Big Brother is Watching You…

Twenty or so years ago, the title of this post would have been associated with only one thing, namely the single finest piece of literature written during the 20th century (there you go, I said it). However, in the past decade and a bit, this has all changed somewhat, and Big Brother now no longer refers to some all-seeing eye of oppression and dictatorship but to some strange TV show about people doing weird things in a house. Except that that ‘strange TV show’ happens to be the most famous product of one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the noughties; reality TV.

The concept of reality TV is an inherently simple one; get a bunch of not entirely normal people, point some cameras at them, give them a few things to do and enjoy yourself giggling at their unscripted activities and general mayhem. If the people in question happen to be minor celebrities then so much the jollier; anything to draw in the viewers. However, it is not just this basic format that makes reality TV what it is, but the obsessively following nature of it; reality TV is there all day, every day, reported on sister shows, constantly being mentioned in the ad breaks, and making itself felt in the media. In the past, the people and events concerned with the genre have made headline news and have been talked about by the Prime freakin’ Minister (Gordon Brown, specifically), and for a couple of years it was hard to get away from its all-pervading grip.

The first TV show that could be defined as ‘reality television’ was Candid Camera, which first came into being back in 1948. This basically involved a guy (Allen Funt) wandering round a city performing pranks of various descriptions on unsuspecting members of the public, whilst someone hid in the background filming their reactions; how this was possible given the camera technology of the 40s always baffles me. This format is still in existence today, in shows such as Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV, and since then the genre in its broadest terms has gained a few more sub-genres; unscripted police/crime TV in the style of Crimewatch came along in the 50s and the 60s experimented in a style that we would now consider more of an observational documentary. During the 70s, Chuck Barris invented the concept of and hosted the first reality game shows such as ‘The Dating Game’ (a forerunner to Blind Date), and these introduced the concept of, rather than simply filming normal people in normal environments doing normal things, putting these people in a structured situation specifically designed to entertain (even if said entertainment came at the expense of a little dignity). The reality shows that were popularised throughout the late nineties and early noughties took the concept to extremes, taking people completely out of their normal environment and putting them in a tightly controlled, heavily-filmed, artificial construct to film everything about them.

One of the early pioneers of this type of television was the American show Survivor. Here, the isolation environment was a tropical island, with contestants split into ‘tribes’ and tasked to build a habitable living environment and compete against one another for rewards. Survivor also introduced the concept of ‘voting off’ contestants; after each challenge, tribes would gather to select which participant they wanted to get rid of, causing the number of participants to dwindle throughout until only one ‘Sole Survivor’ remained. The idea here was to derive entertainment from inter-group conflicts, initially as people attempted to get their living space sorted (and presumably bitched about who wasn’t pulling their weight/was being a total jerk about it all), later as people began to complain about the results of challenges. The key feature that distinguishes this show as reality TV in the modern sense concerns the focus of the show; the challenges and such are merely background to try and provoke the group tensions and dynamics that are the real hook producers are aiming for. The show also displayed another feature commonly demonstrated on reality TV (and later shown more clearly on game shows such as The Weakest Link) that added a tactical element to proceedings; early on, voting of weaker members is advantageous as it increases your success rate and thus potential prize, but later it makes sense to vote off the other competitors who might beat you.

In Britain, Castaway soon followed in a similar vein, but removed the element of competition; ‘castaways’ were merely whisked off to a Scottish island for a year and tasked to build a self-sustaining community in that time. The show was originally intended to not be reality TV in the traditional sense, instead being billed as ‘an experiment’ to see what a selected cross-section of British society would come up with. However, in response to falling ratings later in the year, the show’s producers increased the number of cameras around the island and became increasingly focused on group dynamics and disputes. The reason for this can be explained in two words: Big Brother.

The concept behind Big Brother took the concept of Survivor and tweaked the focus of it, playing down the element of challenge and playing up the element of semi-voyeurism. Tropical island was replaced by house, with a large open-plan central area that made all drama very public and obvious. And everything was filmed; every weird conversation that presenters could make fun of, every time somebody complained about who was leaving the toilet seat up (I don’t know, I never watched it)- all was filmed and cleverly edited together to create a kind of blooper real of people’s lives for viewers to snigger at. Playing down the element of competition also introduced the practice of letting viewers, rather than contestants, vote people off, both increasing the watchability of the show by adding some minor element of interactivity and turning the whole thing into some kind of strange popularity contest, where the criteria for popularity are ‘how fun are you to watch messing around on screen?’.

