I am/watching big brother:
privacy, irony, and the art of surveillance
(part II)

Matthew Amster

In part I of this essay, I explored the ever-narrowing realm of privacy in the lives of certain Euro-Americans who voluntarily allow themselves to be mediated, machinated, and edited for public consumption via those all-pervasive electronic hearths we call TV and the Web. Already the term "reality TV" has become more than just a hot new concept, but a template for the post-post modern life: one where no one pretends that pop stars are not made, but, where we take it a step further and make the making of pop stars into a TV show in itself ("Pop Stars"). "Survivor" made it back from Borneo in one piece and then tried it again in the Australian outback. Now "Big Brother 2" is back for summer 2001. Even the game show genre is openly mocking and mimicking reality TV ("The Weakest Link"--- eliminating one person at a time, just like on "Survivor") and it seems that every ethnic group is getting its own version of "The People's Court." I have to say, though, that "Temptation Island" painted the clearest picture of what the media competition did to the "Survivor" idea.

It seems that "Temptation Island" took all the stuff that people liked about "Survivor"--- the cute people in small bathing suits, the sexual innuendo, the competitive sexual politics, the flirtations, passions, rejections, erections, nipple-straining bikini top impressions, the dirty talk, the play --- and got rid of that whole survival crap, the Robinson Crusoe camping trip shit, and just put the people in a Club Med environment, with lots of free booze, swimming pools, private cabanas, great beaches, and an absurd male/female ratio in the respective female and male "camps." The idea, of course, was that all the participants were basically being thrown to the wolves (i.e, hot members of the opposite sex trying to destroy their monogamous, yet, non-breeding, pre-existing relationships). The show's producers sold their ads and kept the ratings up by telling the audience that we have to "tune in again next week" in order to see the tempations get even more tempting, the bathing suits more poorly tied, and, ultimately, to see which of the relationships "survive" the party. Who needs Big Brother or Survivor when you have Temptation Island?

(The fact that all the relationships survived the ordeal was a bit too wholesome for my tastes, reaking of stale family values. I mean, no need to feel guilty for playing the field, or that little extramarital affair...after all, "I saw it on TV and, like, all these people were fooling around with other people on fantasy island, I mean, tempation island, and in the end, they all found that they still loved the person they came with the best...").

Perhaps a better question is: what are we trying to convince ourselves of in these shows? That we really do love ourselves? That we are all just so confused that if we could just test our relationships with sexy supermodel types for a few weeks, we would all know ourselves better? More realistically (after all this is "reality" TV, right?), being on a reality TV show seems to be a great way to get the "exposure" that might just lead to a "big break" in Hollywood. How many people who have appeared in one of MTV's Realworld houses are now living in LA?


will the real borneo please stand up?

In thinking about attitudes toward privacy in our society, as taken to extremes in shows like "Survivor," "Big Brother," and "Temptation Island," I am stuck by an ironic contrast from my own ethnographic research in Borneo. For nearly two years I lived among people of a small indigenous group in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It was obvious to me that for these people, known as the Kelabit, as well as for other indigenous people embracing modernity, that their relationship to issues of privacy were changing in interesting ways and that they approach matters of privacy at the turn of the twenty-first century very differently from the way we do. These former longhouse dwellers' lives have rapidly shifted from rural, jungle homesteads where communal living dominated, to more suburban lives, where the notion of privacy has become more than just a newly acquired taste, but an emblem of modernity itself. Attitudes about the importance of privacy, in this context, are very much a generational issue. Something that should be obvious to us, but really isn't --- as the way we treat the web shows us --- is that having a strong community is pretty much antithetical to having privacy. For indigenous people in Borneo, this tension is a very obvious one, and one with which they openly struggle. How does one become "modern" and also effectively preserve a sense of community that was an inherent part of a communal way of life?

From my perspective as an outsider coming from our fragmented, alienated, and individualistic society, there was an overwhelming sense in living among the Kelabit that everyone knew what everyone else was doing, whereas, from their perspective, they were well on the way to becoming fragmented and more impersonal, and that this was the unavoidable cost of "success" (what people in the West sometimes call "development"). Being an outsider, especially, makes one aware of issues of privacy as well.

