I am/watching big brother, cont'd


watching myself watch "big brother"

In the first few weeks of the "Big Brother" show, when I was still watching online as well as on TV, it was clear the edited broadcasts each night focused on what the producers thought were the clearest moments of hostility and tenderness, in that order of priority. When a fight broke out between two members of the household, it was given prominent attention on a Tuesday, where on Monday, the show had emphasized flirtations. How long can this hold our attention?

Early on, Karen, the middle-aged woman on "Big Brother," spoke about how her marriage was a sham, being held together mainly for the sake of the children. Within a day or two of entering the Big Brother house, she was willing to share this deep "secret" to an entire nation on national TV. One could only imagine her children's or husband's reaction as he was portrayed in her conversations as a totally heartless and "evil" person. Anticipating our curiosity, the producers of "Big Brother" get the husband's side of the story and even allowed him to read a poem about his feelings on Primetime TV. This was followed by the MTV-credentialed Dr. Drew offering his psychological interpretations of people's inner motivations. When she was finally kicked out of the house, we were privy to her and her husband's initial encounters, watching them hug and kiss nervously before the live studio audience. Later we learned that Karen did leave her husband, and was living in LA, the la la land of images and soundbites that made her "famous" (but famous for what?). The experiment unraveled slowly, in real time, the layers of the onion peeling off, stripping people down to their most basic instincts. Is this why we watch? To understand what it means to be human?

The danger of course is that "Big Brother" 2000-style will seem so natural to us that we (or our children) will come to expect cameras and microphones in our lives. When the year 1984 eventually did come to pass, there was surprisingly little talk about Orwell's dark vision—a world in which privacy was no longer a right and conformity was enforced through centralized government control; a twisted master-plan of manipulation and mind control in which "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength". How many of today's "Big Brother" watchers, or even participants, do you think even know this slogan? In the year 1984 we thought that Orwell's work was the ultimate paranoid vision and had to be off the mark. Computers were not taking over our lives (as in Kubricks "2001" and other 1970s sci-fi distopias) but making us free! Then came the 1990s, the internet and its web cams, and films like "Truman Show"—perhaps the most provocative work of fiction in this genre—and "EdTV," mimicking in advance what has since become a real TV trend.

So what does it all mean? For one, all of this points to a future in which it is not inconceivable, that anyone who wants to will have not only his or her own email address or web page, but his or her own channel. As the web heads toward better and better resolution, the Web Cam and the TV station will begin to blur and we will enter the age of high bandwidth, interactive video on demand. Right now, we are left to imagine what this will mean, but we won't have to wait long. I am already frustrated that in order to watch the CBS Big Brother house live I am forced to the resolution of rough sandpaper offered by my Realplayer (and I have a cable modem). As our technology improves, we can expect such media "channels" to have greater importance in our lives, and with them the continual opening up new debates about private and public life, the meaning of community, and more: new social forms.

Orwell offered us a vivid warning about where he saw our society going, one that has made the concept of "Big Brother" and of technology in general virtually synonymous with evil. It is curious that—now that we are on the frontier of a virtual new age in which cyber-realities—we are gladly embracing "Big Brother" shows as mindless entertainment, suggesting a callousness toward the lives of people who are being (willingly) exposed in this commercialized experiment. The moral of the Truman show, much like that of Orwell's novel, is that constant surveillance is dehumanizing and costly, that the human spirit will ultimately seek freedom and liberation. For the producers of "Big Brother," they are betting on the fact that, for the sake of half a million dollars and, perhaps, fame, one person will remain to the end, trading three months of privacy and most of one's dignity, for those riches. The "winner" of the first "Big Brother" show in Holland has been quoted as saying that he now has less privacy in his life than he did in the Big Brother house itself and that he did not anticipate how much he really had to lose.

In the same moment in history that "we," the collective audiences of CBS's prime-time vision, are communing with a group of strangers under near perfect surveillance twenty-four hours a day, indigenous peoples, such as the Kelabit of Borneo among whom I have lived (and whose real homes are not far from where the "Survivor" TV show was made), as part of the project called "modernity," are discovering the commodity of privacy, one that their elders never knew they lacked. This irony reminds me of the fact that social processes do not follow a single evolutionary trajectory. Rather, societies can construct the oddest of detours in the pursuit of being human, which will be the subject of part II of this essay.

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