Nowadays reality TV is on the way out; Channel 4 cancelled Big Brother in the UK some years ago after ratings slumped for later seasons, and with the TV talent show looking to be not far from following popular culture has yet to find a format for the ‘teenies’ (has nobody managed to think of a better name than that yet’) to latch onto and let define the televisual era. Let’s hope that, when it does, it has a little more dignity about it.

Man, and I don’t even watch reality TV…

The Land of the Red

Nowadays, the country to talk about if you want to be seen as being politically forward-looking is, of course, China. The most populous nation on Earth (containing 1.3 billion souls) with an economy and defence budget second only to the USA in terms of size, it also features a gigantic manufacturing and raw materials extraction industry, the world’s largest standing army and one of only five remaining communist governments. In many ways, this is China’s second boom as a superpower, after its early forays into civilisation and technological innovation around the time of Christ made it the world’s largest economy for most of the intervening time. However, the technological revolution that swept the Western world in the two or three hundred years during and preceding the Industrial Revolution (which, according to QI, was entirely due to the development and use of high-quality glass in Europe, a material almost totally unheard of in China having been invented in Egypt and popularised by the Romans) rather passed China by, leaving it a severely underdeveloped nation by the nineteenth century. After around 100 years of bitter political infighting, during which time the 2000 year old Imperial China was replaced by a republic whose control was fiercely contested between nationalists and communists, the chaos of the Second World War destroyed most of what was left of the system. The Second Sino-Japanese War (as that particular branch of WWII was called) killed around 20 million Chinese civilians, the second biggest loss to a country after the Soviet Union, as a Japanese army fresh from an earlier revolution from Imperial to modern systems went on a rampage of rape, murder and destruction throughout the underdeveloped northern China, where some war leaders still fought with swords. The war also annihilated the nationalists, leaving the communists free to sweep to power after the Japanese surrender and establish the now 63-year old People’s Republic, then lead by former librarian Mao Zedong.

Since then, China has changed almost beyond recognition. During the idolised Mao’s reign, the Chinese population near-doubled in an effort to increase the available worker population, an idea tried far less successfully in other countries around the world with significantly less space to fill. This population was then put to work during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, in which he tried to move his country away from its previously agricultural economy and into a more manufacturing-centric system. However, whilst the Chinese government insists to this day that three subsequent years of famine were entirely due to natural disasters such as drought and poor weather, and only killed 15 million people, most external commentators agree that the sudden change in the availability of food thanks to the Great Leap certainly contributed to the death toll estimated to actually be in the region of 20-40 million. Oh, and the whole business was an economic failure, as farmers uneducated in modern manufacturing techniques attempted to produce steel at home, resulting in a net replacement of useful food for useless, low-quality pig iron.

This event in many ways typifies the Chinese way- that if millions of people must suffer in order for things to work out better in the long run and on the numbers sheet, then so be it, partially reflecting the disregard for the value of life historically also common in Japan. China is a country that has said it would, in the event of a nuclear war, consider the death of 90% of their population acceptable losses so long as they won, a country whose main justification for this “Great Leap Forward” was to try and bring about a state of social structure & culture that the government could effectively impose socialism upon, as it tried to do during its “Cultural Revolution” during the mid-sixties. All this served to do was get a lot of people killed, resulted in a decade of absolute chaos, literally destroyed China’s education system and, despite reaffirming Mao’s godlike status (partially thanks to an intensification in the formation of his personality cult), some of his actions rather shamed the governmental high-ups, forcing the party to take the angle that, whilst his guiding thought was of course still the foundation of the People’s Republic and entirely correct in every regard, his actions were somehow separate from that and got rather brushed under the carpet. It did help that, by this point, Mao was now dead and was unlikely to have them all hung for daring to question his actions.

But, despite all this chaos, all the destruction and all the political upheaval (nowadays the government is still liable to arrest anyone who suggests that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea), these things shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. It may have slaughtered millions of people and resolutely not worked for 20 years, but Mao’s focus on a manufacturing economy has now started to bear fruit and give the Chinese economy a stable footing that many countries would dearly love in these days of economic instability. It may have an appalling human rights record and have presided over the large-scale destruction of the Chinese environment, but Chinese communism has allowed for the government to control its labour force and industry effectively, allowing it to escape the worst ravages of the last few economic downturns and preventing internal instability. And the extent to which it has forced itself upon the people of China for decades, forcing them into the party line with an iron fist, has allowed its controls to be gently relaxed in the modern era whilst ensuring the government’s position is secure, to an extent satisfying the criticisms of western commentators. Now, China is rich enough and positioned solidly enough to placate its people, to keep up its education system and build cheap housing for the proletariat. To an accountant, therefore,  this has all worked out in the long run.

