The New Big Brother

George Orwell’s 1984, the frightening tale of a totalitarian society led by Big Brother, was inaccurate in at least three major respects: first, the time frame was too early by about twenty years; second, Big Brother is not a product of totalitarianism, but of freedom; and third, he is not an agent of government. We are Big Brother. And, make no mistake: we are watching!

Thanks to cell phone cameras, email and Internet sights such as YouTube, we have become self-appointed spies keeping close watch on everything our neighbors do. It isn’t the government surreptitiously taking pictures in our public bathrooms and posting them; it’s our fellow citizens. It isn’t the government using unauthorized recordings of private events and streaming the videos around the world; it’s our fellow citizens. It isn’t our government making people reluctant to exercise their right of free speech; it’s our fellow citizens.

This Brave New World has come about without any deliberation or debate, and there is absolutely no recourse. If this were a government-generated issue, we could respond with our votes or even with a revolution. But against whom do we rise up? We have moved into a world where anyone can hide behind an anonymous screen name and spread the most vile untruth in a matter of seconds; where the wall of privacy is no match for the penetrating camera built into a stranger’s cell phone; and where lives, fortunes, careers and reputations can be destroyed with the click of a mouse.

It’s especially ironic that governments, once presumed to be the most likely progenitors of Big Brother, must now, like the rest of us, cower under the threat of his power.

We’re all performers in a giant Reality TV show — whether we asked to be in the cast or not. We have, almost without noticing it, lost our right to private conversations and private actions. Defenders of this new Big Brother speak of exposing hypocrisy and making people accountable for their words and actions. They talk of shining the light of truth into the darkest corners of the world. Their self-righteousness is breathtaking.

We should have been asking questions all along, and examining consequences, especially the unintended kind. Instead, we were enthralled by the ease of email and the cool, new technologies. We forgot that the temptation of governments to overreach and intrude is caused, in great measure, by their very ability to do so. We all have that ability now, and that means there is absolutely no place for Winston Smith to hide.

We are watching.