Greeting Big Brother With Open Arms
By EMILY EAKIN
Published: January 17, 2004
For 50 years, Big Brother
was an unambiguous symbol of malignant state power, totalitarianism's
all-seeing eye. Then Big Brother became a hip reality television
show, in which 10 cohabiting strangers submitted to round-the-clock
camera monitoring in return for the chance to compete for $500,000.
That transformation is telling,
says Mark Andrejevic, a professor of communication studies at
the University of Iowa at Iowa City. Today, more than twice as
many young people apply to MTV's "Real World" show
than to Harvard, he says. Clearly, to a post-cold-war generation
of Americans, the prospect of living under surveillance is no
longer scary but cool.
Media critics have frequently
portrayed the reality show craze in unflattering terms, as a
sign of base voyeurism (on the part of viewers) and an unseemly
obsession with fame (on the part of participants). But Mr. Andrejevic's
take, influenced by the theories of Theodor Adorno and Michel
Foucault, is at once darker and more subtle.
Reality shows glamorize surveillance,
he writes, presenting it "as one of the hip attributes of
the contemporary world," "an entree into the world
of wealth and celebrity" and even a moral good. His new
book, "Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched" (Rowman
& Littlefield), is peppered with quotes from veterans of
"The Real World," "Road Rules" and "Temptation
Island," rhapsodizing about on-air personal growth and the
therapeutic value of being constantly watched. As Josh on "Big
Brother" explains, "Everyone should have an audience."
At the same time, Mr. Andrejevic
(pronounced an-DRAY-uh-vitch) argues, the reality genre appears
to fulfill the democratic promise of the emerging interactive
economy, turning passive cultural consumers into active ones
who can star on shows or vote on their outcomes. (The series
"Extreme Makeover" takes this promise literally, he
notes, "offering to rebuild `real' people via plastic surgery
so that they can physically close the gap between themselves
and the contrived aesthetic of celebrity they have been taught
As seductive as this sounds,
in Mr. Andrejevic's view reality television is essentially a
scam: propaganda for a new business model that only pretends
to give consumers more control while in fact subjecting them
to increasingly sophisticated forms of monitoring and manipulation.
As he put it in a telephone
interview: "The promise out there is that everybody can
have their own TV show. But of course, that ends up being a kind
of Ponzi scheme. You can't have everybody watching everybody
else's TV show. And since that's not possible, in economic terms,
the way it's going to work is according to this model of a few
people monitoring what the rest of us do."
Think of TiVo or Replay, he
said. These digital recorders allow people to watch the television
shows they want when they want to. But in return, he points out,
the recorders' manufacturers get a stream of valuable information
about viewer preferences. The same principle, he argues, holds
true for online shops that offer custom CD's in exchange for
data on personal musical tastes. Or Web sites that use "cookies"
to track users' movements on the Internet.
Marketers aren't interested
in exceptional behavior, he added. They want to know about the
routine aspects of daily life, the same material that shows like
"The Real World" and "Big Brother"
in which banality passes as authenticity strive to capture
In short, Mr. Andrejevic said,
reality television's true beneficiaries are not the shows' cast
members (who can wind up making little more than minimum wage
for the hours or months they spend before the camera)
or ordinary viewers (who don't really choose what happens on
their television screens) but the marketers, advertisers and
corporate executives who have a large stake in seeing surveillance
portrayed as benign.
Of course, he conceded, his
students don't necessarily see it this way. Raised on Web logs,
Google, cellphones and instant messaging, they "divulge
much more information about themselves on a daily basis than
previous generations," he said, and they don't associate
the idea of surveillance with a totalitarian Big Brother.
"The concern I have is
that self-expression gets confused with the inducement to assist
in marketing to yourself," Mr. Andrejevic said. "But
my students say they've got nothing to hide. And until there
are some consequences they perceive as detrimental, they're not
going to be concerned."
At least in one respect, he
added, reality television does conform to real life. "It
portrays the reality of contrivance, the way consumers are manipulated,"
he said. "I look at it with the fascination of somebody
watching a car wreck."