Big Brother v. Little Brother

[ Posted Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 – 17:48 UTC ]

Everyone knows who "Big Brother" is, of course, because we all had to read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four at some point in our schooling. Big Brother is the fictional benevolent figurehead in Orwell's "negative Utopia" masterpiece, whose beaming visage is a front for a totalitarian police state which spies relentlessly upon its own citizenry. Television sets, in this future world, are both unavoidable and two-way -- broadcasting images of what you are doing in your own home to the government watchers. To some extent, Orwell's dark fantasy has become everyday life in some places (it's almost impossible to avoid being publicly filmed now in cities like London, for instance). But there's been a balancing revolution in surveillance as well -- which is more and more apparent in the recent news. I'm going to call this effect "Little Brother" -- citizens watching, filming, and reporting on governmental activities to a rapt worldwide audience. And we've already seen how powerful a tool this can be in the Middle East.

In ancient times -- say, twenty-five years ago or so -- the technology which caused this powerful effect either didn't exist or was in its bulky, heavy infancy. Small camcorders were becoming available which took video, but they were still rather expensive. So expensive (and bulky, for the most part) that most people who owned them didn't carry them around on a daily basis. Professional television and video cameras still weighed a ton, and were outrageously expensive, so they were still mostly the province of wealthy newsgathering organizations.

This limited what video was available to both the news organizations themselves, and to the wider public. The established media outlets were still firmly in charge of their "gatekeeping" function. The public only saw what a professional camera crew dispatched to the scene captured (whatever the scene happened to be). Or, at least, what parts of it were edited down for the evening news.

But twenty-five years, in technological terms, is several eons ago. First the internet burst onto the scene. Then blogging. Digital cameras became cheaper and cheaper, and more accessible. Cell phones became tiny, and affordable. Then cell phones merged with both the computer and the digital camera (still and movie), until you can now fit more technological power in the palm of your hand than was even available twenty-five years ago. What's more -- pretty much everyone could afford it. Which meant everyone with such a video-ready cell phone in their pocket became their own sort of "check and balance" on governmental powers -- and governmental abuses.

Consider police brutality, as an easy example. First, there were no cameras (or only very rarely). Then, there were police cameras -- dashboard cameras in police cruisers, and mandatory videotaping of police interviews. Now, everyone has a camera, and they're ready to whip it out and point it at, for instance, a subway policeman shooting a suspect who is lying on the floor. The BART cop incident was horrific, of course, but it was also instructive, in a way. Not only was the entire incident caught on camera by innocent bystanders on a subway train, but it was caught from multiple angles. Lots of people had their cameras rolling, in other words.

In a police state, the citizens live in fear of the police monitoring them all the time. But what do you call it when the police themselves know damn well that at any time or any place while they are performing their duties that the citizens could be monitoring them -- with evidence that would stand up in court?

Sometimes, of course, the police just don't care. The Chicago cops at the 1968 Democratic National Convention certainly knew there were cameras filming them, and the protestors were loudly yelling: "The whole world is watching!" just in case they hadn't figured it out. Heads were still cracked, even with the cameras rolling. I know this is an outdated example, but I cite it merely to show the limits of such thinking. Sometimes there are other concerns than just being filmed.

Now, I'm not suggesting America is a police state, of course, just as I'm not suggesting that 1968 Chicago cops have much of anything to do with today's world. In America, for the most part, cell phone videos are mostly picked up by the mainstream media when they capture spur-of-the-moment events with high action-packed-adventure value -- such as a camera on board an airplane that has a close call, for instance; or video of a weather phenomenon such as a tornado, or lightning striking. Even so, every once in a while one of these videos catches some serious abuse that would have been otherwise ignored.

But the Little Brother effect in the rest of the world can be powerful indeed, as we've all seen these past few weeks. Much has been made about the power of "social networking" (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) in the revolutionary happenings over in North Africa and the Middle East of late, and how the power of the computer has brought together people who, in the past, likely would never have gotten the word to go down to the square and protest. I'm not knocking this at all, because it is indeed a powerful tool.

