22 September 2001

"What mighty contests rise from trivial things!"
   - A. Pope, The Rape of the Lock, canto I

Albert Camus wrote L'Etranger, known also as "The Stranger." The book was an immediate bestseller when it was released, because the theme of being a social outcast, a misfit, an outsider, struck a chord with readers. The book became a cult classic. All the great poets and writers were wrapped in their mantles of existential angst. Outsiders were in. Aliens were admired for their tortured spirits.

I don't know why we need SETI. The organization purports to seek out extraterrestrial intelligence in the galaxies, but I say why bother spending millions on equipment and research, when we have aliens right here on our own terra firma? Why should we have to go out into the cosmos hunting for alien intelligence, when it's right under our noses, and visible with the thumb-press of a remote control?
I'm speaking, of course, about the three Big Brother 2 finalists on CBS television. For those of you who might live in remote places that don't have access to newspapers, TV Guide, or electricity, let me explain.

CBS network decided to run Big Brother to compete with the ratings successes of NBC's wildly popular Survivor, which gave the term "voted off the island" a place in our national consciousness. CBS built a house on a sound studio, furnished it, and then wired every available inch with cables for microphones and hidden cameras, the better to capture endless footage of people going about the business of living in a confined space with strangers. They next invited twelve contestants to enter the house as residents for a twelve-week period, with the proviso that all contestants would remain sequestered from contact with the world outside the domicile until they were either evicted by a majority vote of the others, or they spontaneously self-combusted.

Each week, two people were nominated for exile, and the hour-long television broadcast showed the world the drama of the political maneuvering among the contestants as the contestants readied their votes. Each week, a news-style host offered commentary on the action in the house, and speculation about what the coming week's events would reveal. The game ended when only two contestants remained in the house, at which time, all the evictees returned and cast one final vote, for the "winner."

Millions of people watched the second airing of this show, and at the same time, many also tuned in to watch the contestants on the Internet via spy cameras positioned strategically throughout the house. After all, who wouldn't jump at the chance to sit in front of the computer for several hours a day, watching grown men and women being driven mad with boredom and mistrust? The hope was always that something bad or nasty would erupt, and the viewer would be rewarded with a scandal in real-time? Nobody seemed to find it ironic that behavior which would normally be the grounds for an injunction or an arrest -- being a peeping Tom -- was now being actively encouraged for the sake of ratings.

Weeks passed; alliances and strategies were formed and abandoned; contestants made confessions about their fears and mistrust in the "isolation booth;" consciences were pricked; votes were cast; tears were shed; housemates left under clouds of curses, or holding their heads defiantly high. As the number of residents diminished, the struggle to remain intensified, and the ratings rose. Interest grew in the public mind. Would Monica be able to outlast Nicole and defeat Will? Would Will find another lie to incite Nicole to rash action? Would Nicole sacrifice herself in order to get back to her husband, who a few weeks earlier rented an airplane to fly overhead with a message to her about his displeasure at something he saw or heard involving her? What would happen? Who would be in the final week?

Before we could find out, we were overtaken by events. However, the members of the house were not. CBS maintained its moratorium on outside contacts, and kept the housemates ignorant of the extent of the blood-curdling tragedy of September 11th. They were affected directly, and did not know it. Monica's cousin was in one of the NYC towers, and presumed dead, having not been seen since the morning of the collapses. Questions arose in the forums and in the news -- should the moratorium be lifted? Should the housemates be allowed to participate in what was happening in the world outside the confines of their house?

The network executives and producers decided to keep silent, and to keep the contestants in the dark. They made the decision to hold back information, so as to not "contaminate" the game. Even though the episode was pre-empted by urgent news reports, CBS's spy cameras continued to roll.

But what were the cameras seeing? Aliens, that's what. Creatures so removed from the connection to everyday life and society that their conversations, their thoughts, and the actions they took while under the camera's all-seeing eye, could not have seemed more bizarre or incomprehensible to us than if they'd just landed on Earth from Alpha Centauri. They weren't any more real to us than ET, or the mummified carcass at Roswell, New Mexico.

The politics, back-stabbing, and shifty allegiances just didn't seem all that important or relevant to us, given what we were being collectively forced to process, out in the "real" world. Our lives were changed. Their lives were trivialized, in a way none of them probably deserved. Who won the game? 

Who really cares?

Excuse me. I have to ask Scotty to beam me up. There's no intelligent life down here.


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