15 September 2000
In Ray Bradbury’s prescient science-fiction novel of 1953, Fahrenheit 451, the firemen of the future don’t put out fires – they start them in order to burn books. In this painfully delineated utilitarian dystopia, trivial information is good, while knowledge and ideas are bad. The Fire Captain, Beatty, explains it thus: “Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs... Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”
The novel’s protagonist, Guy Montag, is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television “family”, imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth wall-sized television monitor. Each morning, a script of The Family, a kind of real-time soap opera, is delivered to the Montags’ house, with lines already written in for Mrs Montag. She sits in front of three walls of television images all day, and from time to time one of the actors turns to her and says: “So, what do you think?” And she interpolates her own lines.
Even from that brief synopsis, I think you’ll have no difficulty in agreeing with me that Fahrenheit 451 presents a far more accurate view of the society implied by Channel 4’s hit game show Big Brother than George Orwell’s novel 1984, from which it takes its name. Big Brother comes to an end this evening at 8.30pm, after a nine-week run. The final three contestants – Craig the pawky Scouser, Anna the lesbian, skateboarding, former Catholic novitiate, and “Big Daddy” Darren, the black father of three with a nice line in narcissism – will find out who the viewers have voted as the “winner”. One of them will then pick up the £70,000 prize money, while the other two will have to amortise whatever notoriety the show brought them into cash.
Within a couple of weeks of Big Brother beginning, the show eased its way into the popular consciousness of the nation. Although only five million or so viewers actually tuned in, the whole concept of death-by-voyeurism that it implied seized the imagination not only of couch potatoes, but also of armchair pundits such as myself. While Tracy, my three-year-old’s nanny, was happy, downstairs in the playroom, to discuss the character and motivation of the participants – who was to be nominated that week by the contestants from their own number, and who, therefore, would be “evicted” come Friday – I’ve been sat upstairs in my office, evoking the name Big Brother as a synecdoche of the British polity, or as an enactment of McLuhanite prophecies, or as a terminal symptom of the death of British television.
Even when the “Nasty Nick” revelations were transpiring, Channel 4’s ratings didn’t climb much above seven million, and yet the Big Brother phenomenon achieved a huge degree of resonance, like a coaxial cable lashed between high and low culture. For in the last few years, it hasn’t been only the market that’s driven television standards – with some exceptions – into a downward spiral; we’ve also entered a new era of virtuality, where never before have so many watched so many others doing so very little.
We’re living through a period when the face-to-face bonds that made even mass societies bearable are being transmogrified into the anonymous encounters of virtual space. Big Brother stands as the acme of this culture of depersonalised anonymity – which explains the painful resonance of its banal triviality. I’ve watched a fair bit of the show over the summer, and not only for professional reasons. I’ve absolutely no doubt that the way the contestants were selected for Big Brother, together with the editing of the 24/7 footage from umpteen concealed video cameras, has provided us with a perfect biopsy of the cancer which, as I write, is hypostasising throughout our culture.
It’s a culture of equality, all right, for the contestants are equally unquestioning, equally sheeplike, equally directionless, equally lacking in anything that passes for a social conscience or a spiritual value. Self -selecting for narcissism, exhibitionism and a sorrowful dependency on the good opinion of others, the Big Brother contestants are the first cohort among other equals, in a wholly statistical nation.
It’s no accident that the “tasks” the contestants are asked to perform are so redolent of other TV shows. Whether doing a turn from The Krypton Factor, The Generation Game or Countdown, these poor saps are only pirouetting in a hall of video monitors. This is our “family”, and like the twenty-to-thirty-something moieties depicted in Friends and Ally McBeal, it’s made up of ‘“kidults”, those adult children of juvenescence, the scurf on the collapsing wave of the Baby Boom, who are intent on stretching the elastic of their promiscuous, intoxicated adolescence, until senility snaps it back in their faces.
