his way into the congested parking lot and goes inside, where he quickly finds the movie and takes it to the counter.

All over North America, people are being asked their phone numbers, addresses and, for all we know, signs of the zodiac

There, he finds a membership application, which he knows is a mere formality, which is why he left his reading glasses in the car. Reading the large type as best he can, he sees that the video rental company wants his name, address, home and work phone numbers, driver’s licence or passport, credit card number and expiry date, name of employer and social insurance number.

Social insurance number? The clerk says not to worry about the social insurance number. It’s just there because the form is made up in the United States.

Oh. Right. The United States. The guy turns the card over and sees a lot of type that he can’t read without his glasses. He puts the movie back on the shelf where he found it, shoves the form into his pocket and leaves.

At home, he reads the small type under which he was to put his signature in order to engage in $2.98 movie rental transactions. In the small type, he would have acknowledged that he had read the Terms and Conditions of Membership, which the company could amend at any time without notice. He would also have agreed that the company could pursue all avenues of collection, including collection agencies, as well as prepare and submit credit card charge slips if unable to recover unpaid amounts.

This seemed like a lot to agree to, in addition to handing over addresses, phone numbers, social insurance number (optional)

and name of employer, just to rent a movie for a few dollars every now and then. But the store had been full of customers, hadn’t it? And the customers must have filled out the form, signed over all that information and they weren’t complaining.

Why not? Maybe they were just used to it. Stores were getting to be like governments. They had computers and were forever putting stuff into them. There was hardly a place you could go nowadays to buy something without handing over personal information. At the dry cleaners, the first thing they asked a guy for when he put a muddy overcoat on the counter was his telephone number. When he told them, they punched some buttons on the computer and said: “Mr. Gordon?” Which they could have done without punching any buttons at all, just by asking him his name.

But computers like telephone numbers. The guy began to think of the number of stores and departments of government that had his telephone number. What if they all decided to call him? Would he ever get any sleep? Would the people offering carpet cleaning demonstrations be able to get through?

At another chain store a few months before, he had attempted to purchase a ninevolt battery. One nine-volt battery, the kind used in transistor radios. He took it to the counter, this nine-volt battery that cost about $4.98, and paid cash. When he handed over the cash, the man behind the counter asked his phone number. The guy, polite and agreeable as always, gave it. The man behind the counter punched the number into the computer and then asked for the home address of the guy who was paying cash for a $4.98 nine-volt battery.

The guy said: ‘Wait a second. You don’t need my address.” And, of course, he was right. He paid his money, withheld his address and departed with the battery. The store didn’t need the address. The store was just used to asking for addresses and its customers were used to giving them.

All over North America, people are being asked their phone numbers, addresses, employer’s names and, for all we know, signs of the zodiac. And they are handing them over, uncomplainingly. Why is that? Are we not the same people who used to worry about invasion of privacy, about the influence of Big Brother?

It has something to do with the computer and our attitudes towards it. Businesses believe the computer will prevent customers from ripping them off; customers think that if they put all their numbers into the computer, they will never have a problem with stores not trusting them.

Amazing. We have all seen computers send out cheques in the wrong amount; we all know how the computer-run mailing lists allow 13 separate fund-raising letters to land in our mailboxes on the same day from the same charity. And we all know that computers are only as smart as the people who push the buttons on them. Yet somehow we trust them.

That may be because we have to trust something, government and religion having failed. And computers look smart—the way they make numbers and letters appear on the screen, the way they make little accusing beeps when you do something wrong, the way they know it’s wrong when you don’t.

It follows then that to be in the computer is a form of personal validation. It means that we amount to something. How else to explain, for example, the rush onto the socalled electronic superhighway by eager amateur pundits, poets and movie critics. Those familiar with the information floating through the computer ozone say much of it is reminiscent of what used to be seen in teenage fan magazines. Only now it is in the computer. It is respectable.

That may be the reason we aren’t complaining about all the stuff the computer wants to know about us. Rather than complain, we can’t wait to tell the computer everything. It is too bad that it has come to this, but there is no denying it. In a depersonalized age, only the computer knows who we are.