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Cheerfully submitting to Orwell's vision

Posted: Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Is it possible to violate the privacy of someone who has surrendered all rights to it? Can you invade the personal space of anyone who eagerly volunteered to live entirely in public?

These modest questions of Pop Philosophy 101 are raised by television's midsummer madness. First CBS casts characters onto an island with a camera crew to call their own. Now, it's set up a group of 10 people to live under the 24-7 surveillance of 28 cameras and 60 microphones in a house both secluded and exposed.

The tease for the show ``Big Brother'' is the promise to show and tell everything: ``THE HOUSE GUESTS WILL LIVE WITH ABSOLUTELY NO PRIVACY!!!'' The opening night camera panned on the bathroom, the shower, the bedroom: ``TEN PEOPLE, NO PRIVACY!!!''

Did we once worry when newsmakers became celebrities, when fame and infamy merged in O.J. and Kato Kaelin? We have gone now from accidental celebrities like Monica Lewinsky and Marisleysis Gonzalez to the screened and auditioned celebrities of ``Survivor'' and ``Big Brother.''

News became entertainment, now entertainment is news. In one prime-time blitz, CBS aired an episode of ``Survivor'' followed by the opening of ``Big Brother'' followed by a ``48 Hours'' devoted entirely to fame, featuring cast members of ``Survivor.'' The news magazine - fanzine? - show was followed by the 11 o'clock news announcing who was kicked off the TV island and an early morning show interviewing the kickee. It made all-Elian TV look like hard news coverage.

When I last ranted about ``Survivor,'' more than one reader insisted that it wasn't reality TV but voyeur TV. But can you be a voyeur when you're viewing an exhibitionist? It's like being called a peeping Tom at a strip show.

This is a time of enormous ambivalence about privacy and celebrity. On the one hand, there is a push to protect privacy. There are consumer complaints about the cookies on your computer that will allow anyone to follow the crumbs to your identity. We are worrying about the use of DNA that will track you to your employer or insurer. We are wary of high-tech snooping and bosses reading your e-mail.

At the same time, there's a galloping pursuit of celebrity, for those 15 minutes that sent Darva Conger from the TV altar to the Playboy centerfold. And there's a longing for fame echoed by Sean, the doctor on ``Survivor'' who actually said ``If I walk out of the house and see the National Enquirer rummaging through my garbage that would be a dream come true.''

Privacy is not that old a concept. A few centuries ago, nearly all humans led their entire lives in public. The hardships of ``Big Brother'' - a bedroom for five, a single bathroom - would have been a luxury.

For the most part, privacy - the right to be let alone - was conceived as a right to be free of government intrusion. Now the intruder is equally apt to be the media. And the desire to be let alone rushes headlong against the desire to be known.

Think of the thousands who applied for these shows and the price they are willing to pay for fame in the coin of the realm: a loss of privacy and with it dignity. To be seen, they're willing to give up control of how they are seen.

How much of the desire to be known is in fact due to the loss of real community, to the fact that we are more isolated? In our less civic society, there are fewer choices between being exposed and being alone, between being on television and watching television.

As an antidote for a loss of community, we create false communities. The ``Big Brother family,'' as the television narrator/reporter called the cast, is a temporary, uncommitted band of strangers held together by four walls, 60 microphones and the lure of $500,000 dollars. This ``family'' has, ironically, no television set, no Internet.

As for the audience, there is an equally false sense of community. As Robert Putnam of ``Bowling Alone'' says succinctly, ``None of the people watching `Big Brother' will bring you chicken soup if you get sick.'' These shows create the same phony intimacy behind the temporary collective mourning for a Princess Diana.

In fact the only chance for intimacy is privacy. That was, ironically, the conclusion of the original ``Big Brother.'' Only in private and in what we now must call real ``real life'' can any of us be truly known and connected.

TEN PEOPLE! NO PRIVACY! George Orwell's nightmare has been cheerily transformed into our latest prime-time spectacle.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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