The real Big Brother

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For many people Big Brother was the figure behind the cameras on the hugely popular reality TV prgramme of the same name. A few people, however, will recall that the term “Big Brother” first appeared over 55 years ago in one of the most influential English novels of the twentieth century. What is interesting is the way the image of this omniscient overlord has changed.

In the TV show, Big Brother is an unseen figure observing all the events in a house walled off from the rest of society and peopled by volunteer inmates. He appears to be a perfectly benign figure – a cross between an uncle and a referee – someone who makes his presence felt only to resolve disputes, to reprimand those who break the rules or to announce the next hilarious challenge.

In George Orwell’s novel “1984” the figure of Big Brother is much more ominous. The term is used as a vague characterisation for the leader of the Party with total control over all aspects of a fictional society set in the future (writing in 1948 Orwell decided to set his story in 1984). However, it is never quite clear whether Big Brother truly exists or not, or whether he is a fictitious leader created as a focus for the love of the Party – a party that would like people to believe it has a fraternal, protective relationship to them.

The central character of “1984” is Winston Smith. He lives in the ruins of London, the chief city of a province of the totalitarian superstate Oceania (which includes both America and Britain). Winston grew up in post-Second World War Britain, during the revolution and civil war. When his parents died during the civil war, he was picked up by a growing political movement and given a job in their Outer Party.

Like the rest of the population, Winston lives a squalid and materially deprived existence. He lives in a filthy one-room apartment in "Victory Mansions", and is forced to live on a diet of hard bread, synthetic meals served at his workplace, and vast amounts of industrial-grade "Victory Gin". He is deeply unhappy with his life and keeps a secret diary of his illegal thoughts about the Party.

Winston is employed by the Ministry of Truth, which exercises complete control over all media in Oceania: his job in the Ministry's Records Department involves altering historical records so that they comply with the Party's version of the past. Since the perception of the past is constantly shaped by the events of the present, the task is a never-ending one.

However, Winston is fascinated by the real past, and eagerly tries to find out more about the forbidden truth. At the Ministry of Truth, he encounters Julia, who works on the novel-writing machines, and the two begin an illegal relationship, regularly meeting up in the countryside (away from surveillance) or in a room above an antique shop in the proletarian area of the city.

As the relationship progresses, Winston's views begin to change, and he finds himself relentlessly questioning the ideology of the Party. Unknown to him, he and Julia are being watched by the Thought Police. As the story unfolds we find out whether or not their love and the spirit of dissent can survive the totalitarian ambitions of the regime.

Surveillance is ever present. It is one of the ways the central Party maintains its control and enforces conformity. Posters in the streets carry the slogan "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU" and special screens in every house both transmit programmes heavily censored by the Party and record people’s domestic lives.

"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 its 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. It was inconceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But you had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinised."

The telescreen was one way the Party could detect what the book calls Thought Crimes. In totalitarian regimes the thought of dissent is itself an act of treason. You either support us or you belong to the enemy and will be treated accordingly.

Many of Orwell’s predictions (if they were intended as predictions) proved to be way off the mark. At the moment the vast majority of Britons are not living the joyless, impoverished and sexually repressed lives depicted in the book. However, his prediction about the increasing use of technology to record more and more details of our everyday lives has proved strikingly accurate.

Those of us who read “1984” before anyone had even thought of reality TV see Big Brother as a dark and threatening figure invading our privacy. Younger people who haven’t read the book but have seen countless hours of reality TV probably associate him with fun and fame. But more important than the characterisation of Big Brother is the perception people have of the surveillance cameras that are springing up all over the place. It is almost certainly the case that reality TV shows like Big Brother subtly help to persuade people to accept the new technology of public surveillance. George Orwell would surely have wanted the original story of “1984” to have exactly the opposite effect.


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