As an outsider, a foreign anthropologist is naturally a novelty of sorts --- a category that blends together spy, celebrity, and pesky researcher. For the first time, I discovered a bit of what it must be like for movie stars whose every move makes it into the National Enquirer. When I was working deep in the interior highlands far from town, acts such as watering my vegetable garden in the middle of the day (when everyone knows you don't water gardens), turned out to be common knowledge among people in town, hundred miles away. Tourists who arrived in the highlands on their eco-trekking vacations, would tell me how they had heard about me in different river basins among other indignous groups whom I had never met. How was it that this gossip traveled so efficiently in this community and even between people in different regions and language groups? As I began to explore this question, I learned from people that it didn't travel as efficiently as it once did in the past, nor with the same degree of accuracy as when people had better surveillance techniques --- that of living in the longhouses of the past --- as opposed to the more dispersed conditions of town and village life today.

Prior to contact with people from outside the remote highlands in the interior of Borneo, the Kelabit lived in communal longhouses, great multi-family houses with many hearths and few walls. Then came a variety of outside influences --- missionaries, military personnel during World War II, followed by the introduction of schools, and eventually, urban migration and participation in the Malaysian economy as workers and modern suburbanites. With this change, longhouses have been transformed, dismantled, and reconfigured into places that allow the privacy of walled bedrooms and kitchens.

The old-style of longhouse, which barely exists anymore in the rural Kelabit homelands, had virtually no inner walls and most activity to take place in the house occurred in public view. Year in and year out, people lived side-by side, worked in each others rice fields and depended on one another in doing everything from producing food to communicating with spirits. At night, people rolled themselves up in mats, perhaps the most private place one could find in the house. Disharmony in the longhouse was considered a dangerous thing as it would put people at risk of negative intervention from the spirit world. In this context, the possibility for privacy was not simply limited, but of little importance.

In talking to elders, I got the sense that privacy was not something they longed for, rather that it has been an acquired taste and one that some of the older people have not seen the need for at all. In stark contrast, among the youth (many of whom are not so young anymore) the desire for privacy has emerged as a virtual necessity, a way of life. The remaining longhouses now have solid walls and rooms. Among the young people who stay in these rural villages, the decision to live in a single-family house increasingly common.

As Kelabit have migrated to town areas in large numbers, a process that began in the 1960s, they have naturally acquired new tastes for how to live. Increasingly, choices of lifestyle are less limited by communal concerns, and more with a type of "freedom" that can also spawn confusion. Moreover the notion of privacy, as something important and essential, has become pervasive in people's minds, but not without a tugging sense of contradiction, a sense of loss.

Thus, the average 30-something Kelabit women or man living in town, unlike his rural-dwelling parent or grandparent, has begun to question and challenge the need for always being a part of their family and ethnic-based community. They have begun to develop new techniques for avoiding the public or communal gaze or their formerly close relatives and neighbors, and many choose to marry outside the group for this explicit reason --- avoiding the pitfalls of in-laws on both sides of the family in what remains a small indigenous ethnic group. These younger Kelabits have also, by and large, chosen not to live in close-knit neighborhoods in town areas. And, in the rural areas, the "traditional" longhouse has been replaced by its modern variant with the aforementioned private spaces. Increasingly, single-family houses dot the rural villages that were once dominated by a single longhouse and, in town, this once close indigenous community, is scattered widely among chaotic sprawl of housing estates and squatter settlements composed of the myriad ethnic groups of a modern Malaysian Borneo town.


the panoptic gaze

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault looks at the birth of the prison and describes how societal control and disciplinary power emerge as a technique of observation. Foucault discusses the idea of a Panopticon, a central tower in a prison that allows a few guards to monitor the lives of many inmates, and to do so in such a manner that one never knows when one is being watched, bathed in light rather than hidden in the darkness of a dungeon. This efficient form of surveillance and social control became the model of the modern prison. The "panoptic" gaze, as Foucault called it, is what we see manifested in such simulated reality-based entertainment shows, whether fictional ("The Truman Show") or real ("Big Brother," "Survivor"), and, I might add, not altogether unlike the form of social control that existed in the "traditional" longhouses of the past (from which people are now fleeing for the "freedom" of town life).

