Truman believes he inhabits a benign and uneventful world. Little does he suspect that everything he does is monitored, controlled and contrived. When he realizes something is wrong and tries to break free, he then discovers the totalitarian face of his apparently innocuous life.
Like other depictions in the movie, this one is based on a disturbing characteristic of contemporary society. Everywhere we look, today, we see powerful shapers of media -- including entertainment companies, news organizations, corporations and political groups -- offering us a benevolent face, with promises of enjoyment and an easy life. But, behind the mask, we increasingly find surveillance, manipulation and social control.
A good example are the Disney theme parks in which surveillance technology, and efforts to manipulate visitors and keep everyone in line (literally as well as figuratively), are concealed by the benevolent facade. This characteristic has inspired the architect-essayist Michael Sorkin to see in Disney a hint of the future: themed fantasy environments in enclosed settings full of surveillance and social control.
Even many of those who consider this benign in a theme park will have to admit it looks more disturbing when the entire culture is dominated by media institutions that collect information on customers, competitors and critics. Consider the Internet, this idyllic arena of themed sites designed to create a pleasant and entertaining effect. As you "travel" the Internet, you may be disturbed to learn that some Internet Service Providers reserve the right to monitor, and keep records on, what you look at and do online.
Are they actually doing so? There's no way to know because news organizations and politicians have refused to make an issue of it. The collective silence of these groups obviously isn't as airtight as the conspiracy depicted in the movie or the corporately controlled space at Disney World. But it is part of a conspiracy of silence that now shapes public debate, in which journalists and politicians help cover up most of the deception and surveillance that pervades society because they are participants in these activities and because they don't want to take on the big media companies and other corporations.
Or consider a mall. Behind the themed storefronts in these faux idyllic settings is a system of hidden video cameras and undercover security guards, once again there to keep things under control. This too begins to look less benign when you consider that malls (as Sorkin would point out) are functioning as town squares so that many of our public spaces are controlled and contrived environments shaped by the interests of marketing.
Not surprisingly, many works of fiction before The Truman Show depict this same combination -- phony idyllic settings that mask a system of surveillance and social control. This theme can be found in written stories such as "The Machine Stops", by E. M Forster, The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem, and The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke; in movies such as Logan's Run, and in television programs such as "The Cage", which was the pilot episode for the original Star Trek.
The message of all these works is the same -- today's affluent societies are in danger of becoming controlled environments, as media and advanced technology become the tools of those in power. But protecting our freedom from this new abuse of power is made all the more difficult by its ability to put on such a pleasing and enticing face.
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