One of the peculiar aspects of the British national identity is that it is so hard to pin down into something that a majority of Brits would accept as being true. Unlike other countries there is no ‘Britain Day’ in which all things British are celebrated and cliches like the ‘stiff upper lip’ probably haven’t been true for many a decade (If you don’t believe me look at reality tv). How then can Britishness by identified. I believe the following story I am going to tell you gets to the heart of the matter better than many other things I have read.
Ever since George Orwell’s novel 1984 was published in 1949 the idea of ‘Big Brother’ watching us has entered into the English speaking world’s lexicon. The idea of a totalitarian government harnessing technology to spy and invade people’s lives has spawned countless films and novels. The issues of government spying and intrusion into the lives and emails of people has of course touched the political sphere. See for example the debate and discussion over Edward Snowden and his revelations into the extent of US surveillance of other citizens and world leaders.
Indeed perhaps the great fear of the zeitgeist is the loss of privacy coupled with debate over whether anyone cares about privacy anymore. I afterall am blogging theoretically to anyone with a computer. Millions and millions of people post details of their life on social networks. Millions of us use twitter to provide real time locations and narration of our lives. Privacy surely is dead.
It was with great amusement then that I read about long established (running from 1937 to the 1950s and restarted in the 80s) ‘Mass Observation’ project in Britain. This is a project which seeks to record Britain by recruiting ordinary people themselves to provide detailed observations on their daily lives. In the ‘Mass Observation’ archives there are reams and reams of information going back decades on all manner of things. Although if I had to guess it wouldn’t be dissimilar to things posted online today (there is probably even drawings of dancing cats). In many countries around the world this ‘Mass Observation’ project would generate hysteria and conspiracy theories. In Britain it has generated a BBC website article about the ten most interesting things we have learnt from the project. For example in the 1980s people struggled to spell Bob Geldolf’s name correctly or “the average time taken to drink half a pint of beer in pubs on a November Saturday night in Brighton in 1938 was 7.3 minutes”.
You see Big Brother has existed since before the war in Britain and public and private life has continued without thought or debate over the possibly Orwellian consequences of our actions. There is something uniquely British about this.
The BBC article in question can be found here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24957664