Alan Dix > HCI Education

big brother

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column November 2000. bulletin (pdf)
I never thought it would happen. I've written some papers with weird titles. I've written some weird papers. But never, never, have I written about a game show.

Don't tell me you don't know which one I mean. The US version and the similar, even more popular, Survivor, has swept the US just as it swept Europe. In the UK, Big Brother has been in every newspaper, including a three page article in The Times, and even hit the TV news headlines. Oh, and did I forget to say, university staff common rooms. The concept is so successful that the producer of Survivor is even in the midst of negotiations for a space version 'Destination Mir'.

If you are in one of the few countries that hasn't had a Big Brother house, or if you really have been entirely secluding yourself from popular culture I'll explain briefly.

Big Brother is a television 'game show'. Ten contestants live in a house with no contact with the outside world, except for the occasional pronouncement from Big Brother's disembodied voice. Throughout the house every aspect of their lives is filmed by dozens of cameras, broadcast to the Big Brother web site and recorded for nightly highlights on the television. Once a week they nominate which of the others they'd like to evict. The most highly nominated housemates are then put up to public vote for eviction. The person left at the end gets £70,000 in the UK show ($500,000 in the US show).

In Survivor the contestants are evicted one by one from a Desert Island (fed to the sharks?). And in case you are wondering, the contestants of 'Destination Mir' will not be spaced one by one, but instead dropped from the cosmonaut training programme!

Big Brother builds on the popularity of web cams and the ubiquitous video surveillance of modern life. The two are very different. The former is based on personal control and choice, even when portraying people's most private moments (e.g. JennyCam), the latter conjures images of Orwell's vision of a state-controlled future from which the show gets its name. (I always find it strange that so many people proclaim that we have escaped Orwell's dystopia in '1984', but don't stop to think that we are living in the midst of Huxley's 'Brave New World').

Sometimes the show is termed a 'sociological experiment' and even has resident sociologists and psychologists commenting on the housemates' progress, but of course it is an experiment that no university ethics committee would countenance. Indeed, the German Lutheran church denounced the show for its dehumanising effects.

My CSCW and virtual/mixed reality courses include using video in office shares, increasing ubiquity of computing, wiring of the home, using recognition to personalise lived spaces, etc. Although I make comments on some of the ethical issues these raise, I certainly don't cover them in a systematic way. As the artefacts of HCI become more continuous with our day-to-day lives, the ethical issues, as in many sciences, begin to take centre stage. Perhaps examples from popular culture are better vehicles to explore these issues with students than more academically correct sources.

Thinking of the latter I recall knowing someone at Xerox EuroPARC (as it was then) during the days of their own video Big Brother experiments in the early '90s. There were two camps: the why-should-Is and the what-have-you-got-to-hides. Some years after, Victoria Bellotti (also involved in these experiments) gave a fine keynote at HCI'96 in London on issues of privacy (sadly no written record). Some years earlier, I was fascinated by the relationship between privacy and secrecy which sometimes are similar, but also can differ markedly (some things are less private when revealed together than when said alone). Victoria highlighted many examples of this: stills may invade our privacy more than moving video, public actions in large crowds feel more private than in small groups.

Ethics are important not just in what we teach, but in the teaching process. The biggest news in the UK Big Brother show was 'Nasty Nick'. One of the housemates, Nick, broke the rules of the show by attempting to influence the nomination process, and broke trust with his housemates by systematically lying to increase his popularity and slur the reputation of others. Breaking the rules I've been part of various plagiarism investigations in HCI and other subjects (usually for coursework rather than examinations). I've never yet encountered a meticulous attempt to deceive, merely pathetic gestures by students who realise things are too much for them and their world is collapsing.

When Nick was discovered and challenged he pointed to the competition and pressures of his education at Gordonstoun, a prestigious 'Public School' (which in the UK means private and fee paying). It reminded me also of Nick Leeson. Trained to succeed no matter what the personal cost and no matter who gets hurt in the process. The only mistake is being found out.

Look carefully at your courses and institutions. Do they encourage cooperation and professionalism, or heedless competition? Do I train the Nicks of tomorrow in my classes?