“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell
What do we know anymore? And how do we know it?
We live in scary times. Not because of threats at every turn – we exist in the greatest era of human history, with record degrees of ingenuity and comfort and freedom. What makes them downright frightening is the degree to which – in the blink of a cultural eye – we have lost our ability to divine truth from fiction.
What is “on the record” anymore, beyond the ability to be changed? Orwell’s Oceania from 1984 was a totalitarian nightmare, where any and every fact could be erased or retro-fitted into existing dogma at any moment. You simply had to have the access to edit the record.
Well, we live in a different time. More than 30 years after the fabled 1984, nearly every one of the billions of humans with internet access have the computing power in their hands to change history. Or at the very least alter another’s perception of it. There exist many apps you can use to playfully add words to a photo, and make it appear legit.
This isn’t a trivial thing, mind you. It has to do with the way we process information.
When I am writing words for you, I am engaged in something artificial. I am trying to encode my ideas and feelings into something completely arbitrary, hoping that out of shared experience and context you’ll know what I meant – or at least something similar enough. Want to try this?
What did you think of? Now, hover your mouse over the word (or tap it on a mobile device), you ought to see the pop-up box that tells you what I meant. And if you thought it was something spherical, you will understand just how precarious this process really is.
The Bridge of Reason
So I am translating thoughts and feelings into shapes, and you are perceiving those shapes and translating them back into something else. The better job I do, with more editing and more precision, the more likely it is that more of you will grok what I intend.
We have less of this to deal with in person, because so much of our communication is non-verbal. I can tell when you are a little lost or confused, and I will without thinking too hard back up and readjust. Speaking and Listening are both more efficient and effective when done at the same time. It expedites understanding, and that’s the way we evolved.
Text communication goes through encoding and decoding, and as such also goes through your filter of Reason. The act of trying to comprehend – lacking other cues – naturally leads you to be a little bit skeptical, because you are first skeptical of how well you decoded.
This all changes, though, as soon as we get to images. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Well, we are trained to do just that. When you see a danger, your body reacts. When you experience something directly, it goes right to the heart of you without necessarily hitting that filter of Reason. That’s what makes magicians and illusionists so alluring, they give you cognitive vertigo by pitting your experience and your expectation about reality at odds with one another. Cognitive vertigo is fun, when you know that it is happening.
The joke photo with Lincoln is clearly and obviously a joke. But the reason it is funny is because you know that it is. There is a level of absurdity that grounds it, and you can laugh along with it because the joke is not on you. But what happens when the Absurdity is no longer there to act as a cue?
The End of Truth
One of my digital acquaintances, Mike Brice, tweeted this morning:
I don’t understand journalism outlets on @snapchat How can you be the first draft of history if it disappears in 24 hours?
— Mike Brice (@MikeBrice) October 16, 2015
At a time when we have more infomation than anyone could comprehend, the most valuable services in the world are the ones that lets you find things that are relevant. Google helps you slice through the noise to find information. Facebook helps feed you with the people and the topics that you’ve programmed it to bring. (For better or worse.)
However, simply having access to information is not the same as having access to good information.
It’s too easy to make minor edits here and there, and the person who looked for the answer at 9:08 will find something different than the person at 9:07. Even if it is the same person. Objective reality isn’t supposed to shift that quickly. Yes, the winners write the history books, but now any loser can alter them.
The Biggest Lies Are Closer to True
Remember Sarah Palin? Remember her most famous quote?
I can see Russia from my house.
Okay, she didn’t say that. In an interview, asking about her lack of foreign policy experience, she remarked that as the governor of Alaska, she was right next to Russia. “You can see Russia from Alaska.” Which is true, there are less than three miles separating them.
Tina Fey made the other quote famous on Saturday Night Live – and since there was already a narrative that Palin was a bit naive, many just accepted that she did. The lie was close enough to the truth that the BS detector never engaged.
I was reminded of that later today, when I saw this propagating on the internet:
This is a rather boneheaded thing to say. And, as it turns out, Trump never said it. Nor did he tweet it. I checked up and down his timeline, and it wasn’t there.
“Don’t be stupid, Ike. He obviously deleted it. That’s why there is a screen capture.”
This idea of the faked screen capture is what prompted Twitter to eventually develop the embed codes that allow the dynamic insertion of a tweet, like I used above. The screen capture is what got Anthony Weiner and so many others who have tried to pull back something they should not have shared. However, I even looked around what would have been 9:02pm in several different time zones, and such a message from him out of the blue, without context, would make no sense. He was fully engaged in covering the Democratic debate, and interacting with his many engaged followers.
Surely, if there had been 2,520 Retweets and 5,622 Favorites of this, someone would have written about it. Snopes.com had nothing on it. So I did a Google search for Trump + “ancestors didn’t make their way”. Here is what I found:
(I did a screen capture, because at some point either this blog post or a real Snopes article will muddy up the waters. It isn’t every day you can catch a meme like this before it locks itself in.)
That is it. All of it. One link, to a video posted last month, and seen 100,000 times.
The text appears in the comments. And just so you know, I clicked on countless “View All Replies” and “Read More” links to open up all 360 comments. What I found was a single comment, posted less than a day ago:
The text is less than a day old, from one person who obviously saw the fake Tweet, and transcribed it. But how many people saw it and never questioned it. After all, you can see that photo of Trump and hear him saying those very words in his own voice!
Stephen Colbert would call it the Truthiness, and if something has enough of it then it really doesn’t matter.
Now you need to get seriously paranoid.
We are close to perfecting the technology that not only allows you to realistically manipulate someone else’s face, it does so in a manner that incorporates all of those non-verbal cues and tics and gestures that we have come to interpret as “natural.” Believability off the chart. And this is being done in real time. No need to put on a funky green-screen freak suit leotard. Just someone’s face and torso, for just long enough to scan and grab the reference points. Then we skin them up, digitize them over an actor, and there you are. Instant credibility, just add the liquid remnants of your cold, evil soul.
Welcome to 1984
I still have some thoughts about the surveillance state, and political double speak, and many other Things That Keep Me Up All Night:
- What do we know?
- How do we know it?
- And how easy is it for someone to give a subtle yet intentional nudge through creative editing of documents?
- Will my grandkids even have anything close to an objective reality?
- When my memory starts failing, what goes with it?
But I want to go back to that quote from Orwell.
I suppose I will have to ask you now to trust me about Orwell’s words. After all, you likely don’t have a copy of the book right there in front of you. So I will ask you instead to do a Google search, looking for the quote. Or, you can just click here to open a new tab, with a search for Orwell “Who controls the past”.
What struck me, when I was looking for the exact quote, was that there were two versions:
“Who controls the past controls the future; Who controls the present controls the past.” and “He who controls the past controls the future; He who controls the present controls the past.”
The version without the He is the one that shows up in the book.
The version with the He shows up more prominently when you do an image search.
So if we are trained that Seeing is Believing, which one do you think will eventually be the right answer?
In the future, the most valuable service will not be the search engine, nor will it be the Wiki. It will be the one that can vet what is tangible and supported by reality. Not augmented reality, or virtual reality, but real reality. And it will most certainly not be free.