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George Orwell was right. Big Brother is looking at you.

Who's Watching the Watchers?


CBS' hopeless show "Big Brother" premiered this summer, 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 part of 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 that the next 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 wish to increase ratings, the show "Big Brother" has more sinister implications. By baiting players into exposing themselves completely for a chance at a half-million dollar prize, CBS trivializes privacy and encourages greed. In its attempt to make a game show out of what normally would be an invasive nightmare, CBS 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. Today, we are ignoring their warnings as we saunter smugly down the path of propaganda toward Big Brother, hoping we will be rewarded for our submission with the carrot of cash.

The show "Big Brother" 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 my 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 10 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, buses, radio and TV, home-testing kits for control-freak parents, and Tiananmen Square tattletale tactics have all inched us toward the tyrannous world we've been warned about.

And it's not just the drug war. Advertising and media hype have helped create our unreasonable expectations of absolute safety. From this fertile manure springs the surveillance and investigation industry that has been booming since the '80s. 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 the 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. Big Brother is minding our business more every day.

Right now, there may be no one watching the Watchers, but let them be warned: The technology works both ways. But do we really want a future where everyone is minding everyone else's business? There isn't a human without some unpleasantness to conceal. Those who claim to be guilt-free are guilty of the worst crime of all, self-righteousness. That's the last characteristic you'd want in a Watcher, but I'll bet it's fairly common. How else could someone justify the surveillance of a fellow citizen?

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.

Lee Carleton is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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