'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.


Follow Simon Oxenham on TwitterFacebookGoogle+RSS, or join the mailing list to get each week's post straight to your inbox. Image Credit: Barisonal/Getty

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.

Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)

In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.

Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

Do human beings have a magnetic sense? Biologists know other animals do. They think it helps creatures including bees, turtles and birds navigate through the world.

Keep reading Show less