Contemplating Big Sister

BIG SISTERI just started, and canned, an unruly post that was meandering and preventing me from articulating a vision of Big Sister. I can’t say that this post will be more coherent than the last, but I’ll give it a shot.

And so it goes.

In the litany of totalitarian regimes and all-seeing, all-knowing overlords, Big Brother reigns supreme as the great terror of homogeneity and , a dastardly villain that disrobed “his” people of their privacy and supplanted former regimes with a centralized system organized as an ultimate oligarchy. Curiously, this worldview expresses only a fraction of the complete picture and leaves a great deal of negative space to be explored.

Orwell, or perhaps the culture or society that kept and grew him, was intellectually blind to certain realities, like a dog is colorblind to certain colors: seeing plenty well, but nevertheless experiencing blindspots to certain ideas or aspect of his environment simply because his mind just doesn’t bend that way. Or was never bent that way.

At a minimum, such were the implications of his biases and assumptions that he failed to imagine what a Big Sister might have meant for 1984 (and I’m not simply talking about gender-swapping BB).

See, the thing is, Big Brother frightens us because of what he tells us about ourselves. Orwell provides us a very complete rendition of what the world would look like under a pure dominator model of control. I’m talking about control over the ways and means of production, of reproduction, and of civil freedom, independent thought and personal expression.

This is writ large. This is the world of 1984.

For the purpose of focusing my thoughts, I want to narrow down the discussion to two polar ends of a spectrum, illustrated, very loosely, by the allegorical characters of Big Brother and my invented Big Sister. (And forgive me for my ignorance in any of these issues; I didn’t take gender studies in school, but Tara’s background is rubbing off on me.)

Let’s start with a vision of the world where privacy has been utterly stripped from the individual. Now, on our poles, let’s concentrate power in a select few on one end, resulting in a Big Brother oligarchy. On the other, let’s conjure up a Big Sister in which power is distributed and decentralized throughout a nodal network.

In the former model, we have the dominator or patriarchic model. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and control is asserted primarily through the means of manipulation, harassment and superiority. Power is maintained through aggression, violence, abuse. Through systematic replacement of pride and dignity with guilt and insecurity, long term dominance is maintained. You appreciate what you are given, however meager it is; to ask for assistance or support, even if for others, is to reveal weakness and to expose oneself to exploitation and further abuse. Though much of this kind of control is maintained purely through psychological means, the will to rise up is nevertheless suppressed in order to avoid being singled out and made an example of.

In the latter model, conditions are quite different. It’s hard to even know where to begin. If anything, perhaps most significantly, the absense of privacy does not serve as a source of weakness. Instead, the degree to which one is able to embrace a lack of privacy and to share in and celebrate others’ transparency leads to a higher degree of attainment and nourishment (as the very structures of such a system places a higher emphasis on the development of individual within the broader context of community, and therefore transparency accelerates the acknowledgment and subsequent realization of one’s needs by her peers). Since the priority is not to dominate, individuals are free to explore communal experiences, subverting the ego for the collective. Such a Transparent Society brings about new forms of emotive freedom; rather than a society controlled by fear and decimated by stunted psychological development, deep empathic connections and open communication bond individuals together in mutual, voluntary service. People do things for one another without being asked; they give away what they have without being demanded of. And rather than resulting in homogeneous groups of producers and consumers, a great degree of specialization and diversity is achieved, allowing for a wide degree of expression and redundancy throughout the network.

Pretty Utopian, right? Sure. But it’s not matriarchic. It makes no sense to substitute one form of gender imbalance with another.

Indeed, patriarchy and matriarchy are both interchangeable forms of the dominator model, where there is always some class (read: gender) of individual “on top”. The opposite extreme of a Big Brother dystopia is not one that merely substitutes the gender of the antagonist (or protagonist); instead the mechanism of self-representation and self-actualization needs to be inverted. Where previously there was hierarchy, there would now be an open, decentralized network of interconnected nodes; where formerly dominance was the order of the day, compassion and empathy would rule; where once hoarding and selfishness guaranteed survival, generosity and kindredship would ultimately protect and sustain the individual in the context of an interconnected mesh.

