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…

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War in Three Dimensions

Warfare has changed a lot in the last century. Horses have become redundant, guns become reliable, machine guns become light enough to carry and bombs have become powerful enough to totally annihilate a small country if the guy with the button so chooses. But perhaps more significant than just the way hardware has changed is the way that warfare has changed itself; tactics and military structure have changed beyond all recognition compared to the pre-war era, and we must now fight wars whilst surrounded by a political landscape, at least in the west, that does not approve of open conflict. However, next year marks the 100th anniversary of a military innovation that not only represented massive hardware upgrade at the time, but that has changed almost beyond recognition in the century since then and has fundamentally changed the way we fight wars; the use of aeroplanes in warfare.

The skies have always been a platform to be exploited by the cunning military strategist; balloons were frequently used for messaging long before they were able to carry humans and be used for reconnaissance during the early 20th century, and for many years the only way of reliably sending a complicated message over any significant distance was via homing pigeon. It was, therefore, only natural that the Wright brothers had barely touched down after their first flight in ‘Flyer I’ when the first suggestions of a military application to such a technology were being made. However, early attempts at powered flight could not sustain it for very long, and even subsequent improvements failed to produce anything capable of carrying a machine gun. By the First World War, aircraft had become advanced enough to make controlled, sustained, two-person flight at an appreciable height a reality, and both the Army and Navy were quick to incorporate air divisions into their structures (these divisions in the British Armed Forces were the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service respectively). However, these air forces were initially only used for reconnaissance purposes and ‘spotting’ for artillery to help them get their eye in; the atmosphere was quite peaceful so far above the battlefield, and pilots and observers of opposing aircraft would frequently wave to one another during the early years of the war. As time passed and the conflict grew ever-bloodier, these exchanges became less friendly; before long observers would carry supplies of bricks into the air with them and attempt to throw them at enemy aircraft, and the Germans even went so far as to develop steel darts that could reportedly split a man in two; whilst almost impossible to aim in a dogfight, these darts were incredibly dangerous for those on the ground. By 1916 aircraft had grown advanced enough to carry bombs, enabling a (slightly) more precise method of destroying enemy targets than artillery, and before long both sides could equip these bombers with turret-mounted machine guns that the observers could fire on other aircraft with; given that the aircraft of the day were basically wire and wood cages covered in fabric, these guns could cause vast amounts of damage and the men within the planes had practically zero protection (and no parachutes either, since the British top brass believed this might encourage cowardice). To further protect their bombers, both sides began to develop fighter aircraft as well; smaller, usually single-man, planes with fixed machine guns operated by the pilot (and which used a clever bit of circuitry to fire through the propeller; earlier attempts at doing this without blowing the propeller to pieces had simply consisted of putting armour plating on the back of the propeller, which not infrequently caused bullets to bounce back and hit the pilot). It wasn’t long before these fighters were given more varied orders, ranging from trench strafing to offensive patrols (where they would actively go and look for other aircraft to attack). Perhaps the most dangerous of these objectives was balloon strafing; observation balloons were valuable pieces of reconnaissance equipment, and bringing them down generally required a pilot to navigate the large escort of fighters that accompanied them. Towards the end of the war, the forces began to realise just how central to their tactics air warfare had become, and in 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined to form the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force in the world. The RAF celebrated its inception three weeks later when German air ace Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red Baron), who had 80 confirmed victories despite frequently flying against superior numbers or hardware, was shot down (although von Richthofen was flying close to the ground at the time in pursuit of an aircraft, and an analysis of the shot that killed him suggests that he was killed by a ground-based AA gunner rather than the Canadian fighter pilot credited with downing him. Exactly who fired the fatal shot remains a mystery.)

