1984-Big_Brother_2Though the launching of the most recent season of Pinoy* Big Brother (PBB) was welcomed by unprecedented social media popularity, it was marred by issues ranging from the casting process up to questions of how real the hit reality television series is. Needless to say, these have been the issues ever since the Philippines created its own version of the Big Brother franchise in 2005. Since then the PBB house, fully equipped with cameras capable of seeing even the barely seen, became a significant part of the primetime TV habit of young and old Filipino viewers alike. The resounding baritone-pitched voice of Kuya, the mysterious he-who-must-not-be-named, became an iconic part of the house. The housemates who theoretically come from different walks of life became the persons of the hour, objects of brouhahas from the cyber-realm, and instantaneous matters of transcendental importance. These elements and more make the Big Brother house a perfect microcosm of the postmodern society: a society where some sort of a higher being defines who we are and who we are not; a society where everything is taken away before it is given up.

In his celebrated work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977), French postmodernist thinker Michel Foucault introduced the theory of panopticism which was a development of Jeremy Bentham’s infamous architectural project known as panopticon. As Foucault described it, the panopticon is a circular building having a tall observation tower strategically placed in the center and a surrounding outer wall containing cells for occupants. From a supervisor stationed in the well-lit central tower, the occupants are outright visible and distinguishable. The architectural plan of the panopticon is so conceptualized to enable more effective surveillance and make the occupants feel that they are in constant surveillance even though they are not. In other words, the concept of panopticism postulates that power is visible, as signified by the central tower to which any occupant in the panopticon has access of seeing directly, and unverifiable, as shown by the perceptual uncertainty of the occupants on the matter of whether they are being looked upon by someone from the high tower.

Foucault theorized that one of the objectives of surveillance is to manipulate and control a body that is docile which may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved. Just like the inmates of Foucault’s panopticon, the Big Brother housemates are in constant surveillance all throughout their stay in the house. In this situation, two implications can be drawn. For one, the housemates could have their own behavior manipulated depending on who they think is watching them. Whether or not they were certain if they are being watched, the housemates would inevitably begin to watch themselves with the end goal of getting approval from their observer. For another, their behavior could be manipulated by someone whom they do not see yet outlines the rules of the show. This then results to the conformity of the housemates to house rules so as to evade from potential retribution to any wrongdoing and from challenging the ire of their observer. In both cases, it is evident that power is present in their social encounters and it has the ability to penetrate even the most private domains of their lives. Much evident is the unseen supervisor who sees everything without being seen as he dictates the terms of the discourse and controls how life should be lived inside his house.

It is noteworthy that the Big Brother house serves as a modified paradigm of the panopticon. Firstly, the Big Brother housemates are free to interact with one another inside their confines whereas this is an unlikely occurrence in the panopticon as concrete walls divide the cells of the occupants rendering them invisible to one another. As far as how the series runs through, the fate of the housemates is dependent upon how they would behave and co-exist with their fellows inside the house. Commonly the relatively unpleasant ones are despised and voted out while the ones who display socially acceptable behavior tend to end up as winners. Secondly, the observer in the ‘central tower’ is not only a single person; the observers are countless as the goings-on of housemates inside the house are being broadcast to millions of viewers. The public is given the power to snatch a housemate from the chasms of eviction. In the outgoing season of PBB, the audience is vested the supplementary power to nominate a housemate whom they want to evict from Kuya’s house; a rule which the housemates are unaware of. Lastly, this multitude of observers, while the object of power, is also its subject at the same time. Power is exercised to the public by the institution through giving them the prerogative to shape the future of the housemates inside the house. This fosters a mirage that the power of decision making is delegated to the public when in fact the viewing audience is deemed a mere tool to generate revenue and maintain high television ratings to secure more sales of television advertising all in favor of the capitalist network company.

Some scholars of surveillance studies would posit that this society could not be further from being a colossal panopticon; a view further reinforced by Edward Snowden’s jarring revelation about the US and British surveillance programs. We are in the digital era where disclosing information is as easy as scribbling someone’s name in the seashore, CCTV cameras act as unlikely sentinels of the streets, space satellites are more than just orbiting objects roving around the outer space, and people find delight in dabbling with the affairs of a horde of people locked up inside a well-furnished house. We will always be dubious of how Big Brother makes sense of reality in his own universe, but Foucault has made his point. All power relations produce reality, he says; and surprisingly, it really does.


*Note: Pinoy is a colloquial term for “Filipino” while Kuya is a Filipino term of endearment or respect for an elder brother.

Image Source: Carl Niedbala (Founder Shield)