For a writer it can be shocking to realize out how few of your own strongest associations aren’t shared by the majority of your readers. However, almost everybody who reads this will know who the original Big Brother was. The events of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1949) take place in the year of the title in Airstrip One, the former Great Britain is now just a province of Oceania, one of the three totalitarian empires that rule the world. Big Brother is the personification of the ruling party of Oceania and the party’s most important slogan is Big Brother Is Watching You.
The hero of the novel, Winston Smith, finds out just how closely he is being watched, not only by every telescreen – in 1984 each television is also fitted with an eye-like camera – but by further hidden cameras. He lives in a world where the Newspeak language is the tool of the all-powerful party’s policy of doublethink. All opposition is deemed to begin with thoughtcrime and is ruthlessly crushed, if necessary with the ultimate weapon Room 101, usually before the potential rebel even acts. Who doesn’t find this vision of totalitarianism combined with 24/7 surveillance frightening? There’s even a word for anything that reminds us of this scenario: Orwellian.
In spite of this, with extremely few exceptions, each of us is carrying a mini telescreen around with us and that doesn’t even seem to worry us. Of course, our mobile/cell phones or whatever else we call them are extremely useful and often serve our needs and wishes. That’s why we carry them around with us and why we push the thought that somebody might be using them to spy on us to the backs of our minds. Occasionally, a media report jolts some of us out of that state of complacency, but we still carry the thing around with us.
The Big Brother reality TV shows are something else entirely, since the TV audience “spies” on a group of paid volunteers who live together in a sealed container. It’s a competition and the winner is the last person left in this cramped luxury prison. They were developed by the Endemol production company, and the first of them aired on the 16th September 1999 in the Netherlands. There are now 54 Big Brother franchises around the world, and this ubiquity combined with the trivial and voyeuristic nature of the show has helped make Orwell’s vision seem much less threatening. The show also pushed the reality TV category into the big league. But recent events have changed this whole situation in an entirely unexpected way.
It was a very strange moment recently when Romana, one of the contestants in the German SAT1 station’s Big Brother TV show, was released from the container. Less than three weeks earlier the show’s producers broke with normal practice and told the contestants what was going on outside the container, that is all about the global Covid-19 pandemic. It led to shock and tears.
The odd thing about that situation is how it must have slowly dawned on the contestants that they weren’t exceptional any longer, because exactly that very day the great majority of Germans began living in a few rooms sealed off from the outside world except for brief shopping trips. If I’d been one of the contestants I’d have thought, “Shit! Now nobody will want to watch us any more!” However, the Big Brother contestants remained different form the rest of us, because they started isolating long before we all did and they did so of their own free will. That was enough to keep them watchable.
The moment when Romana stepped out of the container into “freedom” was even more bizarre though, because not only was she suddenly confronted with the uncomfortable reality that were all struggling to cope with, but she was merely transferring from the isolation of the Big Brother container to the more extreme isolation of her own home where she had even less people to talk to or do things together with than in the container! That remained me of one of the slogans of Oceania’s ruling party in 1984: Freedom is Slavery.
All this made it plain how reality TV is only “real” for the participants (but never the audience) as long they’re inside the container and they don’t really know what’s happening in the outside world. As soon as they step out of the container the TV reality collapses like a bursting bubble and is revealed to have been a form of self-delusion. From an outside world perspective the Big Brother container is an alternative reality with its own alternative facts.
Of course, the other people in our world creating alternative realities out of alternative facts are the new generation of populist leaders. They are simultaneously like the Big Brother contestants and the show’s producers, since each of them is forming the alternative reality within the “container” of their administration and also believing totally in all their own alternative facts. Perhaps this is the reason several of them seem convinced they can’t catch Covid-19, a trap at least one of them fell into.
What is it that makes these people enter those “containers” of their own free will? That’s a question for psychologists, but my guess is that just as we had to be persuaded and prodded into our present/recent confinement, some part of each of them had to be pushed reluctantly in there by another part that was much stronger and more demanding.
Let’s face it though, a great many of us are members of of cliques or associations that demand a degree of agreement with the other members regarding whatever’s the focus of the group, be it skateboarding, flower arranging or socialism. Who doesn’t sometimes tow the party line in such a group in order to fit in? Psychologists have a horrible Orwellian term for this phenomenon that turns groups into bubbles: Groupthink. It causes everyone inside a bubble to see the world differently to how everyone outside their bubble does and that distortion alters their members judgement and behavior. So, a lot of us were already in a limited form of self-isolation in a kind of invisible container – a social bubble – before Covi-19 came along!
Of course, mainstream reality has been shaped not by populist leaders, but by the untold millions of people in various degrees of self-isolation and those people unlucky enough to be in the more frightening isolation of hospitals. Our huge number makes the basic facts of our everyday lives overwhelmingly objective. Now it is the populist leaders who look to be the most isolated people of all in their totally subjective bubbles.
Shut inside their alternative realities they’re desperately trying to spin the unfolding catastrophe as a story of their own heroism, although the reality of the outside world frequently contradicts their narratives. The real cause of their isolation though is not some physical barriers or the guards who man them though, rather it is the way they turn away from the enormous suffering they are surrounded by. Although they all have that in common I think they fall into two distinct groups, the first of those being the leaders who are genuinely hungry for power and control. These Big Brothers are still watching us, that is watching for any sign of dissent or opposition from among the populations of the countries they rule in order to crush it.
The other group of leaders isn’t interested in power for its own sake, but because it makes them the center of attention. They are obsessed with having vast numbers of people watching and listening to them, with being at the top of the TV ratings, filling the newspaper and magazine front covers. These New Big Brothers don’t feel any empathy for us, nor even curiosity and therefore are uninterested in watch us except in order to measure how much we are watching them!