Big Brothers-At-Arms

Big Brothers-At-Arms

We live in an age of surveillance, in which our lives are policed by social norms and groupthink. These social norms can use technology to imprison us – but we can also use technology for our own ends, and fight back.

“You can do better than that,” barks Winston’s telescreen in 1984.

“Everyone from your best friends to Barack Obama can listen,” says mine, in 2013.

One of these omnipresent voices, out of context, is threatening – and it’s not the one from Orwell’s famous dystopia. Spotify, on its own and without probing, is a sweet idea. Do you discover, free of charge, music your friends like; or do you, free of charge to any government, mould yourself into a music clone, denouncing your Will Smith playlist as thoughtcrime with the label “ironic”? In itself, this is harmless behaviour; writ large, it becomes groupthink.

Barack Obama probably isn’t going to follow you on Spotify, but his government can follow you in real life. With terms like “metadata,” “intelligence,” and “security” on the front page of every news source lately, we’re becoming increasingly aware that even in New Zealand, tucked away at the bottom of the world, Big Brother could be watching us. Two satellite sites – one outside Blenheim and one near Palmerston North – are part of an intelligence network that stretches across the Western world, and have been intercepting signals for years. Despite such sneaky locations for intelligence sites, our overlords require additional surveillance means: GPS in our cell phones and cars makes tracing our whereabouts easy for anyone with the authority, and it’s even easier to trace an IP. CCTVs can be accessed by a range of security organisations and remote hackers, and with the right know-how it’s possible to access and turn on someone else’s webcam. So Big Brother can watch you – but does He have to?


In the 18th century, a philosopher called Jeremy Bentham designed a prison in which the inmates would be placed around a central watchtower from which they could be constantly observed. The idea was that they would then behave as though eternally under the eye of the warden – that is, in accordance with the prison rules. In the 1970s another philosopher, Michel Foucault, theorised that this design has formed the blueprint not only for prisons, but for schools, hospitals and a myriad of other social institutions, due to its effectiveness at controlling people. “The major effect of the Panopticon,” he wrote, was “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” In 1984, it is never explicitly stated how many of the ubiquitous telescreens are watched at once, but everyone behaves as though they are constantly being monitored – and so do we.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right? University of Otago information science Associate Professor Hank Wolfe, speaking to the press, interprets this common saying as representative of surveillance technology’s use as a “tool of intimidation.” We won’t misbehave because if we do, we’d justify the government’s misuse of technology (as I write this, it’s still illegal for the NZ government to spy on its residents). There’s no need to pay for a police officer on every corner if there’s a camera, and if the camera’s there illegally … well, complaining would only make you seem suspicious. What if, though, control via surveillance wasn’t just about fear of the government’s watchful eye? Fear may be a key fundament of many a dystopia, but it’s peripheral to controlling the day-to-day behaviour of its inhabitants.

Our fear of breaking the law is the wall surrounding and entrapping us, but the police inside the wall are things called “social norms.” These are the understandings we have as a group that govern what is and isn’t an appropriate way to behave. While some norms – such as the inappropriateness of murder – are enshrined in a country’s law, others are unofficial taboos: consensual cannibalism would be one. These, though, are extreme examples of norms. The ones I’m talking about are those that govern the way we interact with one another; a social norm could be anything from shaking hands to a societal preference for male leaders.

Norms reinforce cultural hegemonies – or dominant groups – within our society. For example, Roald Dahl’s star-bellied Sneetches are culturally dominant over the plain-bellied Sneetches and so a beauty norm is to be “starred” – it’s the hegemonic ideal. For this reason, one can observe the plain-bellied Sneetches modifying their appearance. This kind of body modification is socially appropriate – a norm – and controls the population’s behaviour in a way that upholds or perpetuates the hegemony.


Our behaviour, then, is subtly regulated and guided by our “innate” sense of right and wrong. It’s right to give Christmas presents, and it’s wrong to question those in charge – or at least, that’s what The Man wants you to think. He helps us to control ourselves by way of a technology that quietly co-exists with all the news corps’ super-sleuth phone-tappings and governments’ backyard satellites: social media. This is technology by and for the People, and is arguably a far more effective way of controlling the population.

In recent years, the explosion of social media devices (Instagram, Twitter etc.) has resulted in a technological flood of norm-reinforcement. This is because, on top of all the norms we usually encounter, we have the added effect of being constantly watched … by one another. Facebook and Twitter encourage us to share – and edit – our thoughts; Instagram and Tumblr ask us to share – selectively – images we enjoy. To get the most out of our experiences with these technologies, we have to share only what is “right.” Sharing our every thought and vision seems liberating, but actually creates an environment of groupthink, wherein we subconsciously learn what is appropriate to think by learning what is appropriate to share.

Although I’d like to believe I’m above the influence of the foolish herd of sheeple that is society, I recently found myself falling under the normative influence of Tumblr. Similar to Orwell’s Newspeak, the users of this website use a particular type of slang: an ironic kind of chatspeak. I started using my Tumblrspeak on Facebook, Twitter, and OkCupid: “dont even look @ me unless ur a starship captin,” my tagline read. This was the “right” way to communicate my desires and, I thought, made me stand out as an elite Tumblr alum. “I don’t look at girls who can’t communicate using the Queen’s English,” sent an irate user, subscribing to a norm that exists in the social group “academically-gifted twats.” Both of us had fallen under the influence of our social groups, and had found our opinions about issues as inane as writing style affected accordingly.

