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Exposing ourselves to Big Brother

When Congress passed the Patriot Act in October 2001, civil libertarians soundly criticized several provisions of the legislation, including its expansion of the government's surveillance authority. But while opponents of the law directed their outrage toward Washington, across the nation resistance to governmental intrusion was slowly being sapped by an unlikely source: reality television.

By reality TV, I don't mean C-SPAN's coverage of Congress. Rather, it's programs such as Survivor and Joe Millionaire (which scores of Americans watch for dating tips and a soap opera-like fantasy) that soften us up to accept increasing levels of governmental surveillance and that chip away at our belief in the sanctity of privacy. Strange as it sounds, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy may be doing some of John D. Ashcroft's dirty work.

As most of us are well aware by now, surveillance cameras are everywhere. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union found that as early as 1998, about 2,400 cameras were recording New Yorkers in a multitude of parks, stores and other public places. Recent estimates say the number of cameras has reached 7,200. In addition, the Total Information Awareness program, the brainchild of John Poindexter, once national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, promised to protect Americans by electronically tracking their every movement. Although Congress eventually scaled back the project's reach, its initial goals and its logo (an eye fixed on the globe) are chilling. Even more frightening, the U.S. government has begun scanning fingerprints and taking photographs of arriving foreigners.

We don't immediately think of reality television _ with its ever-present cameras and microphones _ in relation to the larger context of government surveillance. Perhaps this is because, in a post-Sept. 11 era, the recording and watching of others _ and ourselves _ has become a component of our everyday lives.

But reality TV does play a crucial role in mitigating our resistance to such surveillance tactics. More and more of these programs rely on the willingness of "ordinary" folk to live their lives in front of cameras. These people choose to have sex, get married, give birth, compete for prizes, work, fight, weep and brush their teeth in front of millions. We, as audience members, witness this openness to surveillance, normalize it and, in turn, open ourselves up to such a possibility.

Some of us have a desire to become reality TV celebrities; others set up a blog or a Web cam. Many of the rest of us just allow video cameras and computers to follow our every movement through city streets, stores, subway stations, schools and apartment buildings. Most of us don't protest or even think about such everyday tracking. We may even take it a step further by engaging in a policing or monitoring of our own behavior _ whether or not we know cameras are present _ as we grow conscious of the fact that even the tiniest detail of an individual's life can be considered so socially significant as to warrant recording or broadcasting.

Certainly most of us want to believe that we would never actually choose to go on a reality program ourselves. Yet our collective fascination with the genre validates the decision of those who choose to do so. We long to watch people in both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances so we can compare their lives and decisions to our own while simultaneously feeling the power that comes with being an observer. But we must realize that by participating in the process, we are entering into a tacit agreement to redefine our relationship to privacy. We can't all be watchers without eventually subjecting ourselves to being watched _ just as we can't expect that the surveillance techniques protected by the Patriot Act will negatively affect only those who pose a genuine threat to us.

At a time when the government is asking us to open our lives to scrutiny in the name of national security, we should be aware of all the ways in which we've already exposed ourselves to observation. This is not to say that we can't watch and enjoy reality programming. We just need to be more thoughtful about the implications of doing so.

Susan Murray is an assistant professor of culture and communications at New York University and co-editor, with Laurie Ouellette, of the forthcoming anthology Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture.

Special to the Washington Post