Where does big brother come from?
In its simplest form, big brother has referred to an older brother since the early 1800s. By the mid-1800s, the phrase had extended to a person or organization who acts like an older brother, looking over and protecting others.
Throughout the 20th century, the metaphorical big brother, often capitalized as Big Brother, started evolving to signify, more ominously, an "all-controlling state." Science-fiction author H.G. Wells notably used this Big Brother in his 1937 novel Star-begotten.
In the 1949 dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell provided the contemporary meaning of Big Brother for a state government that is always surveilling the masses. In the novel, the phrase Big Brother is watching you accompanies an image of a mustachioed man's face pasted on banners all over public spaces. The citizens understand that Big Brother's omnipresence means they are to act in compliance with the dictates of the regime—or else potentially be punished for "thought crime."
In a nod to Orwell, the 1999 Dutch television series Big Brother featured contestants living together in a house that was under surveillance 24 hours a day. The extremely popular American version of the same show debuted in 2000. On social media, the hashtag "#bigbrother" is frequently used for fans of the show to show support for their favorite contestants.
In the digital era, the concept of a Big Brother is a hot topic around the globe, discussed with varying degrees of fear, disdain, cynicism, and conspiracy theories. Because of the ability to reach a massive customer base, companies regularly engage in electronic data collection in order to market products to consumers. This practice, often described in terms of Big Brother, is met with suspicion and skepticism, since it is not always clear who is gathering people's personal details and why they are being collected. In 2013–14, former CIA employee Edward Snowden revealed information showing that National Security Administration (NSA) was conducting extensive global surveillance, compelling many to characterize the NSA as Big Brother.
Since 2014, Amazon's smart-speaker Alexa has been used as a "virtual assistant" that is always listening for and awaiting vocal commands from its owners, which has been popularly likened to Big Brother.
Who uses big brother?
Thanks to Orwell's 1984, the concept of Big Brother, usually capitalized, is synonymous with any authority that exerts extensive control over its subjects. People who are critical about governmental monitoring of citizens' every move may refer to this constant surveillance state as Big Brother.
In many large cities around the globe, like Beijing and London, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras monitor daily happenings. While intended as a crime deterrent, the constant monitoring helped spread a British term often used alongside Big Brother to convey governmental interference and overprotection: the nanny state.
Big brother sees more colloquial use as well. Teenagers might refer to their parents as big brother, for instance, if they feel as though they have no personal freedom.
Big brother is also still used in families with male children who have younger siblings. It also continues to connote, positively, a protective, elder male figure without any Orwellian undertones.
Big Brother is not to be confused with the slang big brother, occasionally used as a term for "penis" in 1960–70s gay culture.
Saxophonist Joe Henderson called Carter “Big Brother” because of his apparent mind-reading ability, according to Whitaker.
Lawrence Cosentino, City Pulse, April, 2018
Just had a request to appear on
#BigBrother. Having undergone 3 years of 24-hr watch in #Guantanamo, police bug in my car for 2 years, 8 months as CAT-A prisoner in Belmarsh and being from #Birmingham where #spycameras were installed to surveil my community, I declined.
@Moazzam_Begg, April, 2018
I was mumbling to myself and said the word “retarded”. Siri all of a sudden said “That’s not nice!” I didn’t even turn Siri on! I’m starting to believe that THEY are listening to everything.Anyone else had this happen? Not Alexa...Siri! #Weird #BigBrother
@PLeePlumley1, April, 2018