Remember Big Brother?
No, not the godawful reality TV show that spread pathogen-like from the Netherlands to nearly every continent, titillating and boring viewers with its dead-eyed voyeurism. I’m talking about the original Big Brother, the ever-present, always-watching godhead of the totalitarian state imagined by George Orwell in 1984.
For a while in the culture, Big Brother was everywhere, serving as the go-to signifier for out-of-control state power. The big guy had a starring role as the baddie in the first Apple Macintosh ad, which aired (appropriately enough) during Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. The echo of Big Brother, reimagined as everywhere, all-the-time government surveillance, drove the action in movies like Enemy of the State and served as dark muse for artists like Julia Scher and Banksy, who tapped into anxieties around CCTV cameras and their unblinking electric eyes.
But a funny thing happened to Big Brother in 2016. He got smaller. He went mobile. And he became…us.
Security cameras are still everywhere, but we don’t talk about them much. Edward Snowden and his journalist allies may have clued us into the ways the NSA and the tech industry spy on citizens in the U.S. and abroad, but after a few weeks of outrage most of us moved onto other things.
In 2016 we’re not merely watched by Big Brother. We’re filming ourselves everywhere all the time. We hold selfie sticks aloft on the street. Some of us opt to wear cameras clipped to our shirts to capture entire days. Others strap them to our helmets before getting on our bikes or mount them on the dashboards of our cars to capture our commutes.
The ubiquity of these cameras can have a downside (just ask anyone who’s been drawn into someone’s food Instagram), but they have an undeniable benefit as well: We can now see things we’d never seen before. And we can see all without the intervention of broadcasters, editors or official gatekeepers.
That includes police shootings, which can now be viewed unedited and unfiltered almost as soon as they happen. This was the case with Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philander Castile, whose death at the hands of Minnesota police was livestreamed on Facebook by his fiancée. These videos, and the dozen or so more from this very violent year, have changed the conversation around race, policing and the unequal distribution of justice in the United States.
American awareness of police abuse has been boosted by cellphone videos in much the same way broadcast news images from the battlefields of Vietnam helped change public sentiment on that war.
These videos have also raised serious questions for companies like Facebook about how and whether to host such graphic images. (That Facebook removed the video of Castile’s murder citing a “technical glitch” doesn’t speak well for the social network’s social stewardship.) There’s no denying that seeing these images—Eric Garner choked to death in Staten Island, 12-year-old Tamir Rice shot in the back in Cleveland, among too many others—helped wake up the nation to police brutality. American awareness of police abuse has been boosted by cellphone videos in much the same way broadcast news images from the battlefields of Vietnam helped change public sentiment on that war.
Our contemporary compulsion to document our lives, to seize the means of surveillance from state and corporate powers and use them for our own purposes has undoubtedly empowered us. Each of these videos has helped shine a light on incidents the powerful would prefer be kept in the shadows.
Orwell’s Big Brother saw all, but he did so coldly. Now that we’re watching for him, we can’t do the same. Our all-seeing electric eyes need to be wired directly into our all-feeling human hearts, and each of us must do our part to change as a result of what we’ve seen. If we don’t, we’ll be letting down our brothers and sisters—big, little, or otherwise.