Tomorrow night’s episode of The Virtual Revolution, The Cost of Free, airs on BBC2 at 9:15pm. The programme looks at the dark corporate underbelly of the Web, and how it’s transforming our notions of privacy and culture in the 21st century. It’s also the one that excites me the most; I am a dystopian from way back, and I’m both thrilled and terrified to see how we have been complicit in our own 1984. What does Google have on us? How is Amazon’s recommendation system contradicting the most powerful opportunity for new inforamtion that the web offers – serendipity – and manipulating us into homogenous proles for its own benefit?

Magnificent. You can read more about these ideas in my manifesto for this programme, originally published on the BBC’s Digital Revolution blog during pre-production.

As the film’s Assistant Producer Jo Wade explains in an article for the BBC today,

Every day in Britain millions of searches are carried out on Google for free. Every month we spend millions of hours on Facebook for free and read millions of articles from free newspapers.

But now look at it the other way round.

Every day Google gathers millions of search terms that help them refine their search system and give them a direct marketing bonanza that they keep for months.

Every week Facebook receives millions of highly personal status updates that are kept forever and are forming the basis of direct advertising revenue.

Every month free newspapers plant and track a cookie tracking device on your computer that tells them what your range of interests are and allows them to shape their adverts and in the future, even content around you.

So you’re not just being watched, you’re being traded. The currency has changed.

From the official site:

In the third programme of the series, Aleks gives the lowdown on how, for better and for worse, commerce has colonised the web – and reveals how web users are paying for what appear to be ‘free’ sites and services in hidden ways.

Joined by some of the most influential business leaders of today’s web, including Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon), Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google), Chad Hurley (CEO of YouTube), Bill Gates, Martha Lane Fox and Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), Aleks traces how business, with varying degrees of success, has attempted to make money on the web.

She tells the inside story of the gold rush years of the dotcom bubble and reveals how retailers such as Amazon learned the lessons. She also charts how, out of the ashes, Google forged the business model that has come to dominate today’s web, offering a plethora of highly attractive, overtly free web services, including search, maps and video, that are in fact funded through a sophisticated and highly lucrative advertising system which trades on what we users look for.

Aleks explores how web advertising is evolving further to become more targeted and relevant to individual consumers. Recommendation engines, pioneered by retailers such as Amazon, are also breaking down the barriers between commerce and consumer by marketing future purchases to us based on our previous choices.

On the surface, the web appears to have brought about a revolution in convenience. But, as companies start to build up databases on our online habits and preferences, Aleks questions what this may mean for our notions of privacy and personal space in the 21st century.

Don’t forget, you can play the spot-the-programme-three-pics in the production Flickr stream while you watch, and I’ll be on Twitter as it broadcasts.