But we are not all accountants or economists- we are members of the human race, and there is more for us to consider than just some numbers on a spreadsheet. The Chinese government employs thousands of internet security agents to ensure that ‘dangerous’ ideas are not making their way into the country via the web, performs more executions annually than the rest of the world combined, and still viciously represses every critic of the government and any advocate of a new, more democratic system. China has paid an enormously heavy price for the success it enjoys today. Is that price worth it? Well, the government thinks so… but do you?

Life is not just a body

Today, I am in a bad mood. When I get into this particular bad mood, my thoughts turn a little dark. So, as such, this post is going to be on the subject of death.
People die all the time- just about the only certainty of anyone’s existence is that it’s going to happen eventually. Death is perfectly necessary, and for most humans living in the developed world, it happens after a long and hopefully fulfilling time on this earth. In fact, across nature this is a fairly established pattern- if a wildebeest survives to be full-grown, it’s likely that, barring illness or injury, it will continue to live until it is old enough to become a prime target for the lions again. Another regularly occurring feature is the method of death- animals die either of disease, or they are hunted and killed- this is the natural cycle. However, humans are the exception to the rule, as we have taken death and killing to an entirely new level.
The most obvious example of this is pure, cold-blooded murder. Humans are not the only species to fight and kill one another over, for example, a mate, but they are the only race to commit pure slaughter of innocents on such a massive scale as has been done. Psychopathic killings, grotesque genocides- many times throughout human history killing innocent people has been done for no justifiable reason. The Nazi genocides were of course the worst example of this- millions upon millions of people, innocent of any crime, were slaughtered like worthless animals simply for being different to a perverted image of perfection.
With its prevalence in everyday culture, the true impact of actually killing someone can often be forgotten. Consider it for a moment. You are the killer, faced with an innocent figure, begging you for their life. They have a life, maybe a family. They are a person just like you or I. They have hopes, dreams, emotions- they could be a wonderful person, do amazing things, help other people.  Once they are gone, all that can never be. You have removed someone’s child, someone’s parent. You have removed someone’s protector, someone’s friend. By removing them, you are abandoning their friends, their partners, their relatives, leaving them alone without a shoulder to lean on. When one really thinks about it, human beings can be truly amazing, capable of doing truly amazing things. Now, ask yourself- how is anybody capable of taking a perfectly innocent life?
Notice how all the above points make no reference to the destructive effect on the body- the real crime of a murder is not the destruction of their vehicle to live and breath, but the destruction of their ability to think and, in a more philosophical sense, be. There is something truly and deeply inhuman about idea of deliberately targeting a fellow human being’s soul to be forced to undergo the most horrible atrocities against its nature, to be battered and bent and destroyed. And that is why there are two other crimes I wish to talk about here that I believe, loosely, to be in the same bracket as murder.
The first of these is torture (and also, for much of the same reasons, rape). For anyone who hasn’t read it already, I refer you to part 3 of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. For everyone who has read it already, read it again- it’s a great read and I always thought that his descriptions of the effects of torture were especially accurate. Orwell makes a very telling point- the torture does not stop when Winston’s body is battered and destroyed- it stops when he surrenders his will. At that point, he has ceased to be Winston Smith, a man under his own control- his very being has been bent into the party doctrine. One does not even have to force the surrender for torture to be the basest of crimes- deliberately causing another human being to hurt and suffer. Deliberately making the life of another worse to the point of mental collapse, another person like yourself… now there is inhuman.
The last of the three crimes in this bracket is somewhat far removed from the other two, and is certainly not as severe a crime as either- it is defamation of character, ie formulating lies about another person in order to make them social rejects and generally ruin them. This varies widely in scale, from simple bullying (something else I have an obsessive hatred of on principle), to… well go onto BBC iPlayer, watch the latest episode of Sherlock and you get the idea- its a far more effective and complete victory than murder ever would be. The really interesting thing about this is the effect that it has on the mind. Loneliness is never noted as being a good thing for one’s mental health, but when it is combined with the knowledge that it is perpetuating for as long as you remain in the same sphere of existing, it is enough to drive you insane. Knowing that you are innocent of what is being said, and yet simultaneously having that fact thrown back into your face at every turn sends the mind into a spiral of confusion and chaos, ruining someone from the inside out. It may seem like something completely alien from the inhuman atrocities of torture and murder, and when it is performed ineffectually its effect is trifling. But doing it properly, to the right target in the right way, watching all the structure of the life they lead crumble about them, is one of the most destructive forces to target the mind.
I don’t really know why I wrote this, or if it sounds like some disjointed ramble or not (if it does, please comment and say so). But this has been going round my head for the past 24 hours, and I kind of needed to get it off my chest. My apologies for the dark subject matter, I’ll try to be more light-hearted next time