I have quite recently had a couple of discussions on Twitter where we have wondered at the internet’s startling advertising capacity. Search for something, or send someone an email asking about a particular item – and suddenly you are bombarded with advertisements for that very item. Many compare this with Orwellian prophecy and some resent this intrusiveness and wonder what other aspects of their lives are being watched.
Being a Powell and Pressburger junkie, my thoughts turned to Roger Livesey’s character in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. He plays a doctor – a senior member of his community – who spends his spare time watching people going about their business using a camera obscura. It’s a harmless past time really, the doctor is a good man and he’s not doing this with any intent – only for his own entertainment. But he knows everyone, and what they’re doing. From this point I mused that we have always been watched by those who have some kind of moral or class superiority over us. One of the reasons why people have migrated from small towns and villages is to escape from the fact that everyone knows their business. This too-close community spirit has been used for centuries to police people’s actions and apply pressure to conform. But even in the city, you’re not free from the pressure. If you have a job, you’re under pressure to conform to your employer’s perspective. If you’re out of work and reliant on the dole, or in previous eras, charitable handouts – then you have to jump through the ‘deserving’ hoops. If you slip up, there are always spies somewhere prepared to shop you to the authorities.
Another film that has been on Film 4 quite a lot lately and which helps to illustrate this point is ‘The History of Mr Polly.’ This 1949 film starring John Mills puts the HG Wells novel of the same name onto the screen. Wells, with his typically early Socialist viewpoint, examines that burgeoning section of society that is always out to climb social ladders and better themselves. Mr Polly eventually finds his utopia in a simple, rural existence with an ample-bosomed pub landlady that he’s not married to. You can’t help but approve of Mr Polly, even though by Edwardian values he was at risk of becoming a pariah. He shuns the previous life that he has been forced into by society pressure. He had married because he thought that he should – and being a pre-emancipated woman his wife was responsible for much of the pressure because it was the only thing that society allowed her to aspire to. Mr and Mrs Polly soon find out that they don’t even like each other. The pressure to run his own business and be respectable is so great that he resorts to drastic actions to escape. The likes of Mrs Polly are so terrified of society and what they might think – because they know that they are constantly under surveillance from their neighbours and relatives.
Today, thankfully, most of us don’t give a toss what others do, and we can usually carve our chosen life path without too much interference from outside the immediate family. I don’t know what my neighbours do on a daily basis (though I like a good non-judgemental speculate!) and they know very little about me – a lot less than you dear readers. We have become a very individualist society. But the price that we pay for this is the advertising industry needing to take more of an active interest in us. We don’t conform to stereotype anymore, and they need to pigeonhole people to make sure that their campaigns are targeting their potential customers. And so, we have the software that tries to get clues from our internet activity. It’s a nuisance, but I’m not worried by it too much. I don’t completely dismiss people’s concerns. For example, I don’t do internet banking. Just in case. I keep my internet activity to things that I don’t mind people knowing. If anyone wants to read my emails they’re welcome. But I guarantee that they’ll expire of boredom before they get to the end of the page. Anyway, in advertising at least I doubt that another human being sees anything.
Ultimately, we can turn our computers and phones off. It is possible to function without. I bet that the real life inspirations for Mr Polly wished that they could shut down and unplug nosy villagers. I bet that pre-NHS patients would have preferred a more anonymous doctor sometimes, rather than having to be intimately examined by a bloke that they might be stood next to in the queue at the Post Office – or even watching them go about their business through a camera obscura!