George Orwell's `Big Brother' was not exactly entertaining

July 05, 2000|By Crystal Williams

Each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures, which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran."- from Chapter One of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," by George Orwell

When CBS' "Big Brother" takes to the airwaves tonight, George Orwell might be turning over in his grave: His nightmarish vision of a totalitarian future has been co-opted as the inspiration for a much-anticipated TV game show.

But then again, he probably saw it coming. As he wrote in "Nineteen Eighty-Four," his 1949 novel describing the death of free society: "Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Through a little "newspeak" and "doublethink," CBS has turned Big Brother, the terrifying all-knowing, all-seeing entity at the heart of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," into a rival of Regis Philbin.

But, of course, we live in the enlightened year 2000, when 10 people stuck together in a house for 89 days trying to outlast each other while TV cameras record their every intimate moment is considered family entertainment.

To that extent, the show's name is fitting. Orwell's Big Brother monitored people's actions and thoughts with the aid of the Thought Police from a complex system of wires connected to a television-like screen.

Here's how it is described in "Nineteen Eighty-Four":

"The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. ... There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

The people in "Big Brother" may not have it even that easy. But there is one advantage they have over Orwell's hero, Winston, and the other poor denizens of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is that they can leave the show (or be voted off) at any time and still end up on Letterman the next night.

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