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Big Brother 2.0

He's no longer just watching, he's tweeting and blogging and adding you as a friend.

Read time 5min 20sec

In the novel 1984, George Orwell sketches a totalitarian society where people are stripped of privacy and subjected to state surveillance and mind control. Their every move is watched and they live with the constant fear that someone knows where they are, who they're with, and what they're doing - anytime, anywhere.

In 1949, the thought was horrifying. In 2010, you can get all that in a neatly laid-out touch-screen interface with customisable homepages too!

The information age has brought about an era where nothing is sacred - no scrap of information, no 3am party photo, no personal habit is too mundane or repulsive or irrelevant to not need airing somewhere; hence status updates that read “Can't wait to eat yummy PBJ sandwich” or “Has oozing bedsore:-(”.

Even if you avoid social networking sites and keep online activities to the minimum, there's no escaping it - if you don't have a Street View image of your neighbourhood available to all and sundry, you have a network operator tracking your cellphone. Then there are services such as Foursquare and Gowalla, which not only keep track of your location, but when you're at a specific restaurant, in the park, at the movies, attending a concert - there's even a handy app that tells advertisers which stores you frequent, so they can send you targeted ads. Another allows people to see which songs friends and followers are listening to. It's voyeurism on Viagra and everyone needs a fix.

All the world's a stage

So what's the harm? Well, apart from the risks surrounding confidentiality and identity theft we're constantly hearing about, the mass sharing of personal information is leading to a much more insidious, pervasive shift; one that hits at the very heart of cultural and social engagement.

As communication becomes increasingly mediated by a digital interface, our entire interpersonal experience is being shaped by a new code of interaction. Increasingly, we define both ourselves and our relationships within the contextual framework of whichever network or service is facilitating the connection. These days, it's no longer a question of just managing an online personality and a real one; it's about managing several online personas, all in different professional, personal, or interest-based networks. So your gaming avatar, Facebook, MySpace, blog, and LinkedIn identities all need to be updated, frequented and enhanced.

Now that pretty much everyone has their own digital spotlight, the challenge is to be an interesting object of scrutiny. With a constant barrage of tweets and posts and updates of the cool things other people are doing (like eating sandwiches) comes the pressure to keep up a stream of the riveting activities you're engaged in. No matter whether it's just flossing your teeth or lounging on the couch, with a bit of witty wordplay or philosophic musing, that can be entertaining too.

The information age has brought about an era where nothing is sacred.

Lezette Engelbrecht, copy editor and journalist, ITWeb

Have you ever gone on holiday and tried to go digital cold turkey - no cellphones, laptops, game consoles, or Internet, to be free from the constant demands on your time and attention. Ever get that uneasy feeling you were missing out? Experience the gnawing need to just quickly check your profile or update your status to “Blissfully relaxed on island getaway”?

This withdrawal from the virtual world exposes the extent to which we've become tied to our online identities. There's a need to remain part of the club, because once you've been out of the online action for too long, you become excluded from the circle of mutual surveillance.

Digital dependence

One could argue that it's a choice to join these networks, and that no one is forcing you to expose anything you don't want to. But let's face it, if the majority of your friends are online and invitations, announcements and news are increasingly shared in this setting, the entire infrastructure of modern communication is moving to a digital platform - it's become pretty damn hard not to participate.

Don't get me wrong, the Internet and social networking have enabled great leaps in communication - connecting friends and relatives across vast distances, bringing exposure to other cultures, facilitating professional collaboration and even resulting in a few successful romances. But most of the time, social networks are used to speak to people we live close enough to visit personally. It's just become much easier to write a quick wall post than actually meet someone for a proper conversation.

Sometimes a whole week goes by and I haven't had a chance to ask my house mate how she is, but told several Facebook friends about my imminent cold. It's all rather ridiculous.

The problem occurs when we come completely dependent on technology for communication and interaction. When the glow of a screen begins to replace the meeting of eyes or a virtual doughnut replaces calling a good friend on their birthday. When every action, thought or description has to fit into 140 characters.

In a world where everything is instant and ephemeral, where communication becomes take-away, everything is disposable. Messages are reduced to vowel-less strings of letters, facial expressions to rudimentary emoticons. All these digital communication facilitators are meant as a tool, not a crutch.

And as we move to an increasingly interconnected, multimedia environment, it's becoming easier to substitute every online gimmick for original expression. Why form my own opinion when I can send a link to someone else's, or come up with something intelligent when I have YouTube or Flickr URLs to add some sensory excitement.

In this always-on performance culture, communication risks becoming more about the form than the function. With people constantly accessible, surveillance has become everyday; now all that's left is the pressure to make it entertaining. Because when thousands of Big Brothers are watching and tracking and rating, you better make sure you put on a good show.

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