The Truman Show

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"The Truman Show" release poster

The Truman Show is a 1998 drama-comedy film broadcasting the daily life of Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, to a worldwide audience 24 hours a day, seven days a week without Truman knowing himself that his life is on television for anyone to see. Truman's life is a simulated reality orchestrated by the show's creator, Christof, played by Ed Harris, who puts on The Truman Show for the whole world to watch.

The film was directed by Peter Weir and was inspired by the “Special Service” episode of The Twilight Zone.[1] Since its release, The Truman Show has received critical acclaim and was nominated for numerous awards, such as the 71st Academy Awards and 56th Golden Globe Awards.[2]

Given its dynamic plot, The Truman Show is known for its themes on Christianity, simulated reality, and the exploitation of mass media. From an information and communications technology perspective, The Truman Show addresses themes surrounding surveillance, sousveillance, catfishing, and the popularity of reality television and raises ethical issues surrounding privacy, individual identity, autonomy, and voyeurism.


Unbeknownst to him, The Truman Show is a reality television program broadcasting the daily life of Truman Burbank to a worldwide audience 24/7. A birth, Truman Burbank is an unwanted child who becomes the first baby to be adopted by a corporation, turning his life into an international television show directed by the show’s creator, Christof. The Truman Show is filmed on Seahaven Island, Truman’s hometown that is actually a Hollywood movie set. There are over 5,000 cameras recording Truman’s every move, and everyone who interacts with him is an actor, including his wife Meryl and childhood best friend Marlon. Essentially, Truman’s entire life is an illusion to him as it was fabricated by Christof and put on livestream for the world to see.

Truman Burbank speaks into his bathroom mirror which secretly poses as a camera broadcasting to "The Truman Show."

For the sake of entertainment, Christof and his producers fabricate plotlines for The Truman Show, and Truman believes these to be defining memories of his childhood. For example, the show producers faked a boating accident where Truman’s father pretends to drown, instilling aquaphobia in Truman. This fear is used as a mechanism to keep Truman from ever leaving Seahaven Island.

As the plot progresses, Truman begins to suspect he is being watched and that parts of his life are artificially man made or under someone else’s control. The film then turns into a chase between Truman attempting to reveal the truth and Christof racing to beat Truman so that he never learns about The Truman Show. For example, Truman tries to take Meryl on an impromptu road trip but every road becomes blocked, forcing Truman to remain confined on Seahaven Island.

In the end, Truman escapes by conquering his aquaphobia and sailing away to escape Seahaven Island. Christof tries to stop him by creating a dangerous storm and capsizing Truman’s boat, nearly drowning him on live television for the world to see. Truman survives and continues sailing until his boat hits the wall of the movie set. He realizes he has been trapped inside Seahaven Island which is actually a movie set within an ecosphere, and Christof begins to speak to him. In an attempt to save The Truman Show, Christof speaks directly to Truman for the first time and tries to convince him to stay. Christof warns Truman about the real world, trying to convince Truman that the real world has no more truth than the world Christof has created specifically for him. In Christof’s artificial world, Truman is protected and cannot be harmed. Regardless, Truman exits the movie set, bringing The Truman Show to an end.[3]



Surveillance is defined as “close watch kept over someone or something”.[4] Scholars have tried to further define surveillance as an action that happens from above, is designed to pay attention to a specific entity, and is an intentional observation.[5]

In producing The Truman Show, Christof and his producers employ various surveillance technologies that are seen throughout the film. For example, Christof reveals that there are over 5,000 cameras broadcasting Truman’s every move.[6] The perspective of the film represents these surveillance technologies through the use of wide-angle lenses and vignette edges. The producers also use fisheye lenses as some scenes in the film are shown from a fisheye perspective. The show producers and Christof are always monitoring Truman through the Lunar Room, a hidden control room and production center on the 221st floor disguised as the moon and sun in Seahaven Island.[7] Finally, hidden earpieces are employed to communicate between producers and the actors interacting with Truman. This is seen when Christof is feeding lines to Marlon, trying to convince Truman that he is just being paranoid and delusional. Ultimately, Truman’s life under surveillance is the entire premise of Christof’s creation, The Truman Show.


