only search Cheshire Henbury

Cheshire Henbury's website is structured around several sub-sites to accommodate the large amount of content. Please pick a topic of interest from the above menu and begin to explore and learn. Or use the Google Search box to the left.

European Visions for the Knowledge Age Web Pages

Main Home >European Visions Home >Chapter Introductions > Chapter 7

European Visions for the Knowledge Age

vision book cover

European Visions for the Knowledge Age

A Quest for New Horizons in the Information Society

Paul T Kidd (Ed)
ISBN 978-1-901864-08-3 (Paperback)
Price: See buy on-line link



Chapter 7
Variations on Big Brother
Walter Van de Velde
Introduction - Big Brother Visions
Big Brother visions have well-known roots in literature, with Orwell (1984), Kafka (Das Schloss) and Kubrick's HAL (2001 A Space Odyssey) as primary pointers. The idea is also present in religion. Many will remember the Christian icon of an eye, with the inscription "God sees everything". The post-modern God of television has adapted the idea of Big Brother with similarly strong impact.
This small sample shows that no two Big Brothers are the same. The Big Brother in Das Schloss is an invisible bureaucracy that derives its power from its absurdity. Orwell's is an omnipresent observer that perpetuates an established order. Kubrick's Big Brother is willing to destroy the order to preserve itself. All inspire awe, and stimulate obeisance and subordination. In the Big Brother television series, on the other hand, the eye becomes public. It stimulates spectacle and trespassing of social norms, not obeisance.
Big Brother visions are usually distopian. They restrict privacy and freedom to the presumed benefit of some higher good, explicit or not. Their strength is in the subtle psychological nature of that restriction. They constrain without use of physical force, that is to say, by bending the mind rather than the body through reason or other means. This is well illustrated in Foucault's analysis of the Panopticon prison, an architectural realisation of an omnipotent observer that cannot be seen.
Big Brothers are not just fiction. The internet, for one, has been analysed as a digital panopticon. Digital transactions, from looking at web pages to buying online, leave their traces. It is technically possible to understand the digital trace of someone's life by piecing together information that is dispersed in various databases, routers and servers. Businesses and governments alike are tempted by the wealth of information that this can provide.
Technology has always been a driver for this type of surveillance. Closed-circuit television-camera security-systems, web cams, geographic positioning systems, image analysis, and environmental monitoring are all potential Big Brother technologies. One example of the power brought about by these technologies is the plan for the London Underground system to have 9000 cameras by 2005, with specialised image analysis software to detect suspicious behaviours. Ambient intelligence systems can also be seen in the same light, with computing devices embedded in everyday objects, responding in an unseen way to the presence of people to anticipate their needs. This blurs the boundary of the locus of initiative and thus easily drifts from service to soft coercion.
Surveillance systems are usually set up for specific occasions, but then have a tendency to stay. An increasing demand for more security from citizens is interpreted often as a demand for more control and surveillance. To allow authorities to track down the suspicious few, entire populations are sacrificing privacy and freedom to make sure that they fit safely within the norms.
Do Big Brothers necessarily restrict privacy and freedom? Or can something else be done with them, now or in the future? To answer these questions two scenarios, set in the distant future, are considered: Connectopolis and Egopoli. Connectopolis describes the experiences and impressions of a visitor from Egopoli, and Egopoli the experiences and impressions of a visitor from Connectopolis.


Some of Paul T Kidd's Books

Book Covers

Legal Notice: The information posted on the web site is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in the web site. The information is believed to be correct at the time of publication. Cheshire Henbury cannot however accept any responsibility for the completeness, accuracy and relevance of the information. Information is published with the understanding that publication does not represent the rendering of advice, consulting or other professional services. Specific application in a particular organisation is the sole responsibility of the representatives of that organisation. If expert advice is needed, the services of a competent person should be sought. Please read our terms and conditions (opens in a new window) for use of this web site.

Cheshire Henbury

Address and Phone Details (opens in new window)

Email: Contact form (opens in a new window)

Web address: