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Culture & Religion

‘The Silicon Jungle’: The ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ of The 21st Century?

A senior engineer at Google shines a light on the dystopian possibilities of the online world that we all inhabit.

In 2011 Shumeet Baluja, a senior research scientist at Google and inventor of over 100 patents in algorithms, data mining, privacy, and artificial intelligence published The Silicon Jungle, a novel that envisages a dystopian reality not all too dissimilar from the world we now know we live in today. Published only a year before the revelations of Edward Snowden, I’ve been surprised that the book hasn’t received more widespread acclaim. Baluja’s tale raises plenty of questions about the personal information that we have become so accustomed to handing over to private companies. Nineteen Eighty-Four envisaged a world where the state monitors the most intimate moments of the population against their will; The Silicon Jungle describes a world where we hand over every last detail willingly and unthinkingly, not to the state but to corporations.

It’s not hard to see which company Baluja is alluding to.

The book’s main character, Stephen Thorpe, is an intern at a search engine called Ubatoo. Ubatoo controls most of the world’s internet searches, email, calendars, reading, and all manner of other online services. Its business model is centered around online advertising based on profiling of Internet users. It’s not hard to see which company Baluja is alluding to. Even though Baluja is adamant that the book is not based on a real company, people, or events, Baluja does however provide a long list of technical references that include the privacy policies of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon amongst others. In Baluja’s own words:

“The events are fictional. The technology and science described are based on reality. The people are fictional. Their temptations are not. The justifications offered for the intrusions on people’s privacy are fictional. The ability, brains and computational power to do so are not. Importantly, as to whether the companies described are real and whether any single company holds enough data to do all that is described in the book, this I can answer definitely: The companies are not real. As far as I know, no single company holds all of the data described herein.” That, however, was in 2011, and a lot has happened since then which places the book in a whole new light.

It’s a fictional world you can believe in but it’s far from predictable; you’re left guessing what’s really going on for much of the book. 

The book has all the elements of a good thriller. Mystery, a love story, and an impending disaster. Admittedly, the book certainly isn’t written with the literary mastery of George Orwell, but what it lacks in expert prose it gains in expert insight. It’s a fictional world you can believe in, but it’s far from predictable; you’re left guessing what’s really going on for much of the book. The story is no parable; when you finish the last page, there are no obvious answers, but there are plenty of important questions. Questions that before opening the book you might not have considered.

I don’t want to risk letting slip of any spoilers so I’ll leave this review there. I couldn’t recommend this book any more highly.

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