By the time the Second World War rolled around things had changed somewhat; in place of wire-and-fabric biplanes, sleeker metal monoplanes were in use, with more powerful and efficient engines making air combat faster affair. Air raids themselves could be conducted over far greater distances since more fuel could be carried, and this proved well suited to the style of warfare that the war generated; rather than the largely unmoving battle lines of the First World War, the early years of WW2 consisted of countrywide occupation in Europe, whilst the battlegrounds of North Africa and Soviet Russia were dominated by tank warfare and moved far too fluidly for frontline air bases to be safe. Indeed, air power featured prominently in neither of these land campaigns; but on the continent, air warfare reigned supreme. As the German forces dominated mainland Europe, they launched wave after wave of long distance bombing campaigns at Britain in an effort to gain air superiority and cripple the Allies’ ability to fight back when they attempted to cross the channel and invade. However, the British had, unbeknownst to the Germans, perfected their radar technology, and were thus able to use their relatively meagre force of fighters to greatest effect to combat the German bombing assault. This, combined with some very good planes and flying on behalf of the British and an inability to choose the right targets to bomb on behalf of the Germans, allowed the Battle of Britain to swing in favour of the Allies and turned the tide of the war in Europe. In the later years of the war, the Allies turned the tables on a German military crippled by the Russian campaign after the loss at Stalingrad and began their own orchestrated bombing campaign. With the increase in anti-aircraft technology since the First World War, bombers were forced to fly higher than ever before, making it far harder to hit their targets; thus, both sides developed the tactic of ‘carpet bombing’, whereby they would simply load up as big a plane as they could with as many bombs as it could carry and drop them all over an area in the hope of at least one of the bombs hitting the intended target. This imprecise tactic was only moderately successful when it came to destruction of key military targets, and was responsible for the vast scale of the damage to cities both sides caused in their bombing campaigns. In the war in the Pacific, where space on aircraft carriers was at a premium and Lancaster Bombers would have been impractical, they kept with the tactic of using dive bombers, but such attacks were very risky and there was still no guarantee of a successful hit. By the end of the war, air power was rising to prominence as possibly the most crucial theatre of combat, but we were reaching the limits of what our hardware was capable of; our propellor-driven, straight wing fighter aircraft seemed incapable of breaking the sound barrier, and our bombing attacks couldn’t safely hit any target less than a mile wide. Something was clearly going to have to change; and next time, I’ll investigate what did.

*”It is sweet and right to die for your country”

Patriotism is one of humankind’s odder traits, at least on the face of it. For many hundreds of years, dying in a war hundreds of miles away from home defending/stealing for what were, essentially, the business interests and egos of rich men too powerful to even acknowledge your existence was considered the absolute pinnacle of honour, the ultimate way to bridge the gap between this world and the next. This near-universal image of the valiance of dying for your country was heavily damaged by the first world war, near-crushing “the old lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori*” (to quote Wilfred Owen), but even nowadays soldiers fighting in a dubiously moral war that has killed far more people than the events it was ‘payback’ for are regarded as heroes, their deaths always granted both respect and news coverage (and rightly so). Both the existence and extent of patriotism become increasingly bizarre and prevalent when we look away from the field of conflict; national identity is one of the most hotly argued and defended topics we have, stereotypes and national slurs form the basis for a vast range of insults, and the level of passion and pride in ‘our’ people and teams on the sporting stage is quite staggering to behold (as the recent London 2012 games showed to a truly spectacular degree).

But… why? What’s the point? Why is ‘our’ country any better than everyone else’s, to us at least, just by virtue of us having been born there by chance? Why do we feel such a connection to a certain group of sportspeople, many of whom we might hate as people more than any of their competitors, simply because we share an accent? Why are we patriotic?

The source of the whole business may have its roots in my old friend, the hypothetical neolithic tribe. In such a situation, one so small that everybody knows and constantly interacts with everyone else, then pride in connection with the achievements of one’s tribe is understandable. Every achievement made by your tribe is of direct benefit to you, and is therefore worthy of celebration. Over an extended period of time, during which your tribe may enjoy a run of success, you start to develop a sense of pride that you are achieving so much, and that you are doing better than surrounding others.

This may, at least to a degree, have something to do with why we enjoy successes that are, on the scale of countries, wholly unconnected to us, but nonetheless are done in the name of our extended ‘tribe’. But what it doesn’t explain so well is the whole ‘through thick and thin mentality’- that of supporting your country’s endeavours throughout its failings as well as its successes, of continuing to salvage a vestige of pride even if your country’s name has been dragged through the mud.

We may find a clue to this by, once again, turning our attention to the sporting field, this time on the level of clubs (who, again, receive a level of support and devotion wholly out of proportion to their achievements, and who are a story in their own right). Fans are, obviously, always proud and passionate when their side is doing well- but just as important to be considered a ‘true’ fan is the ability to carry on supporting during the days when you’re bouncing along the bottom of the table praying to avoid relegation. Those who do not, either abandoning their side or switching allegiance to another, are considered akin to traitors, and when the good times return may be ostracized (or at least disrespected) for not having faith. We can apply this same idea to being proud of our country despite its poor behaviour and its failings- for how can we claim to be proud of our great achievements if we do not at least remain loyal to our country throughout its darkest moments?

But to me, the core of the whole business is simply a question of self-respect. Like it or not, our nationality is a huge part of our personal identity, a core segment of our identification and being that cannot be ignored by us, for it certainly will not be by others. We are, to a surprisingly large degree, identified by our country, and if we are to have a degree of pride in ourselves, a sense of our own worth and place, then we must take pride in all facets of our identity- not only that, but a massed front of people prepared to be proud of their nationality in and of itself gives us a reason, or at least part of one, to be proud of. It may be irrational, illogical and largely irrelevant, but taking pride in every pointless achievement made in the name of our nation is a natural part of identifying with and being proud of ourselves, and who we are.

My apologies for the slightly shorter than normal post today, I’ve been feeling a little run down today. I’ll try and make it up next time…