A conceptual drawing of surveillance versus sousveillance from Youtube. Surveillance represents oversight whereas sousveillance represents undersight.

Sousveillance was coined in 2003 by Steve Mann, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman.[8] They loosely define sousveillance as when a participant of an activity records that activity or the “recording of recorders”. [9] Unlike surveillance, sousveillance takes a bottom-up approach.[10]

Other scholars have contributed to defining sousveillance. The French word “sous” means below, and Jean-Gabriel Ganascia has defined sousveillance as an occurrence where “the watchers are socially below those who are watched, while in the case of surveillance it is the opposite, they are above."[11] In this case, The Truman Show employs a few subtle instances of sousveillance.

For example, when Truman is trying to discover the truth about the suspicions he has about his life, he starts to threaten his wife, Meryl. Truman tries to intimidate her and chases her in the kitchen, and Meryl looks at the camera, yelling “do something!” Meryl is yelling at those watching to help her, and Truman suspects that he is being watched. Here, Meryl, knowing that herself and Truman are being watched, is calling out to the audience and producers to intervene.

Another way The Truman Show takes advantage of the many watching the few is through product placements. To generate revenue, every product seen in the show serves an advertisement and can be purchased through The Truman Show store.[12] There are also multiple instances where Meryl’s dialogue shifts to her selling a product like a television advertisement.

With the artificiality of The Truman Show and everyone being in on the show except for Truman himself, the film has many instances where the actors and producers exploit sousveillance to communicate with the show’s larger audience.

Parallels to reality

Big Brother

"Big Brother" show logo.

Big Brother is an American reality television game show where contestants live in a home together under constant surveillance.[13] The contestants have no contact with the outside world and participate in weekly competitions. The last contestant standing wins a grand prize of $500,000.[14]

Although not as staged, Big Brother shares similarities with The Truman Show, most notably its 24/7 live feed feature. Viewers who pay extra on CBS All Access can watch the Big Brother contestants within the house anytime,[15] just like how The Truman Show was always on air.

Also like The Truman Show, the German version of Big Brother built its own town to house contestants on a 17,000 square foot piece of land.[16] This town turned television set parallels Seahaven Island, a fake island disguised as the show’s studio where Truman lives.

Overall, like The Truman Show, the premise of Big Brother is built on surveillance. At the end, Truman asks Christof, “Was nothing real?” Christof responds, “You were real. That’s what makes you so good to watch.” Like Big Brother, The Truman Show is perhaps a commentary on the success of reality television. This is seen through the popularity of Big Brother with networks extending offerings like 24/7 streaming and the proliferation of other popular reality television shows. Evidently, audiences around the world can deeply engage and become emotionally attached to individuals who are merely characters on a television screen. The magnitude of reality television is similarly exemplified throughout The Truman Show with its international audience, own store dedicated to show props, and bars that are always tuned in to The Truman Show, betting on Truman’s next move.


The Butler, or "shaytards", family.

Vlogging, short for video blogging, is a form of video documenting. Most popular on YouTube, the personal nature of vlogging is similar to the intimate view the audience gets into Truman’s life on The Truman Show. Many vloggers have gained popularity and made a profit out of their vlogging channels. For example, YouTube personality Shay Carl Butler created the YouTube channel “shaytards.” Generating over three million subscribers, many have dubbed shaytards as “Youtube’s first family."[17] Just as the whole world watched Truman’s birth, shaytards has filmed and published vlogs documenting the birth of Butler’s youngest two children.[18] As of present, Butler’s son, Brock, has had his whole life documented on YouTube since birth, leading some to call him the “first Truman baby."[19]

Vlogging has posed ethical challenges as popular online personalities publish their personal lives through digital content. Popular personalities have experienced difficulty keeping some parts of their lives private, such as family and romantic relationships.[20] Unlike The Truman Show, vlogging allows for more control over what content is published since creators can edit their vlogs. However, like The Truman Show, the foundation of vlogging rests on building an audience that follows the private nature of individuals’ everyday lives.


