Beyond Orwell: Coming Soon, to a Pharmacy Near You

New York Times health and science writer Pam Belluck, covering the FDA’s approval of the nation’s first digital drug, Abilify MyCite, used the phrase “Biomedial Big Brother” to place worries about potential implications associated with the drug’s authorization.  Orwell’s metaphor invokes the image of a grand, omnipotent government force with knowledge so expansive even the insides of bodies are not protected from its reach. However, Belluck’s use of the term is misguided, as privacy is not threatened by government overreach, but by insecurity of intimate health related data.

Orwell’s enduring novel is often invoked when talking about privacy. But is it the best metaphor?

As the token government-skeptic amongst my friends, heads usually turn in my direction at mention of 1984. But references to Orwell are rarely well-placed. While possible that the newly approved tracking medical technology could someday become a tool at the government’s direct disposal, this is not the reality. Threats to privacy more tangible, credible, and immediately imminent than the sensationalized fear of government tracking exist.

Concerns over privacy, the body, and individual liberties in this increasingly-invasive Age of Technology are rightly quick to rise when thinking about how similar technology can evolve and impact personal freedoms in the future. From the comment sections on articles about the new drug, it seems the main point of controversy is the potential that the government may co-opt this technology for future nefarious uses. Is the concern unfounded?

With some grounding in light of mass-data mining and collection efforts by agencies like the NSA, threat of an overbearing government overseeing the intimate, minute details of life through access to bits of traceable medical technology is, to say the least, alarming. The implications of a technology like this—should it become a government resource—on freedom of speech, freedom of association, mobility, activism, and day-to-day living are rightly a cause for concern about the nature of technology as it intersects with American democracy. 1984 fans may well imagine this alternate future as the future Orwell imagined—Big Brother stifling opposition and regulating everyday life. This is a future, however, that does not exist. A figment, for the moment, of literary imagination.

The Big Brother metaphor unfairly simplifies the threats posed to personal privacy with the approval and future implementation of digital medication. It is not omnipotent, hidden government forces that threaten privacy. Nor is it geographical tracking via pill that threatens liberty. It is pharmaceutical and health-tech companies, staffed by individual people. Products that monitor medication status, mood, rest, and physical activity pose real threats the the security of intimate, personal data: Where does that information go? Who can access it? Is it susceptible to hacking? Will health data be sold to a third party? Will it be used for targeted advertisements? For health insurance risk evaluations?

From NYT: The app accompanying Abilify MyCite would collect data on whether patients have taken their medicine, as well as factors like mood, rest, and physical activity.

In the absence of a better—or frankly, a more recent—symbol for the cause, discussants on topics related to potential infringements on personal privacy hark always back to Orwellian notions of infringement. Outdated and rarely accurate, the characterization of modern threats to privacy through this reference unfairly simplifies the true threats to personal privacy present through such technological developments as digital drugs. Concern over the future uses of technology and its impacts on political and private life is justifiable. Necessary, even. But the danger in looking to the future is eclipsing the present. Getting caught up in sensational, outrageous ideas of potential infringement, means that smaller, more realistic injustices go unheeded, unnoticed, and unchallenged. And that is the true sickness.

One thought on “Beyond Orwell: Coming Soon, to a Pharmacy Near You

  1. Very well put! Developments like this often serve as distractions from the more subtle violations of privacy that are happening right now, like the commercial sale of our search data for targeted advertisements, for example. Or the more egregious surveillance such as what Snowden revealed about the NSA.

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