Essay: Look at Me! Leave Me Alone!

It's a beautiful fantasy, really, and a potent one right about now: you are sailing through stormy weather to the edge of this bright, false, pretty world, and ramming suddenly into what all of your life you had mistaken for the sky but turns out to be a wall, you climb out of your boat onto a staircase and up to a door, behind which things may be less pretty but certainly more real. Stepping through that door into a private darkness, you start a life that is unwatched, unproduced, unrecorded, un marketed, unsold. This fantasy—the end of the popular dystopia The Truman Show—is powerful exactly because of the world we seem to live in on this side of the backdrop sky, in which privacy is a scarce commodity, in which prying eyes are everywhere, and in which everything and everyone you see is for sale, operators standing by. In this world, it's tough to know just who and what is for real.

If you've seen the film, you know that Truman Burbank was the first baby to be legally adopted by a corporation, OmniCam. Directed by the God-artiste-mogul Christof ("the big guy," or, as he puts it, "the Creator [pause] of a television show"), Truman is the unknowing star of his own enormously popular television show; his entire life is recorded by 5,000 hidden cameras and is broadcast, with constant product placement, worldwide. The manicured and predictable little island town he lives in, Seahaven, is in fact the world's biggest studio, populated entirely by actors, including those playing his wife, his mother, his best friend. Everything in it, literally, is available by mail order. Truman is the only "real" thing on the set, kept there by a fear of water facilitated by the staged drowning of his father, TV shows proclaiming the joys of never leaving home, and travel agency posters featuring crashing jets. Gradually, through a series of glitches such as falling studio lights, the reappearance of his dead father, and a car radio playing control room instructions, Truman begins to suspect that things are not as they appear, a perspective aided by memories of an old girlfriend, now a leader of a "Free Truman" resistance movement, who before being dragged away by a thug posing as her father had shouted "Everybody's pretending! It's a set! It's a studio!"

And so Truman begins a ratings-grabbing escape, violently opposed and exploited by Chris tof and OmniCam, who put in his way forest fires, a nuclear plant leak from which he is chased and subdued by men in silver protective suits, betrayals by his wife and best friend, and a search by actors and hunting dogs lined up like a lynch mob, lit by a moon-turned-searchlight and a prematurely risen sun. Eventually he is found where he's not supposed to be, on the sea. Over the objections of network executives ("We can't let him die in front of a live audience!"), he is subjected to biblical punishments by Christof ("He was born in front of a live audience!"), who, using a weather program, sends storms and giant waves in an attempt to drown his boy rather than see the show end. "There's no more truth out there than in the world I created," Christof warns Truman from his perch in the studio sky. Truman isn't buying it, and to the viewers' delight, still directed by Christof ("That's our hero shot," he says as Truman sails off defiantly), he plays the hero. "You're going to have to kill me," he screams, and he survives to hit the wall, and the staircase, and the doorway. Live free—camera-free, that is—or die.

Watching Me Watching You

The Truman Show is interesting not because of its originality; it borrows from and nicely updates quite a number of earlier stories of paranoid heroes starring unknowingly in films about themselves, of horrific Big Brother surveillance and pacified publics and superpowerful media, from Samuel Beckett and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein, from Blade Runner to Network to The Twilight Zone. It is, however, a timely satire, and one that has spurred waves of commentary about how it summarizes our current state of affairs in a big, entertaining metaphor, how we are all Truman Burbanks, trapped by the ever shrinking private life created by constant surveillance. "The movie's most frightening question comes down to this: Is the fictional specter of an all-knowing, all-seeing eye really so far removed from fact?" asked a typical Chicago Tribune report recently, going on to suggest it is not. Writing about information access more generally, novelist Richard Powers argued in the New York Times that "private life" might soon enough become a "term that had some shared meaning once but vaporized under the press of material progress." We have conceded the right to be recorded, Powers claims, having "long forsaken any hope of preserving the private—that part of life that goes unregistered."

We are trapped, another version of the argument goes, not so much by the constant registering of private life as by our insatiable appetite for the televised life. We may be victims of surveillance, but we are also its advocates, sad-sack Truman fans thrilled by the prying eyes of the cameras. The most provocative aspect of The Truman Show, Paul Brownfield wrote in the Los Angeles Times, for instance, "is not how thoroughly Big Brother can watch us but how the home viewers in the film blithely peer in at Truman's life, never stopping to consider their own complicity in the grand manipulation." If we are trapped, it is only because, as Christof asserts about Truman, we love our cell. "The captive of TV isn't Truman, it's the audience," Stanley Kauffmann suggested in the New Republic. "Us." And greedy media corporations are only too willing to shove cameras anywhere they can get them, feeding us the private until there's nothing left to eat.