Catfishing often occurs on social media where a user created a fake identity, usually used for abuse, deception, or fraud.[21] Although made popular in the 21st century, some have compared the actors’ roles in The Truman Show to real-life catfishing.[22] After all, everyone who interacts with Truman is an actor for a show he is not aware of. Truman's parents are not his real birth parents, and his wife, Meryl, is an actress. Christof and his producers have created fake personas to interact with Truman for the sake of creating entertaining content for the show. For example, Truman believes his father drowned in a boating accident, and Christof has his fake father return to Truman later for an emotional appeal to the audience. This theme of fake identities is also seen when Truman is confiding in his childhood best friend Marlon about his suspicions that he is being watched or recorded. Marlon tells Truman he would never lie to him, ironically repeating lines that Christof feeds Marlon through an earpiece to tell Truman with the intention of deceiving him.

Ethical issues

Privacy in surveillance and sousveillance

The constant surveillance that drives The Truman Show gives Truman no sense of privacy. Perhaps what’s even worse is that the entire show goes on for the world to see without his knowledge or consent. Truman’s every move is being watched and in instances where he tries to throw The Truman Show off course, the all-knowing production team and director send an actor in to interfere at the last minute. For example, Truman tries to fly to Fiji and all flights are booked. Then he tries to flee to Chicago and the bus breaks down. This in turn strips Truman of his freedom and mobility.

Philosopher James Rachels argues that privacy is important because it allows individuals to "disclose personal information and to engage in behaviors appropriate to and necessary for creating and maintaining diverse personal relationships."[23] In short, Rachels concludes that privacy is a necessary condition to maintain the diversity in personal relationships that people value. To maintain privacy, according to Rachels, individuals must also maintain control over the mundane information and situations of everyday life, but Truman clearly lacks this control. When upholding social relationships, privacy is preserved when the individual has the autonomy to restrict or disclose information exchanges. However, Truman is unable to do this because of the public nature of The Truman Show, the fake identities of friends and family he interacts with, and sheer artificiality of Truman's reality unbeknownst to him. Applying Rachels' theory, this loss of control strips Truman of his privacy, undermining his ability to selectively communicate information about himself. With an international audience tuned in 24/7, no information is kept private, and thus, Rachels could argue that the information has lost its value to the individual whom it was intended to engage in an informational exchange.[24] This in turn compromises the relationship in question, exemplified through the fake relationships Truman forms with others who all happen to be actors.

Additionally, the line between surveillance and sousveillance is blurred in The Truman Show. Frej Klem Thomsen defines surveillance simply as ‘the monitoring of a competent adult or adults over a period of time without their consent,”[25] which is surely the case for Truman Burbank. But other scholars like Steve Mann have simply defined surveillance as “the few watching the many” and sousveillance as “the many watching the few."[26] With the whole world watching one person’s life through The Truman Show, one could also argue that it is not surveillance but constant sousveillance that drives the production. If this is the case, it raises questions of if sousveillance is more morally acceptable than surveillance. Is the many watching the few morally better than the few watching the many? Is the moral burden of watching others more acceptable when it is distributed among many rather than just a few? Regardless, there is a clear violation of privacy when subjects are being watched without their consent. Being watched affects individual decision-making; therefore, James Moor argues that people don't want to merely believe they are not being watched, but that it is actually true that they are not being watched.[27] This raises ethical questions about the morality of producing entertainment out of an exploitation of privacy.

Loss of autonomy and individual identity

Because Truman was adopted by Christof’s corporation, his entire life was fabricated for The Truman Show. One could argue that this leaves Truman with no real sense of individual identity or autonomy since the world as he knows it is artificial and built on a lie.

Christof speaks to Truman, trying to convince him to stay.