As I have suggested, for the Kelabit in the "old days" privacy was not something people thought a great deal about. The concept of privacy, in the Western sense, has been an emergent phenomenon, an import like TV and automobiles. Yet, despite persistent claims of desiring privacy in their lives, I remain impressed by how little privacy they take for themselves, even when the opportunity exists. I suppose old habits die hard and it takes a while to choose loneliness over lack of privacy. But gradually, as time ticks forward, I suspect this will change even in Borneo too, as all people become citizens of the cyber-millennium. One day soon, Kelabit, like us, will focus more on the individual rather than the family, just as in the past their elders focused more on their sense of belonging to the whole longhouse, and the family was even more taken for granted as a unit of intimacy.

Drawing the surveillance metaphor to its limits, we might say that the longhouse was an experiment in living together in the "wild," rather than in captivity, which worked as long as there were outside threats to unite people (concerns for headhunting from enemies, dangerous spirits, etc.). All this made communal living both natural and necessary. In order to succeed, people throughout history, we could say, have made their own Big Brother houses and kept them as long as they still worked. And, obviously, among the stronger forces that compel such houses to be dismantled, are desires for privacy. But where does this desire come from? Over and over during my time in Borneo, the issue of privacy, and concepts about privacy itself, were brought up among Kelabits I spoke with. While they saw privacy as important, they also understood the struggle and sacrifice. Having moved in large numbers from their rural homeland to towns, people suddenly have new choices not just about how to live their lives, but also about what parts of their life will be "public" versus "private". They watch themselves seemingly helpless in making individual choices that so clearly are leading to the demise of their collective ethnic identity. No longer under the Big Brother-like confines of life in a tight-knit rural community, in which people rather than cameras form the eyes and ears of a wide net of surveillance, Kelabit people in town areas now have the possibility of fostering individuality and making unique choices about who they interact with and how they live. As a result, new dilemmas about how to maintain community are surfacing.

Even as some people consciously choose to disassociate from community activities and involvement, others work to create new, albeit more impersonal, organizational structures to keep group identity and interaction intact. For the Kelabit, as with other citizens of the modern metropolis, the opportunities for privacy translate into freedom, and with it, many people consciously choose the demise of a dependence on the rich interpersonal ties --- the gossip society --- that bound them in the past, for something they see as less oppressive. They are, as it were, turning off the metaphorical webcams and giving up their obsession with the reality TV of communal life.


always end with irony

It is thus ironic to witness --- at the same moment in history as we are becoming obsessed with the all-watching eyes of the webcam and on TV of people trapped in Big Brother houses --- such an opposite relationship to privacy struggling to emerge in a small indigenous community in Borneo. As people in the media-propelled West are intentionally putting their entire personal lives out on the Web for the entire world to view and on TV to watch as an interactive game-show, these distant others (who are also watching) are beginning to find the joy and pain of privacy.

Yet, whether for pleasure ("I like to watch"), profit, or as a social experiment, the webcam is a different type of social surveillance than a longhouse. For one, it is voluntary (so far). By hosting a webcam, a person purposefully opens her or his life to public view. Similarly, by watching a webcam or reality TV, people also volunteer themselves as witnesses or voyeurs. This leads me to ask, have we become so disengaged from community life that our only way back is to reject privacy entirely? Is this how we will come together as virtual citizens of the cyber world? Or is privacy the only thing we have left to sell and commodify in a world left numb and utterly mindless by a bland and formulaic entertainment industry?

Needless to say, I am not surprised by how many of us are just a little worried about the nonchalant approach to personal dignity and privacy that "Big Brother" (in the Orwellian sense) represents, not to mention our twisted eagerness to watch. I have little doubt, though, that we will quickly get bored if there is no lust or pain for us to share in on the screen and that it will be back to the same thing in the end (blood and sex). The fact that something so emblematic of evil as "Big Brother" can be re-crafted into something so soft-core, so timid, so "Big Brother lite," is in itself disturbing. But what worries me the most --- aside from the plethora of dangers that lie ahead in this brave new future in which privacy itself may become commodified --- is our societal willingness to offer ourselves up to be monitored in more and more invasive ways.







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