In any warfare -- conventional, psychological, people-power revolt, or Gandhi-like nonviolent movements -- communication is key. Communications are incredibly important in revolutionary movements, which is why taking control of radio and television stations is always a crucial turning point -- because it denies the rulers the megaphone to the people, and instead puts that megaphone in the hands of the insurgents. In less-developed countries, this can be a chokepoint of virtually all information flowing to the people, and flowing to the outside world. But times have changed, and communications are more diverse these days.

But while other commenters have focused only on the power of the revolutionaries to communicate to their followers via social networking and the like, there's a flip side to this coin that we've now almost taken for granted -- the communications about what is happening on the streets. Cell phones (with video) are so prevalent even in less-developed countries, that during uprisings (even in such fanatically-closed societies as Iran and Libya) the rest of the world gets to see video clips of what is going on, almost in real time.

This is a profound advancement, especially in terms of the relative amounts of media coverage these events get, both in America and in the foreign media. Previously, if a news crew couldn't safely get out on the streets to film, then the world could not accurately see what was happening. At best, we'd get video shot out a hotel window, perhaps with gunfire in the distance (or bombing, for that matter). Compare coverage of the first time we invaded Iraq with what is going on in Libya today, for instance (note: I'm not trying to equate the two events in any way, just pointing out the difference, in terms of media tools, that twenty years' time can create). Now, although jerky and not very well filmed (admittedly, it must be hard to keep a camera steady when running for your life from a machine gun), we get video clips of street fighting and actual battles. That, as I said, is a profound advancement in communications technology.

Autocratic governments faced with the prospect of hordes of their own people in the street have been learning to hit the "kill switch" on both the internet and cell phones early on in the uprising. But, these days, even that's not enough. Even while Egypt was "dark" -- and currently, in Libya -- the videos somehow manage to get out. There are now technologies and methods which can even circumvent drastic government censorship of communications, although not all of them are affordable or available to all (a satellite phone, for instance). One way or another, Americans turn on the evening news each night, and on display are hand-held videos shot on the streets of Tripoli or Tehran or wherever else the hotspot happens to be that day.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is worth at least a hundred thousand. News organizations likely wouldn't devote all that much time to events that they have no film of, relegating it to an offhanded mention before a commercial break ("There was some unrest reported today on the streets of... we'll be right back after these messages"). But a video of thugs in uniform beating and shooting and massacring unarmed civilians is going to lead that night's broadcast, for shock value alone. Especially if it's a country where we don't approve of the current government. Even in countries with friendly governments, when the foreign media start running brutal clips, the American media eventually scrambles to catch up (sometimes after a few days' interval, though).

I guess all I'm really saying is that we need to update an old maxim. The pen may still be mightier than the sword, but who realistically uses either implement these days? Maybe "the video camera cell phone is mightier than the machine gun," is what it should now read, I don't know. As with the older version of the saying, one guy with a cell phone camera is really no literal match for a carbine bullet. And these things don't always have happy endings (remember the woman martyred on camera during the Iranian uprising last year?), either for the individual concerned or for the wider movement. But the power of thousands upon thousands of tiny cameras watching the watchers is still not to be taken lightly. Because it can work to bring down governments, at times. Or convince a country's military (or military leaders) that they really look bad on the world stage, causing shame enough for them to change tactics.

The regimes which have fallen so far -- as well as a few that are teetering on the brink -- were for the most part classic examples of police states. Fear was used to control the populace, in a naked way. They all qualified, to some extent or another, as countries Orwell would have recognized immediately. The leader-worshipping cult of personality present in these places only differed from Big Brother by the fact that Big Brother actually existed (instead of having faded long ago into a fictional figurehead) in the person of "the leader" -- whose photograph could be seen everywhere in the country. Like I said, Orwell would have recognized these signs right away.

