David Stairs

While China installs a nationwide video surveillance system, people in the West fret about the potential damage to their privacy by CTV cameras. But, apart from high profile failures, like Toronto’s “smart city” project, we’ve actually been normalizing surveillance for decades. Just consider reality television.

For almost a quarter century CBS summer TV has been colonized by the roughly three hundred individuals who have subjected themselves to the tribulations of Big Brother. The premise is simple: sixteen people are sequestered in a closed environment competing for $750,000. No contact with the outside world is permitted for three months. This fishbowl, visible to millions of viewers three nights each week, or 24/7 for those willing to pay for full access, places the competitors under continual video surveillance. Ostensibly an experiment in a controlled social environment, the Orwellian experience allows viewers to see the contestants, with all their moral warts and bruises, as they backstab, blindside, and betray their way toward the three-quarter million dollar prize.

The point arrived at year in year out is that human beings have strengths and weaknesses. Some are charismatic, others are just sly. More than a few have cried their way into the hearts of America with searing revelations made in the “Diary Room.” But it would take a very forgiving, or perhaps BB obsessed fan to be taken in by the foibles of these carefully vetted made-for-tv twenty to forty-something personalities. They were custom-designed for an era of surveillance. And in a vicarious society, where mediated experience is rampant, remote voyeurism becomes socialized behavior.

Another, even more egregious example of our collective tendency to be peeping toms would be the more recent Love Island. Like Big Brother, Love Island originated in Europe and was imported to the US. Unlike BB, LI has a narrower demographic. While carefully checking all the appropriate boxes for racial balance, Love Island tightly focuses on matchmaking cisnormal under-thirty bathing beauties and muscle-heads. To a relentless background track of sappy pop tunes, Islanders spend most of their time in their villa wearing bikinis and swim shorts, showing off their pects and tans, sharing toasts and cocktails, and enduring six weeks of nocturnal temptations as they slime their way toward their “soulmates.” The carefully scripted footage regularly shows contestants lifting weights or applying make up, and “pulling” one another for innumerable “convos,” but never reading, drawing, playing music, or journaling. Where in Big Brother the viewer gets the notion that all people are deceitful, on Love Island, where the main criterion for success is being “smokin’ hot,” the participants appear too shallow for serious deceit.

Outside the hothouse confines of Love Island fandom wikis, none of these people matter. While a few may be angling for wider media attention as models or online influencers, the mediocrity that brought most of them to the show in the first place is on full display in a series of contrived kissing contests. And their success off the island is a good example of this type of empty. None of the finalist couples from Love Island summer 2020 were still together by April 2021. This speaks volumes about the resistance of the human heart to being force-fed love.

Meanwhile, the Big Brother House 2021 is re-populated with sixteen earnest victims, willingly exposing themselves to our perverse curiosity, required to perform in an endless round of self-humiliating “evictions,” while Love Island is playing host to thirty-four new beautiful-but-dim youths who have accepted the terms of exposure and embarrassment for the sake of momentary acclaim, coupling and re-coupling in earnest compliance with their contracts.

Thirty-seven years beyond Orwell’s famous date, we have more than casually accepted the terms of his dystopic vision. In 2021 constant surveillance has all the dire-sounding frisson of a belly flop down the waterslide into the Love Island swimming pool.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

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