The Truman Show is a 1998 drama/comedy that tells the story of a man named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) who has unknowingly spent his whole life living in a completely staged reality show, where millions of people watch his day-to-day life for entertainment. Over the course of the story, he becomes more and more aware that his whole life has been a lie. Some have speculated that Michael Jackson and Princess Diana were real life Truman’s, although their escape from their own ‘Sea Haven’ didn’t pan out as it did for Truman.
Shortly after the film’s release, reality TV exploded—Big Brother premiered in 1999, Survivor in 2000, American Idol in 2002—and we shifted to view The Truman Show as a prescient forecast of that cultural obsession.
Around the film’s 10-year anniversary, we began to read of “the Truman Show delusion,” in which people became convinced that they were the stars of a reality show and that everyone around them was merely performing for some unseen camera. (Versions of the disorder had existed prior to the movie; it merely lent a popular reference point.) Treating the delusion was difficult, given that patients would think the doctors themselves were just part of the ruse.
Viewing The Truman Show today, you have to force yourself to remember that reality TV was once a noteworthy phenomenon and not the air we breathe. Not only would we turn a nobody famous, as the film postulated, but we have succeeded in turning everybody famous, each of us the micro-celebrity of our own narratives, thanks to the internet.
Like Truman, the cost of this constant drip-feed of personal gratification—likes, retweets, and so on—is privacy. YouTube has minted scads of genuine superstars who post daily missives with varying degrees of production intensity. A quick trip to the platform shows uncountable legions of would-be stars, broadcasting their everyday musings to thousands or hundreds or dozens. Every other major social platform (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat) has likewise incentivized people to stream their lives, producing a bottomless well of user-generated reality programming.
If anything has changed between now and the movie’s release, it’s that the internet has transformed into this place, where every conspiracy theory is true, where everyone is always watching, waiting for you. We’ve all experienced product ad’s that just pop up unannounced after discussing that specific product. The internet is listening to us from our tracking device in our pocket.
The Truman Show presents an intriguing example of how a person could be radically mistaken in his beliefs about the world. People aren’t taught critical thinking or have become lazy and just don’t waste time on deep thought. Question everything!
While none of us are very likely to experience the sort of massive conspiracy orchestrated against Truman, all of us, to one extent or another, are in a state of ignorance and illusion. People around us lead us to believe things about themselves and ourselves that simply aren’t true. Companies, who want our money, seduce us with lies about their products. Politicians, who want our votes, make promises they don’t intend to keep. It was Shakespeare who said that, “All the world’s a stage,” and though he was speaking metaphorically, there is an important truth in his remark. Our lives are filled with lies and illusions, and it behooves us to overcome these in the quest for truth, just as Truman did.