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Reality or Fiction? Surveillance Society

Banality of Surveillance embedded into 'The Truman Show' and 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch'

Control and Choice: Banality of Surveillance sutured into The Truman Show and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

Nowadays, surveillance that we all know is the centre and the universal feature of our social lives. Due to the massive technological innovations, only in our modern times, we created this systematic, and needless to say, invasive system where surveillance is everywhere. Even though its origin might seem that it comes from the eleventh century from Domesday Book, the evolution of surveillance throughout the centuries (especially nineteenth century) was climactic. In a very paradoxical way, surveillance society grew at the same time with democracy, and with the “demand for equality” movement. The reason why this feature made its way in our lives so quickly is owed to multiple factors that strongly influenced and helped surveillance to, inevitably, be a part of who we are right now. The key factors of this global phenomenon are government administration, the business that constructs and builds the capitalistic environment, and also the military growth, and industrialization of cities and towns. It was, and is, a means of power; but not merely in the sense that surveillance enhances the position of those 'in power'.

As a conclusion to the surveillance society nowadays, we can only put this element of our lives under the dome of the feature of modernity. The ability of surveillance to organize and track people’s lives were immensely and constantly evolving, inevitably supported by fast-growing technology. Thus, unfortunately, our everyday routines became more and more transparent day by day as never before. Constantly living ‘in the know’ increases the awareness of the population and the government towards knowledge. Because not only the knowledge is vital nowadays, but it also matters who owns it; who oversees who. Thus, we created this ‘real-life game’ where the purpose of it is to see who can own the most power through knowledge, in other words, who owns who. To support my argument, in the book Vision of Social Control, Stanley Cohen writes about how this difference between the ‘watcher’, and the ‘watched’ has always been a sociological competition between people, thus leading towards a surveillance society in a very automatized world:

The dark shadow of the good city is the collective human machine: the dehumanized routine and suppression of autonomy, first imposed by the despotic monarch and the army, is now the 'invisible machine' of the modern technocratic state... Mumford described how the Utopian ideal of total control from above, and absolute obedience below had never passed out of existence, but was reassembled in a different form after kingship by divine right was defeated.

Moving on to another aspect of surveillance in our society, which is its importance in our popular culture and entertainment. The correlation between entertainment and surveillance is not a ground-breaking concept. Surveillance existed, and it was presented through multiple mediums of art: cinematography, art exhibitions, video games, etc. For example, with the fast-evolving technology, in 1980 the personal computers rose exponentially, thus a unique and captivating field was created that had a huge impact on society, which are video games, and also the surveillance emerging aspect of it. Hence, the most video games that were created during the 80s and 90s were focusing mainly on how people could use data processing technologies that could intervene with objects and people’s actions, creating the luring and addictive aspect of the gameplay. A modern example of a game that covers all those aspects into one game is The Sims. It was released in 2000, and it is known for its complexity and variety of choices, which helps you to create and also control the virtual people’s lives, thus the game itself gives you the feeling of satisfaction by making you a ubiquitous player.

Having all this information in mind, in this essay I will try to focus on how surveillance is presented in cinematography, and what are the embedded factors that support the entertainment aspect of surveillance. Thus, the essay question that I would like to research into is: How are control and privacy sutured into the narrative structure of The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (David Slade, 2018). Also, as a sub-question to the previous one, how does this (the idea mentioned above) reflect the idea of entertainment in a surveillance society.

Moving on to the first film that I want to look into when it comes to surveillance is The Truman Show. Peter Weir’s famous film displays an intricate and subversive side of a few of our modern features. Even though the film was released back in 1998, we can still find common elements even after two decades. What Peter Weir portrayed in his film is the unconscious reality that we live in the present. He focuses his narrative structure on celebrity culture where people outside the ‘model’ could watch constantly on a screen the life of another person. Thus, the film could imply the utopian hierarchy of a society where the importance of living is ranked by popularity. What Peter Marks suggested in one of his articles, that “Peter Weir’s The Truman Show offers an engaging and provocative account of modern celebrity culture, with its belief that the unscreened life is not worth living”.

Furthermore, even analysing the poster of the film we get a sense of hierarchy in terms of social status, all this being put under the dome of entertainment. We can clearly see Truman, the protagonist, being shown on a huge display in his intimate moments—asleep. Thus, indicating the lack of privacy, a person like him has. Down on the ground, we can see his ‘followers’, as the poster suggests: small, crowded, no identity, in another word—unimportant. Thus, the film might be interpreted in a way that people, in order to live in a surveillance society, they have to, inevitably, give up their privacy in order for them to be someone, to be important: “a person would have to be a hermit to be able to function in our society without voluntarily disclosing a vast amount of personal information to a vast array of public and private demanders.” The juxtaposition of the main character and the watchers puts in balance the role of surveillance and privacy in a modern society. The people who are watching Truman constantly on screens in a satirical way, they construct him, they create him, they give him importance as a reward for lacking privacy. As Peter Marks portrayed the relationship between Truman and the people who are watching him: “In fact, his ‘life’ and ‘identity’ are products of their continued viewing; without them, ‘Truman Burbank’ would not exist.”