What traps us, then, the constant watch ing by hidden others or our own constant watching? Which are we, the poor souls chased by camera crews or the chop-licking connoisseurs of other people's secrets? Which is the fantasy of freedom, the one in which we can see everything or the one in which we are safe from being seen? The weird thing, of course, is that both seem to be the case. Many of us are not, like Truman, running away from the cameras but running toward them, arms wide open, carrying our own spotlights—while complaining that we can't seem to get away from the lens. The fantasy of entering a camera-free realm coexists quite comfortably with the dream of a life in which all eyes are on you; the pronounced anxiety about eroded privacy (don't watch me! leave people alone!) lives happily with the avid worship of publicity (look at me! let me see!). What is new here is neither voyeurism nor exhibitionism—it is their strange relationship, in which watching and turning away, being on camera and hiding from it, are married impulses.

It's hard to know exactly where and when this all began, but the two impulses are now relentlessly chasing each other's tails. The key to understanding the chase, where anxiety about diminution of privacy be gets more craving for televised mo ments of privacy and vice versa, is that it is not the erosion of privacy alone that really seems to be bothersome, but the erosion of moments that can be trusted. It is not just crass voyeurism that drives growing popular interest in the nooks and crannies of everyday life, but a sense that those nooks and crannies look more and more like stage sets. The growth of surveillance, industrialized voyeurism, and increased self-display add up to a situation in which "realness" seems harder to find; all the heightened recording of private and personal life, the invited kind and the uninvited, sets in motion a hunt for the authentic. Television, along with technological ad vances in surveillance technique and demographic-information capturing, has made the places where one is unwatched and unsurveyed, where one need make no adjustments for an audience, seem fewer and farther between (be careful what books you buy, your sales receipt might get subpoenaed; be careful what you do in the aisle of a drugstore, because hidden cameras are recording you). The look-at-me culture only makes the search for these moments even more untenable: the more people offer themselves for the watching, the more like performers they become. And so the search for trustable moments, really private ones, intensifies.

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Television, a prime purveyor of the look-at-me principle, has stepped in to satisfy the craving for the real, unobserved life that it has helped to undermine. Media conglomerates happily and effortlessly market the pursuit of realness, exploiting it for the old-fashioned goal of getting people to watch television. Television now commonly provides fare that promises a door at the edge of the studio—showing off private moments meant to reassure us that spontaneous behaviors, actions taken without regard to cameras and publicity, still exist. It can do this very easily by drawing on the heady dream of publicity that television culture has long since codified: the fantasy of being the star of your very own show (think of programs as disparate as Oprah or America's Funniest Home Videos), if only for a few minutes, with all its attendant rewards. Yet when all kinds of people take up these invitations to celebrity, as they have more and more, the sense of private life as a performance for the cameras, as somehow not quite real, gets even stronger. These rolling cameras to which we have by now grown so accustomed bring with them the giant suspicion that everyone might be partly acting, every candid moment part of the ongoing infomercial. And the TV solution to the worry that we are too watched to be real, our lives too public to be trusted, is more watching in the hope of glimpsing the real. We are invited to see the unobserved (a snoring Truman, the unsuspecting criminals on Cops), the glitches in the observation system (the falling lights on Truman's stage set, goofy out-takes on TV Censored Bloo pers), anything that takes us behind the door. But the TV offer comes with a funny sort of guarantee: the door gets farther away the faster you run toward it.

Somebody's Watching Me

It's an intriguing, reassuring, almost nostalgic kick to witness the innocence of the unwatched. Indeed, perhaps what makes the marketing of "private" reality an especially easy sell for television is the more and more common awareness that watchers could be pretty much anywhere. I myself, for instance, am careful not to do anything indelicate on elevators, at automatic teller machines, and in convenience stores these days, since it's hard to know if there's a camera in the corner watching me pick basil or poppy seeds out of my teeth. And I might also be well advised to compose my e-mails more carefully at work: along with many other such jarring examples in his new book The Transparent Society, David Brin cites a 1997 survey of 906 employers, 35 percent of whom were found to be conducting one or more types of "close electronic surveillance" on their employees. I should probably also be more careful about what I do on the streets of New York City, where, as in Baltimore, my behavior in some areas is recorded by hidden cameras 24 hours a day. I'll be avoiding Roslyn Heights, New York, too, where, ac cording to the Boston Globe, 35 hidden surveillance cameras feed live pictures onto the Internet of anyone moving on the streets.

