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The Truman Reality

February 19, 2015

"Good morning! ... and in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight!" - The Truman Show

The cheerful greeting is one of Jim Carrey's signature lines from the film "The Truman Show". Unlike Carrey's usual style of slightly twisted and very much comedy-centric films, "The Truman Show" is much less for laughs and more for satirical insight. Simply put, everything about the main character Truman Burbank's life, from birth, is a constructed part of a large-scale reality TV show. At birth, Truman is placed in a huge TV set, a constructed city of New Haven, complete with domed, painted-on skies and electric lights for stars in the night. Truman, naturally, is completely unaware of this fact at first, living the life of an average insurance company office worker. But unbeknownst to him, his city is filled with miniature cameras hidden inside and behind everything from his shirt collar to the kitchen faucet, filming his every single move, every second of every day. This allows Truman's entire life to be broadcast around the country nonstop, making for quite the reality TV show, and quite the money maker for those who created Truman's life. Of course, a domed sky in the city can only be so large. So the creators of the TV show prevents Truman from traveling anywhere, by surrounding his city with blocked roads, oceans, and even staging a faked but traumatizing death of his father in the sea to create Truman's fear of sailing. Truman's life in the satirical film feels far from authentic, and his life has no concept of privacy. But I think our lives may not be too far away from becoming reality TV of our own.

Is the modern, connected lifestyle just an ostentatious version of the Truman Show? (image from The Truman Show)

One of the first things that strikes you in the film is the fact that tiny, conspicuous cameras are literally everywhere, monitoring every speck of dust in the fictional city of New Haven. But it only takes a moment to realize that that's actually not too far from the reality. Anytime you go out into the streets, there is probably at least a few cameras that could be filming you, if they aren't in the first place. What would account for that? Firstly, three in every four people in the US carry a smartphone, and that means three in every four people you see on the streets are equipped with a high-definition camera and camcorder hidden in their pockets. Anytime any one of these hundreds of camera-toting passersby takes an Instagram, sends a Snapchat, or makes a video call (not to mention taking a plain old picture), you could be a part of that picture completely unknowingly. And when these pictures and videos are being shared across the Internet with the magic of social media, don't be surprised to find a picture of you yawning or tripping on a sidewalk block somewhere on the Internet. If the only cameras around where on phones, things could be simpler, but we also have watches that record video, glasses that can film you without your knowledge, and the rising popularity of camera-equipped drones that can potential film aerial views or fly by someone's living space with a rolling camcorder. This omnipresence of recording devices, combined with thousands of traces of ourselves we leave on the Internet, make for a pretty complete picture of our private and public lives for anyone who really puts in the effort to look for it. Of course, this is still far from being subject to a privacy-infringing TV show, but nevertheless, our lives have never before in history been so accessible to the public, so open for examination.

The Truman Show's dystopian image is true in another way as well. If we aren't being the subject of the public eye, we may be a part of that public. Reality TV and tabloids' coverages take the lead role in publicizing the lives of any large celebrity, but I think the implications of even those media can't come close to the connection that we build through social media. The combination of the convenience of our smart devices and the wide reach of the Internet make it possible to literally "follow" someone's activities throughout his or her day. Case in point: YouTuber UnboxTherapy has installed 24/7 cameras in his main office, visible to the public through his website. But most online personalities engage in much more conventional ways, by tweeting out what they had for breakfast, posting a summary of their workouts, sharing photos from a party they attended, or taking a selfie at Starbucks. In conjunction with the rising video blogging culture, I think our generation is becoming ever more accustomed to what public technology speaker Tom Scott has called "an old -fashioned, nebulous concept of privacy". Our lives may not be a TV show yet, but I think the level of openness that we tolerate today is at least comparable to the open narrative of Truman's life.

All this is not just to criticize the openness of today's tech. Of course, there are privacy risks concerned with any piece of technology; we still take advantage of them because their benefits outweigh the slight risks of privacy risks. Many of our lifestyles may be growing similar to the public lifestyle of The Truman Show, but there is still one critical difference, that while his reality was constructed, and somehow lacked the authenticity of the "real world", our lives are genuine and authentic. And I think that's one of the most important things that we often forget when we think about people with online presence. UnboxTherapy, Taylor Swift, John Green, and a long list of YouTubers, celebrities, artists, and athletes may look similar to the constructed man inside The Truman Show, because we know so much about them and their lives. But even in the movie, Truman Burbank's life was just as real as anyone else's -- he was merely surrounded by a world which didn't accept him as authentic, as he did. Even as our society inevitably moves into a technosphere, and as our physical lives become more entangled with their digital, online counterparts, I think our highest priority as the people of the Internet should be to keep all of our lives, captured and broadcast around the world, as authentic and relatable as we can. Because if we can't, we might as well live inside a domed city of our very own.