There’s a scene between Sylvia and Christof that represents Truman’s loss of autonomy. Sylvia was an actress on The Truman Show that Truman fell in love with. After she tries to reveal to Truman that everything is fake and for a show, she is fired from the set. She calls Christof and they have an exchange on air. Sylvia tells Christof to let Truman go, comparing him to a prisoner. Christof responds by asking Sylvia what right she has to decide what’s best for Truman, and suggests that if Truman were free to discover the truth, he would still prefer his “cell.” One could also pose the question, what right does Christof have to determine Truman’s life for him solely for the sake of mass media entertainment? They speak of Truman as if he’s a prisoner, representing his lack of individual autonomy. We also know that Truman doesn’t have autonomy because when he is finally given the choice to leave or stay at the end, he leaves and puts an end to The Truman Show.

The entire premise of The Truman Show can also be seen as morally objectionable because it is not Truman himself that is intrinsically interesting. During an interview, Christof tells the interviewer that Truman was an unwanted baby, the first of five whom the corporation was able to adopt. Essentially, there is nothing special about Truman as an individual because he could have been replaced by any of the other unwanted babies—everything was just for the sake of putting on The Truman Show. In her discussion of video surveillance, Lynsey Dubbeld concludes, “The physical body as such appears to be of no value in this process: the digital data abstracted from it make up the source of information that is deemed valuable."[28] It is not Truman Burbank himself that is valuable, but the information extracted from his life that fuels The Truman Show. This extracted information is what makes the production valuable and captivating to an international audience. Yet, at the end, Christof tries to convince Truman to stay by telling him he was the star and the world he has created was made just for him, masking his deceptive show as protection. Christof wants Truman to believe that he himself is special, and his individuality is what makes the show valuable. However, the audience's ultimate knowledge about the replaceability and disposability of Truman is morally questionable.


Truman confronts his aquaphobia to sail away and leave Seahaven Island.

There are many instances of voyeurism throughout The Truman Show. For example, Christof creates a fake storm to drown Truman’s father, instilling a fear of water in Truman. Truman's aquaphobia keeps him from leaving Seahaven Island. Meanwhile, the audience watches with wide eyes as Truman cries out to his drowning father. Another example is when Truman develops a love interest for Sylvia, who puts on a fake persona named Lauren in the show. The audience watches Truman try to chase her, and when he finally gets to spend time with her, she is removed from the show and Truman never sees her again. Throughout the movie, Truman pieces together magazine clippings to recreate a portrait of Lauren, showing his longing and attempt to hang on to the memory of her. Again, the audience watches this chase and longing, all while knowing that Sylvia was in on the show, and Truman is the one being deceived. When Truman finally tries to sail away and leave Seahaven Island, Christoph manufactures a storm to stop him, stating that he doesn’t care if Truman dies on live TV. This is followed by scenes of the audience watching and captivated, waiting to see what happens next.

Journalist Erik Sofge argued that "Truman simply lives, and the show's popularity is its straightforward voyeurism. And, like Big Brother, Survivor, and every other reality show on the air, none of his environment is actually real."[29] Along with surveillance and an exploitation of privacy, voyeurism drives The Truman Show, and perhaps it is the key ingredient that keeps audiences engaged. Tony Doyle has argued that although “what makes voyeurism wrong generally is either its discovery or exploitation,” what actually makes voyeurism wrong is “the threat to autonomy."[30] On the other hand, those who advocate for perfect voyeurism, like Tony Doyle, argue that there is nothing wrong with voyeurism that "is neither discovered nor publicized."[31] This begs the question of if perfect voyeurism threats an individual's autonomy since the individual does not know he is being watched. Is voyeurism morally acceptable in the case of The Truman Show since Truman doesn't know that he is being watched? Doyle would argue that whether the agent knows he is being watched or not is irrelevant because he will continue operating in the world the same way as if he weren't being watched.[32] Under perfect voyeurism, one could argue that autonomy as a matter of self-governance, freedom from manipulation, or the capacity for rational choice is still intact. However, under Christof and the show producers' influence, one could also argue that Truman is not free from manipulation. Evidently, part of his decision-making is limited by the constraints of The Truman Show. With Truman trapped in the artificial ecosphere masked as Seahaven Island under Christof’s doing, the threat to his autonomy is turned into a spectacle for the world to see.