It seems pretty clear that new technology has made hidden surveillance much more sophisticated, easier to do, and harder to detect. There's no question that everyone needs to be vigilant as ever about sleazy, ill-intentioned intrusions and restrictions on civil liberties, but it's also worth noting that, in order to be truly effective as social control tools—and these spying techniques have indeed proved to be remarkable crime reducers—people need to know the cameras are there. This kind of surveillance, unlike Truman's, operates on the knowledge that, at least potentially, someone is watching; the cameras must be both obscured and acknowledged. This is the effect of the Panopticon famously noted by Michel Foucault: people police themselves. Who's going to light up a joint in Washington Square Park when the cameras might be rolling? Who's going to have raunchy conversations online if their boss might be reading along? The awareness of being observed, not just the observing, is what Big Brother techniques promote.

Of course, the greatest recent increase in hidden watching is less Big Brother than big business. Driving records, Social Security numbers, credit ratings, marital status, purchasing habits, membership in organizations, taxes—pretty much anyone with a little skill and a computer can find those out with just your name and address. But who really wants to know? The increased recording of information most of us thought was ours alone is not so much a matter of getting you to adjust your behavior as to generate information from which to sell you more things. America Online and others, for instance, compile names and addresses of their subscribers to sell to other companies; every magazine subscription begets unmerciful junk mail. An internet site visit is tracked by a "cookie," a piece of software that makes note of what you look at, and the next thing you know you're getting messages from manufacturers of baldness cures or vacation re sorts or people willing to take their clothes off for a small fee. A supermarket discount "club" card tracks what's in your shopping cart. It's not in fact paranoid to think that, at least when it comes to any activity that might remotely involve you in buying something, almost everything you do is on record. These surveillance activities, open or not, start to add up after a while, and you start to feel less certain that much information about yourself is yours to control, and more certain that in order to sell you things, companies of all kinds are keeping awfully close tabs.

While computerized recording of buying habits and convenience store cameras and nosy neighbors with video cameras are not bothersome in the same ways or to the same degree, together they do create the impression that not much is left unrecorded. It's this suspicion that is firmed up, popularized, and capitalized upon by the now ubiquitous phenomenon of "reality" television, in which people are filmed going about their everyday lives and those images converted into entertainment. Sometimes they know about the cameras ahead of time, sometimes they grant permission after the fact (or, more rarely, refuse to grant it) for some moment of their lives to be broadcast; sometimes the real life is loosely scripted, sometimes it's just edited for dramatic effect. A minor tradition precedes the 1990s explosion of reality TV—Candid Camera set people up to be the unknowing butts of televised jokes in the 1960s, the Loud family aired their laundry for PBS's American Family in the 1970s, David Letterman has had this cam and that cam roaming the streets and the studio since the 1980s, and daytime talk shows, for their part, have always made their money by the revelation of the everyday lives and emotions of their guests. But by now reality entertainment is a full-fledged genre, as cheap-to-produce programming meets up with an audience intrigued by dramas of "real life." MTV's Real World (and its spinoff Road Rules) brings together a combustible mix of good-looking young men and women and films them playing themselves as they might be if they had actually chosen to live together. Fox's Cops films police pursuing and arresting criminals, and the syndicated Real TV buys footage of car chases and dramatic rescue scenes. HBO's Taxicab Confessions places "lipstick cameras" in cabs and offers drivers, who are equipped with earphones through which they can hear producers, suggestions for questions to ask the fares. Local television news looks increasingly like some loony combination of Cops and America's Funniest Home Videos.

Watching these shows, it makes sense to wonder once again what there is left to live unobserved, whether there's a cam-less spot left. Truman may not have died on live television, but the airing of the Los Angeles freeway suicide earlier this year—and years before that, the O. J. car chase scene, which was riveting because he had a gun and was threatening suicide—has made it clear that it is indeed possible, if controversial, to watch someone die on live television. Or give birth on the Internet, as a woman named "Elizabeth" did this past summer before an audience estimated at two million. What seems especially striking in recent years is the enthusiasm with which so many people invite strangers to watch and listen to activities that are typically considered private, and the enthusiasm with which, despite the fear of lost privacy, strangers are willing to participate in the process. Apple software engineer John Kullmann has a webcam in his office that has fed his image so far to 76,000 strangers. "If I happen to be picking my nose, they catch me," he told a San Francisco reporter. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has four webcams in his office. "If I pick my nose," Wozniak told a Houston reporter, perhaps confirming the rumors of widespread computer industry nose-picking, "they see me." Jennifer Ringley allows you to witness her life on JenniCam for $15 a year, and Ana Voog's allows you to watch the performance artist take baths, eat lunch, and paint herself blue in front of four webcams. According to one keeper of a list of webcam sites, between 20 and 30 people submit new sites every day.

