When The Truman Show debuted to great acclaim sixteen years ago this summer, film critics were, initially, slightly baffled. Audiences were intrigued, though, by the story of a man whose life was being secretly broadcast to the world and had billions of viewers.
Eventually, he becomes aware that secret cameras follow his every move and that his entire existence in a seaside Florida town is a series of observed and orchestrated events. The film began to earn praise as a fantastical masterpiece, and, ultimately as prophecy.
Because we are all now living in The Truman Show.
“I don’t think there’s much difference between Truman Burbank’s situation and all of us in the Internet era,” said Jason Wesbecher, CEO of Docket. “Facebook has just admitted to secretly manipulating emotions of 700,000 of its users right about the same time that the Washington Post reports 90 percent of the NSA’s Snowden documents aren’t about surveillance targets at all; they are about us and our lives: medical records, school transcripts, photos of toddlers on swing sets, and, yes, bikini selfies.”
Political, social, and technological forces have come together to make 2014 the year of The Truman Show. We might have seen this coming. A year after the film became a box office smash, CBS broadcast a wildly successful concept reality show that involved a diverse group of people living under one roof and constantly on camera. Given the Orwellian name of “Big Brother,” the production was the first mass, public indication that people are willing to surrender their privacy in exchange for money, convenience, and fame.
Which sounds a bit like the business model of Facebook.
When the social network’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, argued in 2010 that “the age of privacy is over,” he was suggesting the web was creating a radical new set of norms. He insisted that Facebook’s privacy settings were being changed because people were not concerned about being public, and, in fact, indicated that if he were starting his social media business today that “public’ would be the default setting for users of the free service.
Danah Boyd, a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a principal researcher at Microsoft, argued that Zuckerberg’s assertions were bunk, and the surrender of privacy was about a kind of invisible transaction.
“There isn’t some radical shift in norms taking place,” she wrote. “What’s changing is the opportunity to be public and the potential gain from doing so. Reality TV anyone? People are willing to put themselves out there when they can gain from it. But this doesn’t mean that everyone suddenly wants to be always in public. And it doesn’t mean that folks who live their lives in public don’t value privacy. The best way to maintain privacy as a public figure is to give folks the impression that everything about you is in public.”
She is mostly correct.
But if you read Google’s Terms and Conditions page for Gmail, which, of course, no one does, you learn that the service reads your emails and cross-references them with search history, sites visited, and Google+ data. What is there for the Gmail user to gain from that loss of privacy? Rules of engagement only have meaning when both parties are aware they are being engaged.
Maybe, though, we are willing to give up even eternity for a little free web distraction. In 2010, the British retailer Gamestation got 7500 customers to “grant us a nontransferable option to claim, now and for ever more, your immortal soul.”
Wesbecher of Docket insists we need to utilize the circumstances created by the web for the benefit of our businesses and personal lives. His startup has created a “sales enablement” software that allows email users to know, not just when an email they sent has been opened, but how much time was spent reading attached documents, and even where they were forwarded and who else is reading.
“We, obviously, still have choices,” Wesbecher said. “We can go off the grid, dump our social networks, and replace Google with the privacy-friendly DuckDuckGo search engine. But our obsessions with social media and the web means we are creating enough data every day to fill up 57.5 billion 32 GB iPads. I don’t think turning away from it all is realistic, however. We just need tools to make the web work better for us, instead of against us.”
We are, in a sense, still traveling toward something on the Internet that we cannot yet see, and Truman Burbank, unsurprisingly, had the metaphor to describe our journey back in 1998 when he was explaining to Marlon about a place called Fiji.
Marlon: “Where the hell’s Fiji? Near Florida?”
Truman: (Pointing to golf ball) “See here?”
Truman: “This is us.” (Guides finger halfway around ball.) “And all the way around here is Fiji. You can’t get any further away before you start coming back.”
The web and us? We are all still a very long ways from Fiji.