The Truman Generation
Truman Burbank: Was anything real?
Christof: You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.
from The Truman Show (1998)
Do you remember The Truman Show?
If you are not familiar with this 90's cinematic gem, here is a quick recap. An insurance salesman named Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey), lives in a town called Seahaven where the gardens and homes are manicured as carefully as their owners. Truman’s life is ordinary; it is marked by set routines. He takes few risks (he is an insurance salesman, after all) and asks fewer questions. This all changes when he begins to notice some cracks in reality. Literally.
One day, what appears to be a studio light, falls from the sky. On the car radio he hears the DJ’s describing his route to work. At work, an elevator door opens up to reveal a hidden room full of men drinking coffee and eating donuts. Questions mount as he notices more of these irregularities in his perfect world.
For instance, how do complete strangers know him by name? And why does his wife seem to be looking into a camera when she offers him a drink, and state, through a forced smile:
Why don’t you let me fix you some of this new Mococoa drink? All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mt. Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.
Truman snaps, responding to her as any of us would:
What the hell are you talkin’ about? Who are you talkin’ to?
Finally, he gets his answers. And an existential crisis.
It turns out that Truman’s wife is not really his wife. She is an actress. And she is looking into a camera because there are thousands of them hidden throughout Seahaven, which is not really a town. It is a television set, built in an arcological dome, for an experimental “reality” show, The Truman Show.
The show is the brainchild of Christof (played by Ed Harris), a CEO whose corporation adopted Truman and recorded his every waking moment for a global audience. The show has been on the air 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 30 years. Since there are no pauses for commercial breaks, corporate sponsors place their products, like Mococoa, strategically into the show.
After Truman learns the truth, he evades the cameras, escapes Seahaven, and despite Christof’s best efforts to stop him, manages to arrive at the edge of his artificial world. Before leaving this world, Truman looks up and asks Christof, “Was anything real?”
Christof, realizing he has lost Truman, responds “You were. That’s what made you so good to watch.”
When I first watched The Truman Show in the eighth grade, I became convinced that I, too, was the unwitting star in someone’s reality show. I kept my eyes open for any abnormalities in the set world around me. It took over a decade of observance, but I believe I noticed a glitch last year. It was at my wife’s ten year high school reunion. Hesitant even to go and be the outsider in a bar filled with inside-stories, I arrived only to be surprised at how many people approached me with familiarity. “Hey Dave! So good to finally meet you in person!”
It was as if these people had known me for years, greeting me by name, and jumping right into conversations about things I was reading or doing at work. Before I had a chance to comb the room for hidden cameras, they explained how they had been tracking my wife and I on Facebook and Instagram for the last few years. Her connections were, by extension, my connections. Pictures, articles, videos and the private details of my life I chose to share publicly on Facebook were available to an audience larger than I imagined.
In some sense, this audience tunes into The Sikkema Show every time they open up my Facebook page or Instagram account. Like The Truman Show, it is a channel that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Come to think of it, it also involves irritating product placements. The reality in which I exist on these particular channels is, in part, crafted by Mark Zuckerberg’s corporation.
I say “in part” because I am not as involuntary a star in Zuckerberg’s world, as Truman is in Christof’s. It is my choice to share things about myself with others on the Internet. Because I am conscious of the cameras on me, or because I am consciously putting the camera on myself, I am complicit in the show and retain the freedom to turn off the camera, exit the show, and delete my accounts, whenever I want.
But if Facebook and Instagram accounts can be re-imagined as a series of individual reality shows, perhaps we need to ask ourselves another question: Are there channels where the cast members are unaware of the fact that their life is on display in an artificial environment to an unknown audience?
Over at Slate, Amy Webb argues that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. Where you’ll find these inadvertent stars is on social media channels of adoring parents who inundate the Internet with baby photos and videos. The real Truman Burbanks, in other words, are children.
Before I continue, I realize what I am about to say may be confrontational to readers. Most of my family and friends are parents who post pictures of their children on Facebook and Instagram. A few years ago I joked with a friend that Facebook growth in the next decade will be less a phenomenon than it will a Phe-mom-enon, given the exponential growth of this demographic. While my wife and I do not have children, I am sure that when we do I will want to be right in the mix, sharing images of Dave Jr. dressed up like Tarzan, or whatever is trending at the moment.
And so I agree with Webb that such parents do not have evil intentions when they are documenting the lives of their children. They are merely capturing everyday moments, “because early childhood is so ephemeral.” The joy of these parents is real, and the lives of their children are real. As Christof understood, “That’s what makes it so good to watch.” But just because one’s intentions are not evil, does not mean they are immune from criticism.
A primary concern we should have of placing photos of children online is that we are willfully handing over their privacy to corporate entities. Truman, at least, was adopted by big business. This data is fun for friends and family to view, but know that it is being retained in servers and aggregated to turn a profit. Facial recognition software allows companies to keep a permanent record of your children, and their habits of consumption.
“We are able to suggest that your friend tag you in a picture by scanning and comparing your friend’s pictures to information we’ve put together from your profile pictures and the other photos in which you’ve been tagged.”
“Algorithms will analyze the people around [the children], the references made to them in posts, and overtime will determine [their] inner circle.”
Children are unaware that their identity is being formed in their early years. But there will be a moment in the maturation process where they become, like Truman, fully aware that there were other entities at work in the crafting of their world. Consider your future-daughter, Webb writes, who will one day discover the trove of “embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates.” Or, Webb wonders, will “negative parenting experiences” shared online “affect her ability to get into a good college?
Webb’s answer to this is to stop posting.
The easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place, especially for kids. [A child’s] parents haven’t just uploaded one or two photos of her: They’ve created a trove of data that will enable algorithms to learn about her over time. Any hopes [this child] may have had for true anonymity ended with that ballet class YouTube channel.
Truman is the only one in his world unaware that his life is on display. His entire reality has been fabricated by a corporation. This is not the only scandal of the film. There is the added fact that thousands of actors and millions of viewers are complicit in the lie that is Truman’s life. When I sift through the countless baby photos online I feel complicit in a similar spectacle. I wonder what their reaction is going to be when they learn how many people have been watching them?
Will they be like Truman, who hides from the cameras and tries to escape? Perhaps the popularity of apps like Snapchat that promise to erase their digital identity, or apps like Unseen that promise anonymity, speaks to the fact that they are already attempting escape.