Watching Big Brother is best done by mixed groups of parents and prepubescent children. All can revel in this enactment of a 70-day sleepover, where no one bothers to get out of their pyjamas except to sunbathe or dress up. Oh, yes, it is heartening to see that in the brave new world of Blair, a black contestant and a gay contestant have made it into the last three, but what that suggests to me is that tolerance in our society has been won only at the cost of diversity. The extent to which the viewers haven’t been prejudiced against these minorities is exactly the same as the extent to which they no longer offer any alternative lifestyle choice. With everyone middle-class, childless and a restful shade of beige, we’re not so much living in a melting-pot as a Cup-a-Soup. Or so we wish to believe.
It’s no surprise to me that Big Brother was originated in the Netherlands, that claustrophobic cockpit of social innovation, where an ancient culture of cheesemaking supports an ephemeral one of utter cheesiness. Nor is it any wonder that its format has replicated throughout the globe, like some awful media virus. It offers us the spectacle of pure voyeurism, and its interactivity leads the way to new forms of narration that will no longer require any suspension of disbelief.
In traditional storytelling, whether on page, stage or screen, the audience are invited emotionally to identify themselves with a protagonist whose fate is determined by the deus ex machina. But in television shows utilising ordinary people, the action of which is propelled by collective decision-making, there is no need for viewers to exercise that feat of creative empathy, whereby they can “become” a Prince of Denmark suffering a proto- existential crisis, or a 19th-century aristocratic Russian woman tormented by sexual desire, let alone surrender themselves to dictates of chance or fate. Like mere servomechanisms, extensions of the wilfulness of their contemplators, the pawn-participants in these projects will be required to enact increasingly grotesque playlets to satisfy the jaded palates of their manipulators.
Make no mistake, in terms of what the genre has to offer, Big Brother is a mere lukewarm entree. Novelty, combined with the vestiges of our national rectitude, prevented anything getting too steamy or nasty in the Big Brother house, but in the future, opportunities to interact with sexual and violent experiences will become a sine qua non of such shows, as the next tumbril of entertainment to trundle on to our screens – Channel 5’s Jailbreak – will amply demonstrate.
Yes, we should be worried. The atrophy of the empathetic muscles necessary for the appreciation of traditional narrative is happening in step with the development of entertainment media – the internet chat room, the interactive television show – that substitute anonymous equivalence for personalised identification. Why bother labouring to translate your being across space, time, gender, ethnicity or religion when you can watch some bimbo exactly like the one next door plucking her bikini line on live television? Or better still, on a little postcard-sized vignette, in the corner of your PC’s screen, while you employ the Intel inside to multitask your way through the next spreadsheet or corporate report.
For me, Big Brother was over two weeks ago anyway, when Claire, the breast-enhanced flirt-interest, was sent packing. There was no question that poor Mel, the least psychically secure contestant and the subject of a hate campaign by the herd without, would be the next to go. There was a hideous moment when, as Mel was sprung from behind the razor wire (and how disgusting the setting for this bathos has been, a kind of Ikea Belsen marooned in Bromley-by-Bow), she heard the lowing of the bovine punters bellowing, “Whore!” and, “Slut!” It took her a split second to adjust to the correct posture of puppetry, and then she leapt up and down like a teenager afflicted with mass hysteria at a pop concert, and began screaming the triumphant affirmation of the eradication of her soul.
Down to the final triumvirate of trivia, the popular vote will go with the man who best understands and exemplifies populism, Craig, while the dissenting vote will go with Anna. And Big Brother being the kind of television show that it is – veritably powered by populism – I hardly think it likely that dissent will carry the day. A few nights ago I was chatting to my 10-year-old boy about Big Brother. I asked him why it was that the contestants hadn’t banded together ages ago and smashed all the cameras in the house save for one. Then they could’ve taken over the means of the production of the show and broadcast their own demands to the nation. “They couldn’t do that,” he said. “The people who make it would’ve switched it off.” “Ah,” I replied, “they couldn’t afford to do that; it would’ve lost them hundreds of thousands of pounds in revenue, and anyway, it’d make great television.” He looked at me with the pitying expression of someone who’s being parented by an anarchistic dinosaur, while I looked back at him with an equally pitying expression.
Marshall McLuhan said that we advanced into the future imposing our historic archetypes of communication upon the new media that we invent; thus we steer the car using the rear view mirror. I think he had a point, but what I can see in the rear view mirror is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And another episode of The Family is about to be screened.
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