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NBC's 'Parks and Recreation' puts data privacy under the comic lens


Note: Minor spoilers ahead for the current season of Parks and Recreation.

Imagine a massive tech company that's like a cross between Google and Amazon with the ability to find out exactly what you like based on your online habits. Now imagine that company automatically delivers a few of your favorite things to your front door via drone... without your permission. Sounds like a privacy nightmare, right? That's precisely what makes Gryzzl, a fictional startup on NBC's Parks and Recreation, so terrifying. The show, now in its final season, has put privacy and the disconnect between tech elites and regular folks front and center of its storyline. And, in the process, it's become one of the closest things we have to a US version of Black Mirror, a British TV series that's gained notoriety for its unflinching commentary on technology.

Parks and Recreation has never shied away from addressing real-world topics and the intricacies of geek culture. But a small time jump (this season takes place three years after the last) has given it the ability to comment on our society like true science fiction. And I'm not kidding when I say sci-fi. Everyone on the show now carries transparent smartphones and tablets that have the ability to project holograms (which seems crazy, but it's something that we may see soon). Plus, there are those aforementioned drones flying around and delivering unwanted packages, an obvious play on Amazon's very real, very fantastical drone concept.

One of Parks and Recreation's futuristic tablets

All of that innovation comes from Gryzzl, a company whose cringeworthy motto -- "Wouldn't it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?" -- reflects the hollow, utopian vision we've come to expect from startups. Conflict arrives when Gryzzl, looking to buy a massive parcel of land for its new tech campus in the quirky-yet-idyllic town of Pawnee, Indiana, clashes with a competing bid from a group led by Amy Poehler's Leslie Knope, who would rather turn that land into a national park. Hilarity, naturally, ensues.

Parks and Recreation's three-year leap into the future is just far enough to let the show's writers extrapolate on current tech trends while still grounding it in reality. We don't have hologram-projecting phones yet, but we do have powerful, connected computers filled with our personal information and location data right in our pockets. And we're beginning to see cars, home appliances and more consumer gadgets get networked as well. Even drones are quickly becoming mainstream -- just a few years ago, they were toys for rich tech nerds; now you can easily snap one up at Walmart or Best Buy.

Today, companies are falling all over themselves to take advantage of that precious personalized data. Facebook, for example, now makes two-thirds of its revenue from mobile ads. That loss of privacy is a compromise we willingly make so we can stay in touch with our friends and family over Facebook and Twitter, or try out the latest app. The problem is, that treasure trove of big data can prove too tempting for some companies to responsibly exploit. In fact, we've already seen some tech giants publicly blunder and take things too far. And we see that too with Parks and Recreation's Gryzzl.

In the show, Gryzzl ends up using deep data mining to send creepy personalized gifts to sway Pawnee citizens to its favor. But instead, people are simply freaked out when they realize a company can know so much about them based on their data scraps. Things, naturally, fall apart, leading a Gryzzl executive to realize its "definitely not chill" to use customer data like that. The company ends up apologizing, a move that brings to mind similarly dramatic mea culpas from real tech companies.

Parks and Recreation's three-year leap into the future is far enough to let the writers extrapolate on current tech trends while still grounding it in reality.

Remember Beacon? How can we ever forget the privacy firestorm Facebook ignited with that initiative several years ago, which used data from other websites to make its social ads more targeted. Or more recently, consider the case of Uber. The company got into hot water for tracking a journalist with its "God View," which lets it see precisely where all of its customers are on a map, and for insinuating its big data could be used to dig up dirt on troublesome reporters. To save face, Uber enlisted an external auditor to review its privacy practices and clean up its mess. But despite what turned out to be a positive privacy report, the damage to its reputation had already been done.

Outside of The Good Wife, which deftly tackled NSA surveillance, bitcoin and the rise of massive tech corporations, there hasn't been much tech commentary on American TV that's been genuinely insightful, let alone accurate. But that'll likely change over the next few years, as companies like Google, Facebook and, yes, even Uber wedge themselves ever deeper into our lives, forcing us to confront the uncomfortable ways they manhandle our personal data.

[Images credit: Greg Gayne/NBC (Top photo); NBC (Holographic tablet)]

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