Big Brother is not watching you, everyone else is

In George Orwell’s classic literature, 1984, Big Brother is the fictitious dictator of Oceania, a totalitarian state. In Oceania, every resident is under complete surveillance by the authorities. The citizens are constantly reminded, “Big Brother is watching you.” The term ‘Big Brother’ subsequently entered popular culture to refer to a state where residents are constantly monitored.

The “Big Brother” scenario did not pan out. Instead, today we have a multitude of “Little Brothers and Sisters” doing the surveillance and even more. These “Little Brothers and Sisters” armed with smart phones, tablets and cameras have become our ‘eyes’ to public misbehaviour. Not only are they able to record, they have the ability to mobilise other “Little Brothers and Sisters” to amplify bad behaviour.

Instead of Big Brother watching us, we have collectively become the ‘Ministry of National Surveillance, Tip-offs and Amplification (MONSTA).’

A few examples of successful recording, tipping-off and amplification by MONSTA includes the recent Honda Civic car bully, the French expat who went on a tirade against construction workers and the Ferrari accident along the junction of Rochor Road and Victoria Street. To be sure, MONSTA does not always do the surveillance and recording. There are other cases where MONSTA takes a recording or statement made callously and amplifies them, for example in the case of an NTUC employee who made a racist comment on Facebook and the expat who posted a disparaging remark about people taking public transports.

More seriously, what will be the long-term impact of recording, sharing and shaming? It will make every one more aware of their behaviour in public spaces. I now drive around the island constantly aware that the car behind me may have a video camera recording my driving. I now am even more conscious than ever that I must drive better, graciously give way to cyclists, and signal my intent early – MONSTA is watching.

It may seem that the awareness of being constantly monitored will curb behaviour but will do little to shift attitudes. While this may be initially true, the long-term effect of changing behaviour will be a shifting of attitudes. Taking my driving example, initially I am ‘forced’ to drive carefully for the fear of being recorded and going viral. After a prolonged period of driving in a considerate and civil way, I find it has become a learned response and my natural driving behaviour.

So this democratically occurring check and balance may in the long-term benefit our country. So initially, while the fear of being publicly exposed may drive politeness, civility and good behaviour, over time, it will become part of natural behaviour. Of course, this will not affect all people equally but MONSTA may actually cause the city to become more gracious over time.

On 29 January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested that Internet rules are necessary to restrain “pack behaviour” in social media and ensure civility between users. But he’s only reacting to the negative ranting, which admittedly sometimes went over the line.

But of course, this “pack behaviour” can work the other way. To drive MONSTA to record, share, celebrate and amplify happy, positive stories – stories that make us smile. Recent studies show that positive stories are shared more widely. Spread the joy, I say.

Now, that would make our city more gracious.

Move over, Big Brother. The little people are here to stay – for good and for better.

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