Robert Fulford's column about Big Brother

(The National Post, July 11, 2000)

If you look into the history of penology, or the literature dealing with social oppression, you eventually come across a drawing of the Panopticon, an experimental jail planned by Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher, in 1791. Bentham designed a semicircular penitentiary where prisoners would live in cells around the perimeter of the building so that everything they did could be scrutinized by wardens from an office at the centre, with the wardens themselves unseen by the inmates. The word Panopticon, Greek-based, meant "all-seeing place."

Bentham never persuaded the British government to build his dream prison, but in the late 20th century, Michel Foucault and the social critics following in his wake made it a notorious symbol of the intrusive state. And now the Big Brother program on CBS television has perfected it. To make this show, five men and five women are living for up to three months in a house equipped with 28 cameras and 60 microphones, where almost anything they do or say can go on TV or the Internet. Bentham would envy these technological innovations, but he would be astonished to learn that in this case the inmates are volunteers, free Americans who have submitted to intimate public inspection (and inevitable humiliation) for fame and a possible prize of US$500,000.

Like Bentham's plan, Big Brother uses the soul-destroying element of uncertainty ("Are they watching me now?") to keep the subjects perpetually disquieted. It also mimics divine powers. As David Lyon wrote in The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (1994), "Bentham's Panopticon represented a secular parody of divine omniscience ... the observer was, like God, invisible." In the case of Big Brother, the audience plays the hidden god -- and at the end elects the money-winner.

Capitalism is a system of breathtaking ingenuity. In this case, the broadcasters (adapting a Dutch program also used in Germany and Spain) are making money by cheerfully appropriating, as their title, the name of the symbolic ogre in the most famous anti-communist fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the work of a life-long socialist. George Orwell's story put an electronic version of Bentham's idea into every apartment in Oceania, the unfortunate homeland of his central figure, Winston Smith:

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover so long as he remained within the field of vision ... he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment."

All this the television people have recreated -- and as a game show! More impressive still, they can sell this perverse notion to audiences and advertisers even when the people in the house don't help much. On the early Big Brother programs, the inmates spent their time wondering what to do with themselves. A voice-over announcer kept emphasizing the sinister quality of what was going on ("There's nowhere to hide in the Big Brother house") and trying to suggest that themes were developing: "The women share their opinions about beauty" or "The talk turns to relationships." Sometimes the announcer declared, "They live, you watch," which seemed to say plainly that this is the ultimate program for viewers with no lives to call their own.

When the rather truculent William, a 27-year-old black youth counsellor, went into the Red Room ("Here guests will speak privately with Big Brother, identify House Guests for possible banishment, or arrange for voluntary departure"), the voice-over tried to make his visit seem ominous. But about all William said was that he found the other people in the house boring, which audiences would not likely consider a controversial opinion.

There's one character, a roofer from Illinois, who keeps saying he's been married 22 years, as if he were expecting an award. Another character is hiding the fact that she's a beauty queen, Miss State of Washington, while another pretends to be shy about revealing that she's an "exotic dancer."

But if Big Brother is mostly banal, it can also occasionally be both appalling and heart-breaking: One woman, a mother of four, told us that she can't stand her bossy, stand-offish husband of two decades ("He hates to kiss, doesn't want anyone touching his face") and has stayed with him for the children and her mom, who instructs her to stick it out.

One show began with a squealing sound, which turned out to be a TV camera revolving on its turret but sounded to me like the squealing of rats running a maze. That would make sense, because Big Brother is the bastard child of all those experiments on dogs, rats and pigeons by Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner and the rest.

When CBS finally exhausts the commercial value of Big Brother, the tapes can be the basis of a textbook by someone like Esho Nakagawa, who writes on "Relational rule learning in the rat" in Psychobiology and "The effect of overtraining on discrimination learning in white rats" in the Japanese Journal of Psychology. Psychologists who now have to make do with species like Rattus norvegicus can study actual humans under similar conditions.

These subjects, 10 adults in two bedrooms with one small bathroom and an inadequate stove, have been given what psychologists writing of rats in learned journals call "the appropriate amount of deprivation." The evidence suggests that total sensory deprivation lowers IQ, produces memory loss and leads to withdrawal and hallucinations. The people on Big Brother have been deprived of friends, families, work, phones, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and adequate space -- not total deprivation, but a dangerous amount of it, sure to create trouble.

Two or three hours after the ordeal started, one man said, "I can tell you right now things are going to get testy." Of course they are. If they don't get testy -- that is, if the rats don't start biting each other -- the program won't sustain an audience.

On that first evening, as they toured the house, someone said it looked like an Ikea showroom. Not at all. It looks as Hell would look if the devil shopped at Ikea. It's a fascist nightmare in kindergarten colours. When Disney World gets concentration camps, they'll be modelled on the set for Big Brother.

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