Filmmakers across industries have long desired to create a work that not only manages to stay relevant in times to come but also become increasingly relevant in the face of a fast-developing technologically revolutionised future. However, few have been able to achieve what the 1998 American film The Truman Show has in this context.
Directed by Peter Weir, The Truman Show intricately flags and engages with sensitive themes like privacy, free will, surveillance, social engineering and simulated reality in a prophetic Nostradamus like fashion. Credited for the advent of modern reality TV shows, the movie essentially depicts the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who, according to him, lives a normal mundane life. In reality, Truman is the star of a TV show and is being filmed and broadcasted 24×7 through thousands of clandestine cameras.
The main antagonist of the film is Christof (Ed Harris), the creator and producer of the world’s most popular show. Having built an enormous set within a dome structure to contain Truman and cut him off from the real world, he’s the puppet master behind every aspect of Truman’s ‘life’ – right from selecting his wife to controlling the weather. To this end, the entire set is filled with actors who take cues from Christof and keep Truman engaged for the audience.
Preface to the modern advertisement business model
Today’s holy trinity of the modern advertisement business model – which brings together social media, digital marketing and celebrity/influencer outreach campaigns – uses the same rationale enunciated in the movie; that whoever commands screen time with the masses can be used to plug in products via vlogs about his/her daily life.
In the film, Truman is inadvertently the brand ambassador of innumerable products as everything he uses in his artificial life is sponsored and advertised in the show by companies for consumption in the real world. This mode of advertisement forms the bedrock of the modern commandments of advertisement, which asserts that products shown to be used by celebrities in their daily lives on social media platforms sell much more than the ones they commercially endorse on television.
Digital social engineering
When Truman started showing a desire to explore the world and move beyond the island, Christof kills the character of his father in turbulent waters with the motive to instil the fear of the sea in Truman so that he does not attempt to sail away.
However, as Truman ages, the curbed desire of exploring the world resurfaces. To his utter surprise, and in stark similarity to today’s internet search-based consumer-preference targeted advertisements, Truman finds himself surrounded by posters and advertisements that exactly resonate with his mind space that are there for the sole purpose of manoeuvring his actions.
For instance, when he would think of leaving the island, a radio broadcast would appear highlighting the dangers and risks of travelling abroad or a poster signifying the virtues of staying home. In today’s age, where we view the world through the lens of social media posts, our opinions are mostly based on the type of pages we follow and nature of content we consume. Search engine algorithms are sophisticated enough to repeat the information available online in patterns that resonate with our ideological/religious/cultural/political biases and assumptions.
Moreover, by virtue of our search engine history being communicated to e-commerce companies, the products we even think about end up in our hands due to constant bombardment of concentrated online advertisements. All of this restricts our critical thinking ability to a designated box outside which we are neither shown any content, nor encouraged to explore a different worldview. This social engineering is used from selling products online to rigging elections by exposing us to fake data that is meticulously designed to reaffirm our inherent biases and indoctrinated opinions.
The need to be a Truman
It is in this gloomy backdrop that I argue that it is must for all of us to inculcate a Truman inside us. In the movie, Truman was supposed to fall in love with Meryl (Laura Linney), but he accidentally falls for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone). In reaction, the showrunners remove her from the set but not before she gives a hint to Truman about his fabricated world and how he should come and seek her in Fiji.
Subsequently, Truman marries Meryl but he still revisits the moments and memories he shared with Sylvia. Sylvia here represents a metaphor for any information/perspective that does not match our own belief system. For instance, when presented with a perspective from the opposite political ideology, one often delegitimises it based on ad hominem attacks or strawman fallacies.
But this is where Truman is different. Truman engages with the possibility of his world view being wrong rather than dismiss anything that is not in congruence with his belief system. It is ultimately this inquisitiveness and rationality that allows him to trump his fear of the sea and reach the end of the dome (after battling artificial storms and thunders) to finally discover the truth about his existence.
At the exit door, Christof famously tell him, “There is no more truth out there than there is in the world I created for you.” Still, Truman refuses to stop and chooses hard fact over comfortable fiction. He chooses authentic reality over fabricated ecosystems and most importantly, he choose truth over falsehood. In times of WhatsApp forward wisdoms, communal fake news and divisive political propaganda, this act of Truman is a lesson for all of us and must serve as an inspiration to overcome the falsehood of our motivated political/religious ecosystems and see the world for what it actually is.
In the words of Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, “Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.”
Truman had the courage to choose what was right. But the question you should ask yourself is, do you?
Featured image: The Truman Show/Scott Rudin Productions