Indeed, Big Sister wouldn’t have her face plastered all over civilization demanding subservience and obsequiousness… instead, she’d have a Facebook profile like the rest of us, and share and share-alike. Instead she’d preach about the gift economy, about the benefits of being part of the community you serve (hmm, starting to sound a lot like Tara). She’d be an empath and would strongly identify and advocate on behalf of those who the dominator model ignores, blights or otherwise diminishes merely as a matter of course.

The thing is, Big Sister is already upon us. Read about Nick Starr’s experience with Twitter and you’ll start to see how radical, networked, transparency is leading to a retrogression in the power of the dominator model. Power is now supremely not centered in any one place or individual; instead the power is stored in energy bonds that only reveal their potency when a connection is made; in the sinews and synapses of social networks, we are witnessing a resurgency of social capital and of communal wealth. Emotional intelligence is essential in brokering the exchange of values between any number of parties; you can’t just muscle your way in any more: the system will route around the bullies and miscreants.

That isn’t to say that it’s all well and fine and we’ve made some Herculean leap across the chasm. Instead, we’re in a tumultuous and dangerous transitional period, and will be for some time to come. The bullies and the centralizers and the hoarders and the Big Brothers still have a great deal of power — but it’s waning. And they know it. Even as they try to compel this new and emergent network to conform to their former model of domination (as the DOJ argues against net neutrality!) it is we are already routing around them and growing stronger and more sublime.

There is still an enormous amount of workto be done and progress to be made. And in the end, some part of everything will come to define our reality (homogeneity is net bad, anyway). Today, however, it’s starting to become more obvious to me that Big Brother no longer has the sole monopoly on what the world without privacy looks like. Instead, Big Sister, through social networking and growth of the social graph is reconstituting a reality where governments and police aren’t the only ones who are all-knowing and all-seeing. Instead, through radical transparency, through renewing our work and home environs, through reconceptualizing ourselves as public actors and public witnesses and through publicly iterating on the means of self-nourishment and self-actualization in ways that are collectively sustaining, we are dismantling the dominator model, one brick at a time, and laying the way to the future, one node at a time.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

6 thoughts on “Contemplating Big Sister”

  1. Chris,

    not sure whether it is relevant to your far more thoughtful and in depth post, but I recently wrote this

    in which I argue that I don’t care about wiretapping, intercepting my emails, photographing my every move – provided that it applies equally to everyone – police, politicians, security agencies, you name it. In a radically transparent world, we have nothing to hide – our sexuality, our predilections, our beliefs, what we did when we were 21, so no one has something to hold against us – no skeletons in closets, no fake piety about family values (all the while cottaging, or visiting prostitutes, or whatever so many leader type folks seem to be up to these days, which is cool, except all the while demonizing for their own benefit anyone else who does that).

    From a technological point of view, I think radical transparency is close to inevitable, probably within our lifetimes, certainly within our childrens’. Ironically, those who seem to want it most, will live to rue the expression “be careful what you wish for”. We’d know then what certain presidents did for the first 40 years of their lives, and much much more.

  2. Well-penned – glad you gave it another shot.

    I can’t help but wonder though, if Big Brother won’t adapt. Surely living life in the open has its pitfalls. I imagine Google, if prompted, could narrate a lengthy “This is Your Life” (or at least, “This is Your Life – over the last few of years…”) episode starring your’s truly. Does the interconnectedness of our networks and the social graph end up feeding the aggregators?

    I love your vision of Big Sister as compassionate empath, and agree that information in the hands of many instead of the few is a major step in the right direction. Here’s to dismantling the dominators — whichever “-archy” they may be.

  3. For the first few paragraphs of this, I couldn’t tell if it was for or against open society, but it started making sense. I totally agree. Despite my conservative upbringing, I’ve always considered myself “Socialist”..? I don’t know what to call it. Most of my family doesn’t understand why open source, coworking and other concepts are right up my alley.

  4. Heh. After my presentation at, a man walked up to me and said, “You know, if your vision of whuffie for the future is to be true, and I believe strongly that you are right, women own the future.” All of the things we hold dear in this dawning era (whatever we want to call it, but for now, it’s web 2.0) are these feminine traits: empathy, openness, etc. I don’t think only women have these traits, but I do think, like you specify, they are feminine traits.

    This is an awesome post, hon. Thanks for it.

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