Orwell That Ends Well?

My good friend Marais did something remarkable the other day. He sent me a thank you letter. It was written by hand, and was on nice paper in a matching envelope. It was brief, but the epitome of good manners. Truly astounding. And it was not as if I was very deserving of thanks either.

The reason why I comment on the sending of a letter is that there must be a limit on how much people need to communicate. So as we develop more and more ways of communicating at distance, the need for older forms of communication must decrease. There may come a time when writing by hand is seen as quaint. A letter has a proper format, a series of conventions about how it should be spaced and structured that needs to be learned. The conventions about what can be said and how to express yourself in a letter are also learned. There are many differences between the letters sent in the novels of Jane Austen and a modern business letter, but each must conform to a certain kind of standard. Otherwise, the author is at risk of not being taken seriously or of somehow being excluded from society. Other forms of communication need to establish their conventions too. For example, I am not someone who has felt a desperate need for the acronym “lol” so prevalent in chat and email these days, but people seem to use it fairly often so it obviously has a place. Stubborn though I am, I used it myself shortly before writing this blog. I never used to like smileys and now I use them all the time :) Perhaps I am conservative when it comes to how we change language and our polite standards, although I accept not all change is bad. Someone deserves a pat on the back for drawing on Monty Python when christening the modern plague that is “spam”.

When conventions in society change quickly, this often causes unrest and quite a bit of unhappiness. Inventing and delivering new modes of electronic communication is not as dramatic as the kind of changes that followed the French or Bolshevik revolutions, but the principle is the same. Revolutions include their fair share of idealists, humanists, and anarchists dreaming of a better world, but whilst some good things may happen as a result of rapid change, plenty of bad things may result as well. The same is true of the revolution in communications we now find ourselves in. On the one side, we have the familiar group of well-intentioned dreamers who hope to make the world a better place, and on the other we have the people looking to exploit change for more mercenary reasons. At the least, we can suppose a change in communications paradigms is unlikely to result in bloodshed. And an easy argument is that it makes communication, and hence the functioning of society as a whole, far more democratic, because it greatly increases access to information. It also gives people a voice (so long as you are probably a rich spolit white young American with a PC and an IP address, that is). But then, being on the side of the “people” does not automatically make the world a better place. The counter-argument to unfettered democracy is that you need some kind of elite to keep up standards. In the communications sphere, the elite is effectively the same as those who control content and decide what gets broadcast or published. If we scroll past the long list of countries (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia) where the (usually unelected) government has a stranglehold on what information the people can obtain, the best example of a broadcast elite in a free country is the UK’s favourite anachronism, the BBC.

I love the way that in the UK people need a licence to watch television. The implication is that a television is like a dog or a gun or a car or something else the government needs to keep a careful track of because of the potential for misuse. In a country full of sceptical tax-payers, why there are so few complaints about this obvious abuse of the language – and rights – can only be explained by the enduring popularity of the BBC. Which means that, in the right circumstances, some people will prefer that an elite makes decisions for them, and decides what everyone should be able to watch and how much they should pay for it.

A few years ago the BBC tried desperately to reposition itself by spending a fortune on providing alternative portals for content, whether through the interactive elements of its broadcast TV service, or through its website. The website in particular tried to break a lot of new ground in terms of offering a quality service with a large variety of streamed content ranging from radio shows to news clips. And a lot of it was very good quality, reflecting the scale of the investment made. But ultimately it was a push of content, not an attempt to be any more democratic. Former BBC One Controller Alan Yentob devoted a recent BBC programme in his “Imagine” series to giving a sweeping review of everything new in communications since the invention of the computer and the arrival of the web. Though it covered blogging, Wikipedia, MySpace, Second Life and much more along the way, the show was dull, joyless, stale and awful, in jarring contrast with the dynamic world it was presumably seeking to present. In one particularly painful sequence we saw Yentob, aided by an internet-savvy assistant, writing his first blog entry, a dreary unimaginative musing about why people would want to blog in the first place. “Imagine” is a good title for the show, because I found it very hard to imagine the impact it had on the cattle herds who still faithfully watch the BBC and presumably only find out about the internet when the BBC tells them about it. Despite the Yentob’s pretence at interest, he was yesterday’s man uncomfortable with the idea that people can be clever and creative, can entertain and inform others, without there being a pre-determined hierarchy, without huge teams of employees and without enormous budgets. The show was so awful I was going to post links so people who missed it could see it again, assuming this programme would be a prime candidate for the BBC to show off its interactive credentials and for redistribution over the internet. But the BBC did not push it on the internet, Yentob’s blog disappeared off the net, the YouTube video he created for the show was quickly deleted and the gimmicky URL-style name of the show “www.herecomeseverybody.co.uk” is a dud when typed into your browser. All of which made it hard for me to feel sorry for the BBC when the British government announced late last year that the tax that directly funds them will fall in real terms over the coming years. My licence fee probably paid for less than one second of Yentob’s desultory insights into a world beyond his understanding. Furthermore, I have no interest in giving the BBC money so they can spend it on things like pushing up the price for the rights to rebroadcast football games, thus making footballers and their Wives-And-Girlfriends even more obscenely rich.

