Let’s talk about video surveillance.
There are two strange things going on. One: there are television shows like the German “Big Brother”, in which people agree to live in an enclosed area for a certain amount of time while being filmed 24 hours a day. Two: there are closed circuit TV cameras mounted on every street corner and in every last corner of every store so that people who have not agreed to the 24-hour surveillance thing become a party to it anyway.
The ruckus that this “Big Brother” show has caused in Germany is absolutely ludicrous. First of all, anyone who has watched any episode of MTV’s “The Real World” knows that the concept of living your life in front of the camera’s eye is not some crazy new idea of the already-depraved 21st century. It’s been done already.
The difference with “Big Brother”, I suppose, is that the participants really are being filmed all the time, and that every two weeks, one participant gets kicked off (voted off) the show by the viewers. The last one left wins 250,000 German marks. Wow.
There’s been a huge controversy about this show. People are saying that this 24-hour-a-day surveillance is an injury to “human dignity,” and that it’s obscene that people should be locked up and filmed all the time. It’s an invasion of the sphere of privacy to which every human is entitled. It’s psychologically damaging. It’s an experiment with people. It’s dehumanizing.
Folks, the “Big Brother” participants volunteered to do this! They want to do this! They’re probably doing it in the hopes that they will be “discovered" and become big stars (if they had ever watched “The Real World,” they might realize that this will not in fact happen - but whatever).
Do I think it’s undignified to allow yourself to be filmed while in the bathroom or while sleeping in your bed (alone or otherwise)? Yeah, I do. But the participants obviously don’t. And anyway, it’s just as undignified to go on some afternoon talk show and blather about your cheating boyfriend or your lesbian vampire mother or whatever - and I don’t hear anybody demanding that afternoon talk shows be taken off the air.
Would the complete loss of my privacy bother me? Yes, it would. But the participants don’t seem to have a problem with it. It’s not like they don’t know that they’re being filmed. They can obviously accept the fact that, if they want to pick their noses, they’re going to have to do it in front of millions of viewers. And anyway, if it gets to be too much for them, they can leave the show at any time.
There are only two things that really bother me about the show. One is that the show proves once again that humans are pathetic enough to do just about anything for a few moments of public recognition, and that other humans are pathetic enough to watch.
And the other thing that disturbs me about “Big Brother” is the name itself. 1984 is one of the most brilliant books ever written, and something in me finds it offensive that they’ve taken George Orwell’s very serious, truly frightening concept and turned it into something like a game show. I find that quite sinister.
What makes it especially sinister is that Big Brother really is watching you. In England in particular, almost every single corner of every public place is under video surveillance. There are signs everywhere to remind you that you are being filmed - “Smile! You’re on CCTV!” It’s like being transported into the film “Brazil".
In America, there are cameras installed in schools so that parents can “check up” on their kids in the course of the day. I don’t honestly know how far things have gone in Germany, but I do know that I can spot the cameras on the main street of Freiburg, and I always have to wonder who exactly is sitting in front of the monitor watching me.
So why isn’t there a huge controversy about this? The cameras are supposed to deter crime, and the people who stand behind them say that if you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t be bothered by them. Uh-huh. Then why don’t we install cameras in every single home as well? Lord knows there’s enough crime there: spouse abuse, child abuse, drug deals, murders… If you don’t have anything to hide on the street, why should you have something to hide in your home?
Oh, your home is private and the street is public? Well, please tell me exactly where my private sphere ends and the rest of the world begins, and tell me who decides which is which. Am I free game if I am merely walking down my street? Do I have to assume that, the minute I leave my own four walls, my life is not my own anymore? Do I have to accept the fact that there are people sitting in front of video monitors laughing at me if I do something wacky outside my house? Or worse - that there are people selling these surveillance tapes to the highest-bidding voyeur?
Choosing to go on a show like “Big Brother” is one thing. But being filmed without your consent every time you walk out the door is another thing entirely. Nobody asked me to volunteer for this little experiment. Nobody is paying me to perform for these cameras. And I sure can’t leave this show whenever I want.
In England they are already using facial recognition programs with their cameras to track down criminals. In America, they have developed a camera that can track a single person even in the middle of a crowd. And on a documentary I was watching last night, one of the men developing such cameras said that in the future they hoped to be able to catalogue certain universal aspects of human behavior (movements of the head, muscle tics, that sort of thing) that could be considered “suspicious" - and then develop a camera that would recognize these characteristics and be able to track people who appeared to deviate from the “norm". The man seemed inordinately proud of this idea.
The only thing that sprang to my mind was the image of a society of automatons going about their daily business with no emotion and no individuality, no personal characteristics that might make them stand out from the rest of the crowd and appear “suspicious." I imagine a generation of people who have grown up with cameras installed in their schoolrooms, and who have become indifferent to idea of being filmed constantly because it’s all they’ve ever known. I imagine a society that has never really known the concept of privacy.
I imagine a society that will have to come up with more and more extreme game shows to feed people’s voyeuristic desires. After all, if everyone is being filmed all the time, the concept of a life with no privacy must lose its fascination. We’ll have to go on to bigger and better things. Read The Running Man by Stephen King and you’ll know what I mean.
I imagine a future of anonymity: blank, anonymous faces passing on the street, and legions of anonymous people in front of countless video screens monitoring my every move. And at the same time, paradoxically, I imagine a complete lack of anonymity - because those people in front of the video screens would know every last personal detail about me.
I imagine myself as Winston Smith, trying to find the one last corner of the world that cannot be seen by the omnipresent camera eyes.
I imagine George Orwell must be turning in his grave right about now. Or just shaking his head somewhere and saying, “I told you so.”