Over on Facebook, females seeking out approval for their ability to uphold the hegemonic ideal of beauty sent their pictures to the Babe of the Day page. Males, seeking to uphold a hegemonic ideal of masculinity, made several comments on said pictures that could be construed as upsettingly aggressive. When one social group pointed out the inappropriateness of rape threats, they were told to “buy a tampon” by the dominant group, reflecting the norm that links female aggression with hormonal irrationality and thereby rendering this less-dominant social group laughable and easily-ignored.

In a courtroom in Hamilton, a Maori teenager is more likely to be convicted of a violent crime than his Pakeha peers. “The more Maori you get in an area, the more violent crime you get – that’s a fact of life,” said one academic to a newspaper, reflecting the normative attitude linking Maori and violence. “It’s not that if you have got more Maori you get more violent crime necessarily, but you get higher charging of violent crime by the police,” said another, explaining the concept of racial profiling that his associate seemed to have forgotten. “It’s what the newspapers tell them,” an ex-worker at a Brethren camp told me. He taught science to the Brethren kids for a while. They’d never actually met a Maori person, but knew from the media they were allowed access to that they were “violent” and “untrustworthy.” Such norms are perpetuated simply through being expressed.

Social norms have always been present, but with social media we watch and regulate ourselves and others nigh on 24/7, just like the prisoners in Bentham’s Panopticon. Although his construction is most often discussed in terms of its Foucauldian effects, at the time of its design it was intended to save the government money: “you will see,” wrote Bentham in spectacularly ominous fashion, “that the gaoler will have no salary – will cost nothing to the nation.” Because the guards are invisible to the prisoners, they don’t need to be on duty for the prisoners to behave as though they are being watched. Bentham’s design also incorporated prison labour in an effort to provide a prison system that made, rather than cost, the government money. This raises the question: how is Big Brother profiting from our normative behaviour?


For a start, He doesn’t need to actively police all of our actions, because we’ll do it for Him. When someone breaks the law, He doesn’t need to convince the People of their guilt, because our norms have already done that. He doesn’t need to convince the People of His righteousness, because hegemonic discourses and ideas support the status quo. It all seems bleak. Darkness surrounds you as the shackles around your ankles become ever more vivid.

But what’s this? The camera on your cell phone glows with a new purpose. The lump of technology you’ve just been thinking was your enemy has revealed its status as a double agent. What if you didn’t take pictures of yourself, or your friends? What if you turned those omnipresent eyes back on the Man? You can watch Big Brother!

Remember when the protests in Egypt began? Probably not. Mainstream news has covered it, but most of the footage you’ve seen has probably been on Upworthy or Vine and has likely been filmed by Egyptians right there in the middle of it. One video shows an 11-year-old boy criticising his government; other films have up close and personal shots of police shooting to kill. Increasing pressure for reform in countries like Egypt and the US is, in part, due to the very same surveillance technology we’re supposed to fear. We, too, have cameras and hackers and information leakers – we can turn their tools of intimidation against them.

“But the norms!” I hear you cry, “we can’t turn those against them!” Ah, comrade, but we can. How many gender-swapped “Blurred Lines” videos have you seen? I’ve seen two. Naked men prancing around a suited-up woman breaks the norm and therefore appears ridiculous, and in doing so, it reveals the absurdity of the original video. Parodies and satire have always been an effective way of criticising norms, but what can we do as individuals?

As little as a decade ago, people with mental illnesses and learning disabilities were normally regarded by peers as “retards,” and not worth the efforts of the education system. As someone with a learning disability, you can imagine my joy when I found online, anonymous forums where people used videos and stories to explain their experiences and share how intelligent they secretly were. We fought back against the norm by using new terms for ourselves, at first anonymously on the Internet, then quietly IRL. Terms like “differently-abled” and “neurodiverse” are sometimes slammed as being “too politically correct” because the norm hasn’t completely changed – but it’s starting to, and that’s because we are rethinking our vocabulary.


Though a societal norm may tell us to bow our heads and appease those in charge – whether they be school principals, prison wardens or the Prime Minister – it only takes a few going against the grain to make a community realise that norms are changing, and to demand legislative recognition of that fact. It’s now normal to accept homosexuals and women in the workplace and to not be racist, but this wasn’t always the case. Instead of walking from Selma to Montgomery for civil rights, though, we can now record injustice on our cell phones and send it out for the world to see.

Earlier, I said that surveillance technology was the wall that held us in, and that social norms were the police who stopped us climbing it. In this situation, though, it isn’t the government who controls the police, it’s us – we just haven’t realised it yet.

All the surveillance technology available to governments, militaries and corporations around the world seems impossible to fight. Big Brother is watching us, but what can we do about it? Winston, living in a world where everyone is well aware of their situation – only a slight exaggeration of our own – saw one possible course of action: “you had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and ... every movement scrutinised.” The difference between our situation and his, though, is that the tools of surveillance are in our own hands; we just need to use them. Turn Instagram off your face and onto the Beehive: it’s a revolution.
This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2013.
Posted 2:29pm Sunday 11th August 2013 by Josie Adams.