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Privacy or celebrity? We’re torn

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BOSTON — Is it possible to violate the privacy of someone who has surrendered all rights to it? Can you invade the personal space of anyone who eagerly volunteered to live entirely in public?

These questions of Pop Philosophy 101 are raised by television's midsummer madness. First CBS puts people on an island with a camera crew to call their own. Now, it's set up 10 people to live under 24-7 surveillance, both secluded and exposed.

The tease for the show "Big Brother" is the promise to show and tell everything: "THE HOUSE GUESTS WILL LIVE WITH ABSOLUTELY NO PRIVACY!!!"

The opening night camera saw the bathroom, shower, bedroom: "TEN PEOPLE, NO PRIVACY!!!"

Did we once worry when fame and infamy merged in O.J. and Kato? We have gone now from accidental celebrities like Marisleysis Gonzalez to the screened and auditioned celebrities of "Survivor" and "Big Brother."

News became entertainment, now entertainment is news. In one prime-time blitz, CBS aired "Survivor" followed by "Big Brother" followed by a "48 Hours" featuring cast members of "Survivor." That was followed by the 11 o'clock news announcing who was kicked off the TV island and an early morning show interviewing the kickee. It made all-Elian TV look like hard news coverage.

This is a time of enormous ambivalence about privacy and celebrity. There is a push to protect privacy, with consumer complaints about the cookies on your computer that will allow anyone to follow the crumbs to your identity.

At the same time, there's a galloping pursuit of celebrity, for those 15 minutes that sent Darva Conger from the TV altar to the Playboy centerfold.

Privacy is not that old a concept. A few centuries ago, nearly all humans led their lives in public.

For the most part, privacy — the right to be let alone — was conceived as a right to be free of government intrusion. Now the intruder is equally apt to be the media. And the desire to be let alone rushes headlong against the desire to be known.

How much of the desire to be known is due the fact that we are more isolated? In our less civic society, there are fewer choices between being exposed and being alone, between being on television and watching television.

As an antidote for a loss of community, we create false communities. The "Big Brother family," as the television narrator/reporter called the cast, is an uncommitted band of strangers held together by four walls and the lure of $500,000 dollars. This "family" has, ironically, no television set, no Internet.

As for the audience, there is an equally false sense of community. As Robert Putnam of "Bowling Alone" says succinctly, "None of the people watching 'Big Brother' will bring you chicken soup if you get sick."

In fact the only chance for intimacy is privacy. That was, ironically, the conclusion of the original "Big Brother." Only in private and in what we now must call real "real life" can any of us be truly known and connected.

TEN PEOPLE! NO PRIVACY! George Orwell's nightmare has been cheerily transformed into our latest prime-time spectacle.


Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com. The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.