Yesterday, I was chatting to an academic who studies what some might politely call pop culture ‘ephemera’. Others might say ‘junk’. He pokes through the detritus of film, TV and music for clues to what our disposable, seemingly meaningless, entertainment says about Britain down the decades.

His field offers Colonel Hufton-of-Pufton types the welcome chance to get their mustard-coloured trousers in a tangle. "A Professor of Beyonce!? What’s society coming to!?"

There was a ruckus recently when Exeter University offered an MA in Magic. Cue a battalion of Colonel Huftons on Twitter screaming about purple-haired layabouts studying Paul Daniels. It turns out – evidently – that the master’s course was a rather serious exploration of the sociology and psychology of witchcraft, a peek into our ancestors’ history from a fresh perspective. What a dim world it would be if we just looked at the past through the eyes of kings and queens and the rich and powerful.

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That Masters course sounds like one of those brilliant BBC4 documentaries where you learn about Edwardians and Empire through their interior decor, or what troubled Elizabethans from their popular street songs. In other words: what seems like throwaway culture often reveals the concerns of the millions of ordinary people who make up a society.

It surprised me recently that Channel 5 had a nice line in social history documentaries about the 1970s, using the supermarket as the method of exploring what we were like back then. It was fascinating, thankfully nostalgia-free, and a very honest investigation of the period of my childhood: the joys and woes of a long-gone era, that’s increasingly misunderstood, told through mass-produced food.

I still – very wrongly, it seems – consider Channel 5 a station which airs nothing but shows about sharks, tanks and Hitler. I’ve worked a fair bit in TV and there used to be an industry joke that the perfect C5 programme featured a Nazi shark driving a tank. The station has grown up considerably, clearly. Therefore, I rescind all slurs and apologise.

So really, the truth is that hoking through culture’s dustbin is a valuable exercise. Which takes me to this thought: I increasingly feel we can learn as much about our society from Big Brother as the Booker Prize shortlist.

I’m not saying this for cheap controversy. I write novels, so I’m not here to dump on literature. Far from it. It’s humanity’s singularly most important cultural achievement: the moment two minds – writer and reader – mix and mingle. Nothing else does that, not film, not architecture, not even theatre has the novel’s intimacy and exchange.

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However, in terms of what future historians will most probably use to anatomise we strange people of the 21st century, it’s just as possible that they’ll study our reality shows and pop music as our art and literature.

It’s pretty likely that in 200 years, Beyonce will be considered to say just as much about this world we inhabit as any modern-day composer. That might make us all somewhat shudder – if we’re hideous snobs – but academia seems to be on a trajectory which increasingly looks at history from the bottom up not top down. Good.

To be honest, this phenomenon isn’t new. HG Wells and TS Eliot were obsessed with the Music Hall; that was the place where they could unravel the minds of the people who comprised the society in which they lived, and which they wanted to explore in their writing. If you think modern telly is tacky, check Music Hall acts back in Victorian and Edwardian times.

So, as someone perpetually curious about this weird society I find myself living in, I’m very pleased Big Brother is back – again. The show gets resurrected more than Dracula in Hammer movies. I’ve been a fan of this insane reality series since it premiered in July 2000; a very fitting opening of the 21st century’s cultural doors.

Big Brother paints an eye-scalding yet honest picture of the period we live in, whether we like it or not. It sits alongside its contemporaries, social media and the mobile phone. All three combine as the ultimate expression of our rampant narcissism, and this era’s most defining social shift: a levelling of the playing field, a democratisation, where Joe Blow from Nowhere-Town can have a voice just as loud as any politician or movie star.

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Isn’t that the very essence of our age? This is a time when ordinary people – online, on their phones, on the telly – have power and visibility. That’s quite something, even if it does come dressed in screaming day-glo clothing.

Of course, the downside is nastiness – whether it’s online or on the box – but guess what? That’s who we are. We can be nasty. If art holds up a mirror to society, and our society is cruel, then isn’t Big Brother art? That’s for my academic pal to answer.

There is, however, also a rather gentle side to Big Brother. The first series saw the winner, Craig Phillips, a brickie from Liverpool, give his winnings to a friend with Down’s Syndrome. He’d also put the original Reality TV baddie ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman in his place.

Culture in the 21st century is pretty much like culture in the 1st century: we still love a hero and we still loathe a villain.

The current series presents a lovely vision of modern, diverse Britain. It may also have given us one of the most heartwarming TV moments in quite sometime: a tender hug between a hijab-wearing Muslim woman and a trans woman.

Now, if you believed the vision of Britain presented on social media – and much traditional media – you’d think such a moment was impossible. How utterly wrong.

What Big Brother shows us is that yes, we can all be silly, juvenile and narcissistic, and that yes, some of us are mean and nasty. But most of us are decent folk, we care for one another, we don’t want to see people who ‘differ’ from us suffer, and our hearts are open.

In this bloody awful period we live in, that’s a hell of a profound lesson. It’s life-affirming. It’s just strange it takes a tacky TV show to teach us that simple truth.