But now even these Big Brother types have seen the power of Little Brother. They've seen the power of people communicating with each other to take to the streets, and they've seen world opinion changed in an eyeblink, all due to just a handful of videos shot at street-level. Videos of massacres of crowds of peaceful, unarmed citizens; videos of police and military savagery; videos of crowded hospital hallways filled with casualties; videos of women and children running for their lives from a hail of bullets; and (worst for them) videos of triumphant throngs in the streets celebrating their deliverance from tyranny. Big Brother still has a lot of power at his disposal, but Little Brother's cell phone video may prove to be a more powerful force, in the end. Because, now, surveillance works both ways.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


-- Chris Weigant


8 Comments on “Big Brother v. Little Brother”

  1. [1] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    And, what are we to make of the scenes in Greece today of citizens taking to the streets and abusing police officers?

    What are they protesting against, anyway? Do they not understand what everyone has to do to undo the economic damage that has been caused by decades of bad policy? Are they not willing to do their share?

    Yeah, the surveillance works both ways. Governments can't easily get away with repressing their people anymore and citizens have to take their responsibilites more seriously, too.

  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I agree that responsibility is a two way street. Both government and the people have obligations that should be met. The social contract or "compact" as President Obama has called it is not looking very healthy anywhere these days.


  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, a few years back William Gibson wrote this essay in the New York Times:

    Orwell knew the power of the press, our first mass medium, and at the BBC he'd witnessed the first electronic medium (radio) as it was brought to bear on wartime public opinion. He died before broadcast television had fully come into its own, but had he lived I doubt that anything about it would have much surprised him. The media of ''1984'' are broadcast technology imagined in the service of a totalitarian state, and no different from the media of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or of North Korea today -- technologically backward societies in which information is still mostly broadcast. Indeed, today, reliance on broadcasting is the very definition of a technologically backward society.


    Orwell's projections come from the era of information broadcasting, and are not applicable to our own. Had Orwell been able to equip Big Brother with all the tools of artificial intelligence, he would still have been writing from an older paradigm, and the result could never have described our situation today, nor suggested where we might be heading.


    It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.

    In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:


    What are they protesting against, anyway? Do they not understand what everyone has to do to undo the economic damage that has been caused by decades of bad policy? Are they not willing to do their share?

    Questions that are so applicable all around the world, it's scary!! :D


  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Indeed! This could turn out to be the decade of the protester.

    And, we can have some fun separating out the legitimate demonstrators from the run-of-the-mill shit disturbers. :)

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    I have to ask this or I am going to burst...

    Why the HELL isn't Obama screaming from the rooftops for Qadaffi to get the frack out of Libya??!!??

    I mean, compare the US response to Egypt and Mubarak and the US response to Libya and Qadaffi...

    Oh sure, we are hearing the usual platitudes and such, once "scheduling difficulties" have been resolved..

    But hell, Obama was all but demanding that Mubarak resign, just days into the Egyptian protests..

    Qadaffy is BOMBING and STRAFING protests with Fighter Jets and all we hear from the White House is, "oh wow, jeeze. That's really wrong and we really wish Qadaffy would stop all of that..."

    Is there any reason why the US is not clamoring for Qadaffi to step down??

    Any reason at all???


  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Matt -

    Is that the same "cyberpunk" William Gibson, or am I getting names mixed up again? Great article, and great excerpt, thanks for posting it!

    Michale -

    I'm answering this late, but the answer to your question was: because American diplomats and other citizens were in the process of fleeing, and any rash moves by Obama would have put their freedom and possibly lives in danger. I'm completely satisfied with that explanation, as sometimes there are higher priorities than making a statement. In Egypt, Obama called for Mubarak's regime to end (but not for him to step down immediately, at first) at least a week or so into the demonstrations. It wasn't as fast as you remember, I bet. Also, in Egypt, we had enormous leverage over both the Egyptian military and Mubarak, which simply did not exist in Libya. When dealing with a lunatic (Qaddafi), it's best to get your own people out of harm's way before issuing ultimatums, wouldn't you agree?


  8. [8] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    You've probably already commented on this (I'm working my way through commenting on an entire week's articles, chronologically, so forgive me if you've already answered this), so I have to ask: since the Americans were evacuated, have you been satisfied with Obama's stance on "Qaddafi must go" or not? Seems to me, after the US citizens were safe, he did pretty much what you're calling on him here to do. But then, I don't want to put words in your mouth, so I'm interested in your reaction now.


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