Big Brother Is Watching You, but Do You Care?

A dangerous concept has been turned into popular entertainment, and it is not as harmless as it seems.

Time flies when you’re having fun (spoiler alert: it does even when you aren’t), and while it does, words, notions and concepts change their meaning, sometimes radically, or rather, diametrically.

For instance, a “screen”: that rectangular (most often) thing your eyes are glued to during most of your waking hours. It started life in English, according to the venerable OED sometime toward the end of the 14th century, as: “A contrivance for warding off the heat of a fire or a draught of air; A piece of furniture consisting usually of an upright board or of a frame hung with leather, canvas, cloth, tapestry, or paper.”

This means it was not supposed to be something to look at, but rather something used to hide something we are not supposed to look at. Only gradually, by its being flat, and as if devoid of life of its own, it acquired its value – something you can project pictures on (movies) or beam audio-visual information through (TV, computers, tablets, smartphones).

But as the word “information” has sneaked into my train of thought, it’s high time to remind ourselves of something we should always remember, but evidently don’t: that information is always a two-way street. When we look at a screen, we may be seen by the powers that be that lurk behind it. And even when there is no web-cam on the screen itself, overtly or covertly a lot of information about us can be gathered by the mere fact of our connection to a world wide web of bytes and bits, to millions of others who don’t know or care about us. Even when we are not in front of a screen, and even when we have turned our smartphones off, there are CCTVs we know about, and apparently some we do not, and spy satellites, and drones, and our credit cards, and biometric IDs, all for our security and good, of course.

Which brings us to the Big Brother concept and the TV reality show. In Israel we are currently following – on Channel 2 – another Big Brother VIP season of the by-now international, originally Dutch (since 1997) TV franchise on which a bunch of individuals agree to spend time in seclusion and be constantly monitored, 24/7. The producers manipulate the human pressure-cooker dynamics, and tailor them through intentional distortions, ratings-oriented editing and a plot presented to the viewers, who are offered the illusion of being a Big Brother watching other human guinea pigs.

Haaretz’s Hebrew readers last week had a chance to read a firsthand account of an “evictee” from Big Brother’s current mansion: Ariana Melamed, an opinionated, outspoken, highly intelligent, widely read and rather high-brow culture critic and writer (who recently joined Haaretz’s ranks as a columnist) spent some time there, and survived to tell the tale. Some brows were raised when it was announced she had agreed to enter this free-for-all arena of what was generally considered rather low-brow entertainment. She herself divulged that she did it for a price, but mainly, she claimed, she did it to find out how the mechanism of that very popular show works from within. This reminds me of the rabbit who let a lion swallow him, as he had high hopes of “changing the lion from within.”

The whole concept of a “Big Brother” who is “watching you” is attributed, of course, to George Orwell and his novel “1984,” written and published in England in 1948 as a wild dystopian satire of a totalitarian society (at that time the Soviet Bloc, so different from the democratic Western fools’ paradise where Orwell and his readers lived). Everyone was under constant surveillance, monitored and masterminded, without an ounce of privacy left.

In 2000, when CBS premiered the American version of “Big Brother,” the Orwell estate sued it for trademark and copyright infringement. The issue was settled out of court, to mutual satisfaction, meaning, apparently, that the Orwell estate agreed that a menacing political concept – something worth fighting against in the name of freedom – can easily, and for a price, morph into a “format,” a brand of entertainment.

That anecdote, a mere footnote in the story of the Big Brother TV format is, in my view, more important than it seems to be. It shows how, in the weird way of the world, potentially dangerous concepts worth fighting against – a “Big Brother is Watching You” totalitarian society, God (the ultimate Big Brother) forbid – tend to become watered down, diluted, tamed and rendered harmless as a form of popular entertainment.

That, I venture, may explain the surprising equanimity with which the world at large – as opposed to some journalists and newspapers – heard, and did not heed, the story pieced together and leaked out by Edward Snowden, a former CIA and NSA analyst, to the The Guardian newspaper about a Big Brother in a Western democratic society. Following the 9/11 fervor of preventive measures against Islamist terror, Snowden revealed how the U.S. is listening to all of you, gathering every word you utter, hear, read, write or even look for, and is able – if someone somewhere decides to do so in the name of “security” – to build a case against you, whoever you may be.

The story about how the story got out – from Snowden to documentary movie producer Laura Poitras (herself monitored by American security agencies after she produced documentaries deemed to be harmful by some within the U.S. security establishment) and Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (whose work won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper) – is the plot of a documentary film that looks like a thriller. “CitizenFour” (Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2014), which will be screened, in true Big Brother fashion, simultaneously by the three theoretically competing HOT (Channel 8), Yes (Doco) and the Israel Broadcasting Authority (channels 1 and 33) on June 15, at 9 P.M. The public at large seems to be saying: OK, “Big Brother” shows us that a Big Brother is watching and listening to us. Who cares?

In Orwell’s book, there is a feature in the life of 1984 society, Two Minutes Hate, a public ritual in which a crowd hisses at the screened photo of an international villain with a Jewish name, and then applauds the visage of Big Brother, chanting the initials, B.B.

In Israel 2015, our prime minister is consolidating his hold over the printed press (with the freebie paper Israel Hayom), the Communications Ministry, the IBA and Channel One, and the commercially limping Channel 10, which is at the regulators’ mercy. It just so happens that the PM’s nickname is Bibi.

That is what Big Brother, whoever he is, cannot get: It is madness – this our life – but there’s no reason in it. It is all made up of coincidences.