Thomas More notes of the Utopians that ‘they believe that the dead mix freely with the living… the sense of their ancestors’ presence discourages any bad behaviour in private.’ Observation is control; bad behaviour here is deviance from social norms, rather than anything more fundamentally immoral – and the observing dead ensure that those social norms are adhered to, everywhere.
Which made me realise how a sense of being observed is key to social control; and why, in certain kinds of religion, it’s very important that the deity is known to be omniscient. And that leads to ‘1984’, and Orwell’s treatment of Big Brother. Can ‘1984’ be read as religious as much as political satire? Really, it’s taking on any kind of oppressive social structure, however it’s dressed – political, religious, cultural, etc.
And that leads on to a very different kind of ‘Big Brother’. On reality TV, ‘bad behaviour in private’ is actively encouraged – conflict is drama, after all. The purpose of observation here isn’t to enforce a set of pre-existing norms; it’s to encourage the extreme, for our viewing pleasure.
So we’ve inverted Utopia, Airstrip One, and arrived at a place where observation is for the creation of extreme entertainment. Or are these the new norms that we’re meant to embrace? Over-reaction, exhibitionism and a slow process of knock-out until only one of us wins…