The end of the film presents the escape of Truman out of the utopian place called Seahaven. Even though at the beginning of the film Truman visualized the place as an idyllic and comforting space where everything is perfectly organized, at the end of the film though, he realizes that he had been living under this totalitarian dome constructed based on fraud and lack of free will. Also, for the audience, there is a similar reaction to the end of the film. Not only do they realize that Seahaven is a distressed space where surveillance strips you off of identity and privacy on a reality show for the sake of entertainment, but also, they realize that after the film is finished, they have to go back to their own surveillance reality where their mindset is distorted in a way that they relate more to the Truman’s oppressed life. Thus, the audience is redirected outside of surveillance as an entertainment, towards an awareness of banality of surveillance.

The role of the television audience in the surveillance regime constantly scrutinizing Truman constitutes one of the more disturbing and illuminating aspects of the film’s thrust, although the satirical bite is somewhat weakened by a concentration on the narcissistic and megalomanic Christo[…], [b]ut while the film makes its satirical point about the television audience, the real thrust of that point is lost unless those watching The Truman Show film recognize themselves as equally complicit once they return home to their own televisions, to their own private surveillance worlds.

As I mentioned previously in this essay, the modern society that we live in at this moment is owed to the fact that for the last two decades technology has had a drastic influence on us. Not only did it evolve and create this automatized world, but it also became our personal extension as well: cell phones, TV, apps, etc. Thus, the technology automatically became a part of who we are, a part of our identity, privacy, and so on. Needless to say, the surveillance society that we live in right now led towards a systematic state of permanent exposure and consciousness that lies under the paradigm of ‘banality’, which in fact it has a very totalitarian effect upon us.

With the rise of the surveillance, the entertainment department started creating diverse and satirical work. From video games, as I mentioned before, like The Sims, where the all-seeing players can control and observe the life of their characters created in the game, to cinematography. A very good example that combines video games with satirical surveillance entertainment is the latest episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018).

The director of the film created this complex work with different narrative structures that leave the audience to choose their own path playing a ‘what if’ game. The illusionary effect of control that this film creates is due to the freedom of choice. Even though "Bandersnatch" appeared two decades after The Truman Show was released, we can still notice the similarities in these films. Not only are we ubiquitous to the story and the character’s private life, but in "Bandersnatch" we also have the power to control the main character, creating our own story and outcome based on our choices.

Being in control over Stefan’s (the main character) actions gives you the feeling of being in control over someone else’s privacy, which, in the end, makes you feel powerful. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In this film, even though we have that feeling ruling over your perception, the actions that we are taking are nothing more than just a parallel reality where we chose the opposite.

"Bandersnatch" gives that power-in a limited sense-to the viewer. I say, "in a limited sense," because in a standard linear story, if a certain character takes a different decision (the "what if" decision), infinite probable pathways open up. Here, the viewer can take Stefan only in a certain given number of directions that have been pre-decided by the creators of the show. The viewer may get a sense of power, manipulating Stefan, but he has to play by the rules set by someone else. "Bandersnatch" repeatedly brings up the issue of free will and alternative realities[...]. Whatever we choose to do, there is another reality where we do the opposite. Free will is nothing but an illusion. An "expert" who studied the author's arguments, says: "If you follow that to its logical conclusion, then you are not guilty of any of your actions. The results of your actions are out of your control. It's not even your action... You are just a puppet. Your fate has been dictated. You are not in control."

To conclude this essay, The Truman Show, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch are two great films that combat the paradigm of a surveillance society in the modern era. We created this world where surveillance, involuntarily, grows bigger and faster day by day due to the fact that nowadays in order to afford the modern features of our societies we, needless to say, have to constantly expose our personal lives, our privacy. Hence, these two films are trying to raise awareness in terms of surveillance, and who owns the power, through entertainment. The ubiquitous feature of our lives is constantly growing under the dome of modernity, and unfortunately, most of us treat this global phenomenon as being a banality of totalitarianism.

The fact that one cannot negotiate modernity without continuously revealing personal information to a variety of demanders has habituated most Americans to radically diminished informational privacy. In this new culture of transparency, the degree to which disclosure of personal information inflicts harm on a person depends less on what information is disclosed, than to whom, and to how many, and to what use it is put by the persons to whom it is disclosed.  

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