Big Brother, Where Art Thou?
Issue #62, December 2002
Before I wrote this article I eagerly and arrogantly championed a cavalier attitude toward what I saw as a nonsensical upsurge of paranoia among many Americans, spiraling around George Orwell's concept, 'Big Brother.' My gut tells me that sleight-of-hand trickery and illusion, rather than any real threat, is more often used to create the feeling that we are being constantly watched.
However, as I attempted to demonstrate that the threat of ubiquitous surveillance is more emotional than real, I ran into a severe quandary. How to prove that all this spying — the photographing, videotaping and eavesdropping — isn't a valid threat? After all, what organization would be willing to admit that, in the hands of bored, lowly paid peons, Big Brother becomes vapid and ineffectual? Where would I find the evidence I instinctively believed existed that proved that no one significant was really watching the majority of Americans? How could I prove that many cameras were empty of videotape or stuffed with film of such poor quality that it really was impossible to recognize any face appearing on the grainy screen? Who would be willing to admit that monitoring screens often flickered forlornly to the soft echoes of slumber or sat in closets unwatched and untended or, even worse, were silent since they weren't even working at all? It was a stickler.
The more I thought about it, read about it, and watched evidence of it all around me, I began to realize that I was both wrong and right about my assumptions. Though I'd initially scoffed at the idea, a 'Big Brother Society' of a sort truly exists in the modern world. In fact, evidence of it is everywhere. At the same time, I saw clear signs that my gut feelings weren't that far off base.
Since the Columbine massacre, we have witnessed a surge of schools around the country busily installing metal detectors and video surveillance. Yet a seven year old is still able to carry a gun to school in his backpack; we only know about it when the guns are uncovered, as happened at one school barely a week before I wrote this. Likewise, since September 11, city halls, state and federal buildings have instituted much stricter security measures. But then, only a few days ago, a courthouse rang with shots. No metal detector could protect the innocent.
At this point in time, almost all of us are aware that an ordinary individual can't expect to take a flight without being stripped to the toenail clippers. And yet how many unexpected knives and guns and god knows what other weapons of mayhem have been confiscated along the airline routes, having made it from point A to point B only to be finally discovered at point C or D?
It is common knowledge in this county that arms are not welcome in many of our public places and metal sensors are in place to insure this. On the other hand, guns are so prevalent that our society has little control over who actually carries these weapons and we are frequently caught off guard by who is found using them. Recently a man opened fire on a checkout line of a local grocery and when the police investigated they found the decomposed bodies of his parents, over a year old, stashed away in his apartment. In this case, where was Big Brother or 'little sister' for that matter? How is it that the nosy neighbor down the hall never had a clue? Or the postman, or social security? If Big Brother is watching, how could two innocent people be murdered in cold blood and an entire year pass without anybody noticing? Where's Big Brother when you need him?
Still, Big Brother is out there. We are all long accustomed to surveillance cameras in banks, gas stations, malls, libraries and thrift shops. Santa Monica Beach is about to be speckled with cams (ostensibly to monitor the weather but pointedly fixed upon the beach). In some places privacy is already a thing of the past. And, more and more, cameras and other newer technology confront us, blatantly, annoyingly, arrogantly.
As I hear of the new face recognition technology that will soon fly the friendly skies, I wonder how many nuns or school teachers or little old ladies will be suspected of harboring terrorists somewhere on their beings. How many will face the humiliation of strip search because they look like Mohammed Atta? At the same time, how many terrorists will receive their validated student visas after their suicide bombs have exploded? Nor can we expect the situation to end there.
A recent TV advertisement for a well-known bank shows a long line of people with tracking codes stapled to their foreheads. Is that so far from the truth? What is your Social Security number? Your driver's license number? Your auto license number? Your real estate parcel number? Your phone number? Your bank account number? Hell, when you think about it, we actually do have numbers stapled all over our bodies and it doesn't seem so funny.
We all have tracking numbers and many of these numbers are voluntary. Do you have an OnStar system in your car yet? Computer tracking of your vehicle. A handy little gadget that will tell you right where you are. It also tells other people right where you are. Cell phones are also becoming traceable. Gidgets and gadgets will connect you directly to the Internet and connect the Internet directly to you. Hackers abound because there is so much to hack. They want information and in this day and age there is information galore to wallow in. Identity theft? You bet, with the right codes and all your numbers stapled all over them, anybody will look just like YOU, except maybe to face recognition technology (unless, of course, they do look just like you or Mohammed Atta). How soon before they track us by our molecular DNA structure? From outer space? I could get really paranoid about this. It would be easy to believe that the Big Brother Society is all seeing and all invasive. But the world is controlled by greed, shaped by sloth, and suffering from incompetence. The problem is not whether the Big Brother technology exists, of course it does. The real question is,'"Who is manning the equipment?"
Recently an L.A. County convenience store was robbed. The thieves were thorough. When the owner of the store called the police, he had no money left in the till and the culprits had made off like, well, bandits. When the police arrived, they were pleased to see all the video cameras placed strategically around the store. At least they were pleased until the embarrassed storeowner admitted that none of the cameras had film in them.
"I thought the cameras would be deterrent enough," he told the authorities.
I recently overheard a conversation between two casino employees. One was complaining about the surveillance cameras: "This sucks. There's no privacy at all. There are cameras everywhere." The other employee, more in the know, replied, "Ah, but only half of the cameras have film in them."
We live in a world of chaos dreaming of order. The human psyche yearns for order until order infringes upon that same human psyche, then suddenly, chaos rules. Societies, governments, groups of individuals institutionalize this great dream of order and then turn around and pay minimum wage to implement it. They buy cheap equipment, then fail to maintain it; they hire cheap, unqualified labor, or ignore the fact that the cat may watch the mouse but if the cat's asleep the mice play and play. Who is watching those who watch? There are clear reasons why people still disappear under our noses, and guns make it through airports, and courtrooms are shot full of holes, and bodies are found decomposed months and years after their demise. Symbols and ineffectual watching, broken equipment and cutting monetary corners are a cornerstone of the Big Brother world.
In fact, there also appears to be a great deal of evidence that the most vigilant and devout Big Brother constituents are tourists and meddlesome neighbors. Peeping Toms with videos. Now, that's who make me paranoid. Smoke a joint in your backyard and chances are it won't be the cops who turn you in. It will be the little old lady across the street. Bludgeon someone in an alleyway? The tourist cam will catch it all. Drink and drive and some Good Samaritan will phone it in on their cell phone. Stuff granny in your back closet and, if her luck holds, her gin rummy partner will wonder where she went. Who picks up the party line to listen? Why was Rear Window such a good movie?
Our Big Brother Society isn't as George Orwell envisioned. He never took into consideration the national debt, or the rampant availability of cheap commercial goods. How could he have ever imagined that individual citizens would be better at keeping tabs on us than the government? In fact, up until recently, everyone still thought law enforcement agencies actually talked and shared with each other.
Computers still break down. Film still must be purchased or re-used again, and again, and again because profit is still a bottom line. Switches must still be turned on or off and the flow of energy dollars is always a factor. Ah, but nosy neighbors will always peer through slits in their curtains and vigilant tourists will always watch for the juiciest sights and, for some reason, they always have enough high quality film.
If Big Brother is watching at all, he lives next door and his mother is already on the phone.
Shane Brenkuss is a writer living in Hemet, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.