And there's still the old-fashioned route. The Jerry Springer Show claims to get thousands of calls every week from people volunteering to fight with their two-timing/slut-dressing/thought-he-was-a-she wife/boyfriend/mother/cousin. According to the Los Angeles Times, about 14,000 people volunteered to be subjects for the most recent Real World and Road Rules casts. Clearly, not everybody is all that bothered by the idea of being watched. Picking noses, telling each other's secrets, eating a peanut butter sandwich, having a baby: there are more than enough people willing to invade their own "privacy." And more than enough people willing to watch, all the while complaining that "the media" are too intrusive, sticking their microphones in the midst of private grief and joy and intrigue.

The Currency of Publicity

Although people do routinely and vehemently object to the erosion of privacy, it's puzzling that they also seem to be unbothered by quite a bit of it. For instance, while everyone pretty much agrees that the relentless, hidden information grabbing by companies is incredibly annoying, and that the companies should at least tell you when they're stealing your personal information for their own profiteering, to many people such activities seem relatively innocuous—after all, it's all about giving you what you want, and if someone wants to know what kind of cereal I like, or even what dirty pictures I like to look at, fine, go nuts.

But the story deepens a bit when one sees that privacy, while certainly also at stake, is not the key here. This is an extraordinarily ocular culture, and one that rewards the looked-at, so it ought not be surprising that lots of people are ready to be watched. Being looked at, being visible, being known about, is a currency. You can cash it in for money or office, and even if that's not what you're after, the logic of celebrity remains powerful: you aren't anybody until you've been on television. It's the pursuit of publicity, not privacy, that offers the big rewards in this culture. If the fantasy of sailing away from prying eyes is one potent vision, that may only be because the fantasy of being known is its jealous twin.

Indeed, it's the fact that publicity has such payoffs that sends the broadcasting of the "private" into high gear. Publicity culture makes a virtue of being watched, and reality television profits from the desire to witness something real behind self-interested publicity, to see how people look when they do not know they are being seen. The longing captured by The Truman Show is a craving for something "real." It's not so much the threats to privacy itself that are bothersome these days but what the private tends to make possible and has come to symbolize: a life you recognize as authentically your own because it is not there for the entertainment of others. The private moment has come to stand for realness, and the awareness of increased surveillance means that fewer and fewer moments qualify. "As private space shrinks," Ellen Goodman has smartly pointed out, "the public's hunger for authenticity grows. As the hunger grows, the deeper we invade private life to find something real, and the shallower it gets." Reality television, moving its cameras into "private," promises exactly the unobserved moments that it makes impossible to deliver.

"Cue the sun," says The Truman Show's Christof as he intensifies his search for Truman Burbank. Lately, entertainment media are smitten with this image of their own power, their role as gods manipulating the public and manufacturing reality—the reporter in Mad City who "controls" rather than reports a hostage story, the Hollywood producer in Wag the Dog who manufactures a made-for-TV war, the producers in Bulworth who make and break political careers. And although the manipulative power of media industries is plain and well documented, in many ways media are more like parasites than gods. They feed off social anxieties and broadcast them for profit. The disquieting sense that one is too often watched has more widespread creators than the media gods. Yet once they get in on the game, they set in motion a spiral that is hard to escape. Even if the creators are not as omnipotent as they appear in their own mirrors, that spiral itself is incredibly powerful, in part because the desire to feel one's own life remains, even if buried beneath a pile of TV Guides, very powerful. The simultaneous pursuit of publicity and distrust of it, once it enters the realm of television, builds a staircase back to the living room, where we can sit down to watch the watching in the blue-lit privacy of our own homes. As media critic Mark Crispin Miller once put it, "Big Brother is you, watching."

Perhaps in the end it is not really Truman Burbank and Christof who summarize the current state of affairs, but the Teletubbies. These four British imports, now trying to recreate their enormous U.K. popularity on America's PBS, are small, goofy alien creatures who bounce around the bright, colorful Teletubbyland ("the place where television is made") in fuzzy head-to-toe pajama-like outfits; their trippy show takes aim at the hitherto-untapped one- to two-year-old market. Po, Laa Laa, Dipsy, and Tinky Winky, who have antennas on their fluffy heads and television screens in their round tummies, live in a beautiful world in which life without television is literally unimaginable. Television lives inside of them. They are TV watchers who are also TV screens. During each show, what looks to be a windmill but turns out to be a TV transmitter begins to emit a signal, and one of the Tubbies' stomach screens starts to glow, until a video of a real-life child (riding a horse or a tricycle or some such thing) begins to play. When the video ends, the Teletubbies call for more. "Again, again," they cry, and we watch them as they turn to watch the mundane clip of life taking place again on one of their own small, glowing bellies.

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