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The Prisoner as a metaphor for the information economy

Last updated on August 8, 2020

1984 is often held up as the science fiction work that best exemplifies the dystopian surveillance state. (You could certainly do worse.) But as I’ve been taking in a few episodes of the 1967 British TV classic The Prisoner, I’ve been struck by how it serves as a better metaphor for our consumer relationship with ad-driven business models.

For the unfamiliar, The Prisoner centers on a conscientious, wry British intelligence agent who falls victim to a gas booby trap after resigning from his job. He awakens on an idyllic yet pervasively monitored, self-sufficient village from which it is virtually impossible to escape. A revolving cadre of inquisitors appointed “Number 2″ and their surrogates constantly pressure him (now known as Number 6) to share information (principally why he resigned. Consider it the quest for “the why behind the bye”). Much of the focus is on the cat-and-mouse game between the Number 2s and the defiant Number 6.

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.

—”Number 6″

Cast aside that the population of The Prisoner’s village is tiny compared to the populace in 1984; the antagonists’ motivations differ. In 1984, Big Brother cares about what you think and demands the rejection of objective truth. But in The Prisoner, Number 2 wants to know your motivation to serve a never-identified Number 1, Big Brother is blunt, extracting information and confessions through torture. Number 2 is manipulative and sneaky, often trying to lull Number 6 into letting his guard down and tempting him with all kinds of benefits.

Similarly, many people’s worlds would be unrecognizable without Facebook and certainly Google, which cajole us into revealing our personal information for a host of benefits. Like Number 2, their ultimate goal is understanding why we do what we do. The ever-changing Number 2 could be Google Maps, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any number of compelling online services that are beholden to Number 1: the advertiser.

One difference: In The Prisoner, the hero resigns without divulging. In the modern digital battle for privacy, we are resigned to divulging.