George Orwell was no fan of elites telling people how to live their lives. If he was alive today, presumably he would have mixed feelings about being constantly watched on CCTV. Though useful for prosecuting attempted bombers of London Underground that would be scant consolation if the bomb had gone off and is no deterrent to somebody who plans to die in the blast. But if Orwell was alive I suspect he would also have some strong reservations about how the dystopian vision of 1984 has mutated into entertainment in the form of Celebrity Big Brother and its ilk. I normally loathe the television show Big Brother. I do not watch television to see people being bored inside a house. If I wanted to see people bored in a house I would switch the television off and watch myself in the mirror instead. But sadly, you can hardly escape it, with the constant references to BB in radio and print and other television shows. On top of that, even intelligent friends of mine sometimes insist on watching it in my presence. My heart sank after seeing an episode of the current series. In it, the most interesting event of the contestant’s day was when a former TV star from the 70’s and 80’s (Dirk Benedict) got a bit moody with a person whose original claim to fame is that she made a laughing stock of herself on the non-Celebrity version of the show (Jade Goody). Arguably, the rise of this kind of entertainment is a direct consequence of the handing over of control from an old-style elite like the BBC. In the new era of entertainment, businesses like Endemol, the producers of Big Brother, must treat viewing figures and hence advertising revenues as all-important. In the show I saw, Benedict’s moodiness (no doubt the result of a mixture of boredom and lack of sleep) seemed to provoke Goody and two other z-list celebs (one a footballer’s girlfriend, another, a has-been teenybop singer) to climb into bed together and enjoy an extended and tedious session of bitching about him. That the three were white, female, and between the ages of 20 and 30 was depressing. Doubtless they were included in the show to reflect a key audience demographic for the advertisers: young female viewers. Needless to say, their exaggerated prattling and the excessive offence that they took at a trivial disagreement made them into very poor role models. Of course, what makes it much worse is that this show is at the very forefront of the new communication paradigm. As well as the very concept of 24-hour surveillance, and its delivery and promotion through traditional channels, BB’s ability to inspire interest and interaction, through phone voting, web forums and the like, make it a cheerleader for new communications. And it is seemingly universal in appeal, having been adapted with minor rule changes to suit the tastes of audiences in nearly 70 countries. It should be no surprise that telcos rank high amongst the businesses keen to sponsor the show or advertise during it. Paradigm of new, liberal, cultural and communication values it may be, but BB is also a debasement of polite standards in society. In the episode I watched, I was reduced to seeing how very ordinary and unaccomplished the aforementioned celebrities were. Without media handlers to guide them, and without the benefit of favourable editing, I was made to see how petty and undeserving these people really are. Seemingly the bitchy young ladies have no appreciation or concern over how their behaviour might be viewed by the world outside, despite having careers that depend on it. There is no such thing as bad publicity, said Brendan Behan, but the ladies seem set to test that proposition to the fullmost. When I started writing this blog the news was that Ofcom, the regulator of standards in broadcast television, had received over 2,000 complaints that the ladies had acted in a racist and bullying way to another participant, a Bollywood star. Now I see the current total is over 3,500 complaints, plus another 1,000 complaints to the broadcasters – see here. Presumably the number of complaints will continue to rocket up, causing an enormous headache for the broadcasters who have unwittingly given the participants an ill-controlled platform for what is perceived by many viewers to be racism. I have no opinion on whether the ladies did act in a racist fashion, and have no intention of watching the show in order to form an opinion, but I can observe that there are standards of behaviour that are expected in society and it seems a large number of people agree that the ladies have failed to meet them.

That the perception of racism should provoke such a strong reaction should not be a surprise to people in the public eye. Only last week saw a protest at the English National Ballet, of all things, aimed at challenging the participation of a ballerina with links to an allegedly racist political party. Late last year, former Seinfeld actor Michael Richards destroyed his own career when an inappropriate (and very unfunny) racial outburst on stage got recorded on the mobiles of audience members and then shown to the world through YouTube. On the basis that I assume everyone – not least Richards given his subsequent apologies – will understand the outburst is despicable, I have the link to it here. Naivety that unkind or impolite comments may be misinterpreted as racist will not serve as much defence for people who aim to prosper through being in the public spotlight.

In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother was watching everyone, not just a few foolish young women in a make-believe house. I do not find it that surprising that you might catch people behaving badly. The format is obviously intended to catch people behaving badly. First, they pick a few contestants at random. In fact, they purposefully pick contestants because they lack any natural merits other than their desire for publicity. Second, they record their actions night and day. It would be more surprising if other Big Brother viewers really expected or tuned in for anything else. Not everyone is going to set a good example for others, though to be fair to Big Brother at least one participant observed the similarities between the childish and bullying antics around him and the story in Lord of the Flies.

There will always be a fair share of hypocrites and fools to balance out the saints and geniuses that walk amongst us. Democratic access and distribution of content and contribution gives all of them (and us) equal opportunities to show off our flaws as well as our merits. What is happening now, for the first time in history, is a convergence where everybody could literally be broadcast on television to the whole world at any time, maybe even all of the time. In a few years there will emerge a critical mass of people that have a device in their home, or on the move, that can serve as both PC and television, able to support two-way video communication, the recording of content and the replay of video on demand. Broadcasting and messaging paradigms may start to merge, because we will all have a ready ability to send or receive video content to others. Orwell’s vision of the television that watches you will be realised more completely than he imagined. With no elite to censor or control content, our expectations of what we see on that screen will change. In the transition from the written letter to the email, there was a significant shift in cultural standards, and lessons about how to interact had to be relearned. Emails were less polite, less formal, less grammatical than the written word. With emails came new problems. Insults are not new, but flaming was a new kind of anti-social behaviour. Authors sometimes miscalculated that the storage and ease of resending to large audiences could amplify the impact of the content. New legal questions were raised about the extent of damage caused by libelous emails. So new modes of communication, and with them the erosion (or is it just a change?) of the elite will bring in new standards that we use to measure polite and appropriate behaviour in society. The problem with any revolution, is that change may happen faster than our capacity to establish standards, and the negative implications of change may outweigh the positive. Time will only tell if we behave better, or worse, when we all become the subjects of Big Brother.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.