Talk of the Town - Big Brother is watching September 11 2003

And he wants a price check

In his classic novel 1984, George Orwell creates a soulless, monolithic society where all information, all belief, indeed all history, are controlled through the repressive regime of Big Brother. But even in his darkest depression (and the mood was most indigo, what with him dying of TB at the fringes of bleak, cold, post-World War II not-so-Great Britain), Orwell couldn’t picture Big Bro sauntering down the produce aisle.

Granted, they didn’t have Super Krogers in 1948 (switch two digits, 1984. Get it?) on the windswept Scottish isle of Jura. Tomatoes still had taste back then. But Orwell missed the connection between totalitarianism and groceries — unless you consider his other hit, Animal Farm. Those dictatorial pigs who ran the farm would equal a lot of BLTs.

But now, thanks to modern technology, the same discipline that brought you pornographic e-spam, the food-fascism link has been strengthened. And as with most soulless, monolithic breakthroughs on the road to progress, it has an abbreviation: RFID — for radio frequency identification.

Simply stated, it means that one of these days the products in your supermarket will have electronic tags tracking their whereabouts. You pick something off the shelf, Big Shopper will know. You decide not to buy and abandon said goods at the checkout? Big Shopper could keep track of that too.

Marry this up with the personal supermarket cards we use to obtain a few cents off grocery purchases, and the Powers That Feed can determine exactly what you, Jane and John Q. Barcode like to eat, don’t/won’t eat, or waffle over in the frozen-food aisle. Creating more sales-pitch pathways for delving into your febrile brain.

And who knows if the product transmitter tags will get turned off when you leave the store? Those little electrodes might still be broadcasting from your home pantry — telling some grocery network that I have a bad habit of cracking open potato chips and dip at 11:30 on Saturday night. And if they find out I’ve run out, they’ll actually deliver snacks to the house. I’ll never lose weight with that kind of service.

The poindexters planning all this say it’s just to make for greater efficiency in the running of chow emporiums. But these were the same guys who said atomic bombs could be used for peaceful purposes, like changing the course of rivers. (That Nagasaki Waterfront Redevelopment Project still has folks talking.)

All this is most distressing. I prefer to think of my purgatory in the sterile, soulless supermarket as private time. I know they’re watching to make sure I don’t steal, and that’s fine. But my guilty, unhealthy, cholesterol-ridden food choices should be strictly private. Not to mention my perplexity at the range of decisions one has to make while perusing the merchandise.

In sum, the RFID account of my latest shopping trip would be highly incriminating. I get sent to the supermarket to buy healthful ingredients for a nutritious meal and ... Well, it’s all in the report.

“Thursday, 6:39 p.m.: Subject, who ate lunch eight hours ago, enters supermarket on way home from work with spouse-generated grocery list of diet-conscious items. Immediately pauses to watch rotisserie chickens rotate in dripping grease. Increased salivary gland activity detected.

6:40 p.m.: Goes to herbal section to obtain packet of basil. Cannot distinguish between basil, dill, rosemary and thyme. Hums Simon & Garfunkel tune of similar derivation. Fails to make selection.

6:41 p.m.: Overhears supermarket staff saying that barbecue-flavored rotisserie chickens will not be done cooking for another 20 minutes.

6:42 p.m.: Loiters in snack-food aisle. Places small box of low-salt Cheez-Its in cart.

6:44 p.m.: Subject examines feminine care product for 167 seconds before adding to cart. Calls home to ascertain if this is correct choice among 17 similar brands/models offered. No answer.

6:47 p.m.: Back in snack-food aisle. Returns small box of low-salt Cheez-Its. When no one is looking, places large box of full-fat Cheez-Its in cart.

6:48 p.m.: Asks elderly woman how you can tell if a cantaloupe is ripe. She explains, but subject is distracted by smell of rotisserie chickens.

6:50 p.m.: Returns to personal care section. Replaces previous feminine care selection with other product of similar dimensions, but slightly different shade of mauve packaging.

6:53 p.m.: In magazine aisle. Examines August issue of Bikini World for 665 seconds until stock clerk stares at him.

7:05 p.m.: Pulls coupon for new low-cal salad dressing from dispenser with blinking red light. Has no intention of buying product. Just wants to hear cool buzzing noise as dispenser pushes out another coupon.

7:07 p.m.: Places all 17 varieties of feminine care product in cart.

7:11 p.m.: Checks out, first having read National Enquirer article on big-headed space aliens secretly serving in Congress.

7:13 p.m.: Calls home. Leaves message claiming to have engine trouble.

7:16 p.m.: Eats rotisserie chicken in car.

Glen Slattery is still transmitting from Alpharetta.