Britain last week was in the grip of ‘Big Brother’ television – judging from the tabloid headlines and opportunistic books I saw on sale in the railway stations and airports, passing through on a quick visit.
Until recent years, the term ‘Big Brother’ conjured up George Orwell’s famous novel. ‘1984’ was a futuristic scenario of totalitarian authority constantly monitoring and controlling the comings and goings of private citizens. ‘Big Brother’ meant invasion of privacy, something oppressive to be resisted and fought.
But around the turn of the millennium, Dutch TV entrepreneur John de Mol hijacked the term ‘Big Brother’. It now refers to his well-tried formula of so-called ‘Reality-TV’ soaps, where a number of random men and women are confined to sealed-off quarters. All their comings and goings, including showering, defecating and sex, are followed by a television audience degraded en mass to vulgar voyeurism.
If you happened to miss the “high” points, the tabloids – at least in Britain – can be trusted to titillate you with daily updates on who bedded whom, or descriptions of so-and-so’s drunken striptease. ‘Big Brother’ personalities become famous overnight, not based on character or achievement, but simply on their willingness to prostitute their privacy for entertainment’s sake.
Orwell’s dark vision of Big Brother domination may well have been partly fulfilled in the Soviet-era by the year 1984. Yet in 1985, culture-critic Neil Postman pointed out that another famous futuristic novel warned of an even greater danger to the west. In Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley, no Big Brother was required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. Rather, people would come to love their oppression, and to adore the technologies that undid their capacities to think.
In 1984, people were controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they would be controlled by inflicting pleasure. Orwell feared that what we hate would ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love would ruin us.
“What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate,” explained Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin Books, NY, 1985, p.vii.).
Those guarding against tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions, Huxley warned.
“In the Huxleyan prophecy,” wrote Postman prophetically in 1985, “Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.”
Did you catch that?! W-e w-a-t-c-h B-i-g B-r-o-t-h-e-r !!!
Today’s producers seem to be bending over backwards to keep to Huxley’s script!
“When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” concluded Postman, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
We were, he said, amusing ourselves to death (a-muse: without thought). Our minds and spirits were being dulled.
As one newspaper headline over an article about ‘Reality Television’ put it: “If this is reality, we’re in real trouble.”
Till next week,