Somebody’s Watching You

Unwitting surveillance in the dystopias and utopias of film, as well as the modern world


The two leaders of surveillance, the director Christof of The Truman Show (top) and the figurehead Big Brother of 1984 (bottom).

Ella Whalen, Staff Writer

I have recently had the pleasures of watching both the movies 1984 and The Truman Show (both of which are legally available free online) and have since noticed a strong connecting theme between the two of them. Both are set in a society where constant surveillance is the norm, but for what ends and what society is built around them is vastly different between the two.

The movie 1984 is based (faithfully, may I add) on the famous George Orwell novel, which students in AP Literature are very familiar with at this point. In it, the country of Oceania is overseen tightly by the sole party, INGSOC, and a significant portion of its power comes from its ability to monitor the actions of all its party members. The citizens of Oceania are fully aware of the ever-watching telescreens, which also serve as a way of spreading pro-INGSOC propaganda, but never are able to protest against it in a successful manner. In fact, many of them are proud of being constantly monitored, as the culture encourages all forms of ‘crimethink’ to be punished, including in what would be a private home, or even in a private mind.

The Truman Show, on the other hand, seems to be a much more uplifting setting. The town of Seahaven is nearly flawless, the people can think independently, the architecture is bright and cheerful, and the quality of life is much higher than the squalor of Oceania. Underneath, however, is a network of hidden cameras just as extensive and invasive as the telescreens of 1984, ready to film for the titular television show. Only the protagonist, the-also-titular Truman, is unaware of these cameras, at least before the events of the movie. He has no idea that he’s constantly being watched by millions of people, and as entertainment nonetheless, though this does grant him a sort of blissful ignorance. While the rest of the town may be actors who agreed to be surveilled, they are still condemned to live this portion of their lives entirely on display; while the rest of the world may only be focused on Truman, who knows what the crew behind the show sees on the other cameras.

The methods of surveillance between these two movies are vastly similar, but the purposes to which they serve are rather different on the surface. 1984’s INGSOC uses it to keep a firm grasp on its citizens and help prevent them from gathering both ideas and people that could lead to the party’s removal. It wants power for the sake of keeping power, and monitoring its people is but a tool to that end. The surveillance in The Truman Show is not for power, but rather for money; if a television show where a man is raised from birth on a movie set is profitable enough to warrant the cameras, it is worth to keep running, and to keep spying on both the protagonist’s life as well as those of the actors. However, the lesson both movies teach through these is all but the same: if a powerful entity could gain from stripping away a human right like that of privacy, and there is no system in place to stop it (or if it is the system itself), then it will.

The shadows of both these worlds exist in our own, and intentionally so. 1984 compares well to how online presence is increasingly tied to one’s real-world identity, to name one example. The ideas one spreads and partakes in online can be monitored by employers or governments and lead to real-world consequences. In some cases, action taken against online activity are potentially justified; in others they restrict truthful information because it could harm the company or country, like violations of worker’s rights or committing of war crimes. As well, with both the prevalence of digital assistants like Alexa or Google Home and the precedent of these devices sending recorded content to their parent company, it is increasingly popular to let a potentially spying device into the home for the convenience of them, just like Oceania’s telescreens.

The Truman Show may be more about those who willingly put their lives on display, but it still has commentary on celebrity culture at every scale. Those in showbusiness are frequently spied on by paparazzi waiting for a new scandal, giving them little chance to live a private life. You even may be familiar with someone who manufactures their life for social media, likely for the sake of making money off sponsorships—the primary way The Truman Show made money as well. Both these movies were built as an exaggeration of these forms of surveillance, and perhaps serve as a warning for the damage that could be caused were they to get out of hand.