2004 01 17 NYT Greeting Big Brother With Open Arms – New York Times
THINK TANK; 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 to revere.”)
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 on film.
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.”