A Kind of Dystopia
In this weak reflection of George Orwell’s 1984, a group of young adults live in a home outfitted with cameras, competing for $1 million. Tedious due to the unchanging set and unsophisticated production, Big Brother 6 is nonetheless intriguing for its self-promotion as an instance of seemingly “real,” continuous observation. In fact, it obscures the complex issues and contradictions involved in surveillance.
In Orwell’s novel, Big Brother speaks to his subjects over a public address system. On Big Brother 6 (as on the previous incarnations, 1-5), a disembodied voice orders the contestants to different places in the yard when a fight is about to erupt, then calls all members of the household together for a conference. The television screens on the walls mimic the ever-present screens in 1984, and the diary room, where contestants videotape their thoughts, updates the book’s written diaries. The sense that the participants are under watch is heightened by the frequency with which the show airs (three times a week) and the 24/7 live feed available online, a daily online talk show focused on the household, House Calls, and the online chat room. The aquariums embedded in the walls of the Big Brother house further suggest a fishbowl, a place where the inhabitants are always visible and, importantly, unable to escape.
Indeed, like the society of 1984, the BB6 household is a kind of dystopia, where the people are contained. We see them only in the house—usually the kitchen—or the yard. In archived data available on the website, contestants current and past talk about how lonely they feel. They also look uncomfortable: the furnishings feature hard or sharp surfaces and dissonant color combinations. The kitchen is tiled with small squares in different hues of red, blue, green, and butterscotch, and includes an irregularly shaped formica countertop. The grey steel dining room table looks like a cornily “futuristic” lazy Susan, as if from a Star Trek vessel.
The walls in one room look like brushed aluminum basket-weave; another wall’s aluminum blocks look like cinderblocks from the lobby of a 1950s industrial plant. Small beds are rammed together in the dormitory. And, until they solve the clues, contestants can see things they want—a comfortable bedroom, a hot tub, an exercise room—but cannot get to them. They’re locked in the facility, but locked out of the places where they might find some pleasure. It appears that the interpersonal relationships deteriorate over time so that there is little congeniality among the residents.
This season is, we are told, the “Summer of Secrets.” Each contestant has a friend in the house, unbeknownst to the others. The dollar amount of the prize is a secret, and there is a secret room (the Gold Room). But the constant surveillance ensures that really, there are no secrets. The Big Brother household is, after all, a kind of game board, where contradictions abound. So, surveillance is at once real and not real. The contestants are really being watched, but they aren’t engaged in real life activities. They are performing.
The stakes are not as high as they would be if the surveillance were occurring in their homes, their offices, or on the street. In their diary entries, they reiterate mantra-like that they’re there to win disclose their strategies. In numerous encounters (on screen and in the 24/7 feed), two or three contestants collude on whom to evict and how. Except for mundane household business, such as the need to replenish snacks, nearly all of the dialogue focuses on how to play the game and whom to evict next. There’s nary mention of a book, movie or current event.
Ironically, the week the show premiered, real life surveillance became an urgent matter, as closed-circuit television cameras (CCT) in London tracked the movements of citizens on the streets and in the underground. The contrast between the two situations—the reality game show and the real life surveillance—reveals complex issues surrounding surveillance. While the cameras in London give us a false sense of security, because they enabled the identification of the suicide bombers, they offer little if any preventative protection. At the same time, the cameras’ presence shows not only how our liberties are eroding, but also how we are coming to accept surveillance as part of our everyday lives.
Consider the lack of resistance to passage and reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says the act provides “valuable tools for protecting the homeland,” proposing that security logically depends on a loss of individual autonomy. Big Brother 6 captures none of this trade-off or complexity: it normalizes surveillance, makes it seem trivial. Watching this show, we lose sight of the harmful implications of real life surveillance, where others can eavesdrop on our private conversations or scrutinize our personal information, without our knowledge and without probable cause.
People placed in an artificially controlled setting can be made to do almost anything. While the BB6 contestants want to be seen, to be on tv, and justify their behavior on the grounds of competition, the game is based on conspiring, deceiving others, and colluding to protect themselves—all for an unknown prize. Are they behaving in a way consonant with their own values outside of the house, or are they succumbing to Big Brother’s control? And how different are these sets of values? It seems that Orwell’s conception of a society where people believe whatever the State tells them to believe, and ultimately do what the State expects, was alarmingly prescient.