CBS’s new “reality” show Big Brother premiered and
then flopped three years ago, but now it’s back and the only
thing more shocking than its premise of total surveillance
is the growing acceptance of surveillance by many Americans.
Consider urine testing.This obscene practice is now thought
to be “normal,” a regular partof life for some people and
a mandatory prerequisite for employment in many places.What
began as an outrageous violation of our bodily sovereignty
is now seen as a harmless screening for employment and job
safety.A little propaganda goes a long way.
Since Americans care so little for their personal privacy,
I predict thatthenext violation of our privacy will be the
body cavity search.You know the one I mean, the really scary
search with the elbow length gloves?I can hear it now: “It’s
for your own good” or “if you’re not guilty, you have nothing
to fear.”Sounds crazy,right? Not really.
A cavity search would only be a few inches from the site
of our last surrender of bodily sovereignty. Why stop there?
While CBS may merely wish to increase ratings, the show Big
Brother has more sinister implications.By baiting players
into exposing themselves for a chance at a half-million dollar
prize, CBS trivializes privacy and encourages greed.In their
attempt to make a game show out of what normally would be
an invasive nightmare, the network dismisses the inherent
dangers of surveillance and makes a game out of surrendering
privacy.Considering the current trend of corporate incest
and conglomeration, terrifying new possibilities loom.
The concept of an all-seeing Big Brother was popularized
by George Orwell in his novel 1984 which portrayed
a nightmare world of surveillance, state control, and
social conformity.Orwell is only one voice in a chorus of
authors who have tried to warn us of these dangers.As we enter
the twenty-first century,we are ignoring their warnings as
we saunter smugly down the path of propaganda towards Big
Brother, hoping we will be rewarded for our submission with
the carrot of cash.The show really shouldn’t surprise us however;
it is only the natural progression from a host of sad shows
that exploit greed and human depravity.Media executives have
guessed correctly that Americans will sell their privacy
and freedom (not to mention their dignity) for the right price.
It is especially ironic that this show premiered after the
Fourth of July, our yearly celebration of freedom from tyranny.What
could be more tyrannous than an all-seeing eye minding our
business?I’m not certain that surveillance and freedom are
compatible.The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “surveillance”
is defined as a watch or guard kept over a person, especially
over a suspected person or prisoner. It is supervision
for the purpose of control. The word “freedom” comes
from an Old English word for love and was used to distinguish
friends from slaves.Are we really free if our guilt is assumed
and our behavior is monitored?
Usually surveillance is sold to us under the benign guise
of “safety.”We are told that we need to be watched.It’s for
our own good.But how much are we willing to give up for this
illusion of absolute safety?The only thing surveillance can
do is chronicle a crime; it cannot stop it.I don’t argue against
basic security measures, but when I go to a mall and see ten
cameras in one area, I have to wonder if there aren’t also
cameras in more “private” places--for our own safety, of course!
What I really want to know is: who’s watching the Watchers?
Prohibition hysteria is partly to blame for this questionable
state of exposure and mistrust.Constant anti-drug propaganda
on billboards, busses, radio and TV stations, home testing
kits for control-freak parents, and Tiananmen Square tattle-tale
tactics have all inched us towards the tyrannous world we’ve
been warned about.And it’s not just the drug war.Advertising
and media hype has helped create our unreasonable expectations
of absolute safety.From this fertile manure springs the surveillance
and investigation industry which has been booming since the
80’s—and the terrorist attacks of 9-11 only exacerbated the
Increasingly, we are hypnotized by a technology that is evolving
and developing ever more subtle ways of prying into our lives
to monitor our behavior.If a video camera can be hidden in
a fire sprinkler, we’re all in trouble.Think about that next
time you are in a public restroom.
Our current situation is almost like that old story about
cooking frogs.If you drop a frog in hot water, it might jump
right out, but if you slowly increase the heat, the frog won’t
even notice it’s being cooked.The same principle applies to
violations of freedom and privacy.Sudden changes would be
resisted, but a slow, insidious erosion of freedom and privacy
can proceed almost unnoticed by the average American.
Beware. Big Brother is minding our business more and more
Some surveillance, it is true, is done to protect freedom.If
we didn’t have video cameras, we’d never know about Rodney
King or Thomas Jones, but think about it: do we want police
like that to be able to monitor our private lives?Coast to
coast, police brutality should give us pause: perhaps it is
We the People who should be watching the Watchers.We’re not
playing a game here. Although CBS might have us believe otherwise.