See Also


  1. “Snapshot.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 23 Sept. 2011,
  2. Svetkey, Benjamin. “Jim Carrey's Serious Turn in The Truman Show.” Entertainment Weekly, Meredith Corporation, 5 June 1998,
  3. Weir, Peter, director. The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures, 1 June 1998.
  4. “Surveillance.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,
  5. Thomsen, Frej Klem. “The Concepts of Surveillance and Sousveillance: A Critical Analysis.” Social Science Information, vol. 58, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 701–713, doi:10.1177/0539018419884410.
  6. Weir, Peter, director. The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures, 1 June 1998.
  7. Weir, Peter, director. The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures, 1 June 1998.
  8. Thomsen, Frej Klem. “The Concepts of Surveillance and Sousveillance: A Critical Analysis.” Social Science Information, vol. 58, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 701–713, doi:10.1177/0539018419884410.
  9. Thomsen, Frej Klem. “The Concepts of Surveillance and Sousveillance: A Critical Analysis.” Social Science Information, vol. 58, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 701–713, doi:10.1177/0539018419884410.
  10. Thomsen, Frej Klem. “The Concepts of Surveillance and Sousveillance: A Critical Analysis.” Social Science Information, vol. 58, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 701–713, doi:10.1177/0539018419884410.
  11. Ganascia, Jean-Gabriel. “The Generalized Sousveillance Society.” Social Science Information, vol. 49, no. 3, Sept. 2010, pp. 489–507, doi:10.1177/0539018410371027.
  12. Weir, Peter, director. The Truman Show. Paramount Pictures, 1 June 1998.
  13. “Big Brother (American TV Series).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Mar. 2020,
  14. Carman, John. “'Big Brother' Watches Their Every Movement.” SFGate, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 July 2000,
  15. “Big Brother Celebrity Live Feeds - Stream on CBS All Access.” CBS,
  16. Leidig, Mike. “Big Brother Builds 'Truman Show' Village.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Oct. 2004,
  17. Eördögh, Fruzsina. “YouTubers Didn't Appreciate Anderson Cooper's Portrayal of the Shaytards.” The Daily Dot, 7 Mar. 2012,
  19. “Shay Carl.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Mar. 2020,
  21. “Catfishing.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2020,
  22. Trott, Tom. “How 'The Truman Show' Warned Us About Social Media (Before It Was Invented).” Medium, Frame Rated, 21 Nov. 2018,
  23. Mooradian, Norman. “The Importance of Privacy Revisited.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 11, no. 3, 14 July 2009, pp. 163–174., doi:10.1007/s10676-009-9201-2.
  24. Mooradian, Norman. “The Importance of Privacy Revisited.” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 11, no. 3, 14 July 2009, pp. 163–174., doi:10.1007/s10676-009-9201-2.
  25. Thomsen, Frej Klem. “The Concepts of Surveillance and Sousveillance: A Critical Analysis.” Social Science Information, vol. 58, no. 4, Dec. 2019, pp. 701–713, doi:10.1177/0539018419884410.
  26. Mann, Steve. “Veilance and reciprocal transparency: Surveillance versus sousveillance, AR glass, lifeglogging, and wearable computing.” 2013 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS): Social Implications of Wearable Computing and Augmediated Reality in Everyday Life (2013): 1-12.
  27. Moor, James. (1990). The Ethics of Privacy Protection. Library Trends. 39.
  28. Dubbeld, Lynsey. Observing bodies. Camera surveillance and the significance of the body. Ethics and Information Technology 5, 151–162 (2003).
  30. Doyle, Tony. Privacy and perfect voyeurism. Ethics Inf Technol 11, 181–189 (2009).
  31. Doyle, Tony. Privacy and perfect voyeurism. Ethics Inf Technol 11, 181–189 (2009).
  32. Doyle, Tony. Privacy and perfect voyeurism. Ethics Inf Technol 11, 181–189 (2009).