On Facebook and fake news.

On Facebook and fake news.

With two credits left to finish his degree, a friend switched his major from philosophy to computer science.  One of his first assignments: build a website for a local business.  Rather than find someone needing this service, he decided to fabricate an empire.

I never knew whether he thought this would be easier.  In any case, he resolved to create the simulacrum of a small publishing company and asked me for help.  We wrote short biographies for approximately a dozen authors on the company’s roster, drafted excerpts from several books for each, designed book covers, and used Photoshop to paste our creations into conference halls, speaking at podiums and being applauded for their achievements.

This was in the fall of 2003, so we assumed that aspiring artists would also pursue a social media presence.  We created profiles for the authors on Myspace (the original incarnation of Facebook, loathe to admit fakery, would only let users register for an account using a university email address; the email accounts we’d made for our authors were all hosted through Hotmail and Yahoo).  My friend put profiles for several on dating websites.  He arranged trysts that the (imaginary) authors cancelled at the last minute.

My apologies to the men and women who were stood up by our creations.  I’d like to think that most real-world authors are less fickle.

Several years later, when my family began recording holiday albums in lieu of a photograph to mail to our friends and relatives, we named the project after the most successful of these authors… “success” here referring solely to popularity on the dating sites.  We figured that, because these entities were all constructs of our imaginations, this was the closest we’d ever come to a controlled experiment comparing the allure of different names.

a red one.jpg
It does still have a certain ring to it.

Eventually, my friend submitted his project.  By this time he’d kept up the profiles of our creations for about two months.  At first the authors were only friends with each other, but by then they’d begun to branch out, each participating in different online discussion groups, making a different set of connections to the world…

My friend received a failing grade.  None of the links to buy the authors’ books were functional.  He had thought this was a reasonable omission, since the full texts did not exist, but his professor was a stickler.

Still, I have to admit: faking is fun.

Profitable, too.  Not in my friend’s case, where he devoted prodigious quantities of effort toward a project that earned exceptionally low marks (he gave up on computer science at the end of that semester, and indeed changed his major thrice more before resigning himself to a philosophy degree and completing those last two credits).  But, for others?

From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions:

71ncmdhfzzlLong since, of course, in the spirit of that noblesse oblige which she personified, Paris had withdrawn from any legitimate connection with works of art, and directly increased her entourage of those living for Art’s sake.  One of these, finding himself on trial just two or three years ago, had made the reasonable point that a typical study of a Barbizon peasant signed with his own name brought but a few hundred francs, but signed Millet, ten thousand dollars; and the excellent defense that this subterfuge had not been practiced on Frenchmen, but on English and Americans “to whom you can sell anything” . . . here, in France, where everything was for sale.

Or, put more explicitly by Jean de la Bruyêre (& translated by Jean Stewart):

It is harder to make one’s name by means of a perfect work than to win praise for a second-rate one by means of a name one has already acquired.

Our world is saturated in information and art – to garner attention, it might seem necessary to pose as a trusted brand.

6641427981_0bc638f8e8_oOr, it seems, to peddle untruths so outlandish that they stand distinct from run-on-the-mill reality, which might be found anywhere.  This, it seems, was a profitable moneymaking scheme during the 2016 U.S. elections.  With a sufficiently catchy fabrication, anyone anywhere could dupe Facebook users and reap Google advertising dollars.

Which is frustrating, sure.  Networks created by ostensibly socially-conscious left-leaning Silicon Valley companies enabled a far-right political campaign built on lies.

But I would argue that the real problem with Facebook, in terms of distorting political discourse, isn’t the platform’s propensity for spreading lies.  The problem is Facebook itself, the working-as-properly attention waster.  Even when the material is real-ish – pointless lists, celebrity updates, and the like – it degrades the power to think.  The site is designed to be distracting.  After all, Facebook makes money through advertising.  Humans are most persuadable when harried & distracted – it’s while I’m in the grocery store holding a screaming toddler that I’m most likely to grab whatever item has a brightly-colored tag announcing its SALE! price instead of checking to see which offers the best value.  All the dopamine-releasing pings and pokes on Facebook keep users susceptible.

As described by computer scientist Cal Newport:

Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy.  Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive.  The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used – persistently throughout your waking hours – the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix.

Big ideas take time.  And so we have a conundrum: how, in our world, can we devote the time and energy necessary to gain deep understanding?

Ideas that matter won’t always fit into 140 characters or less.  If our time spent flitting through the internet has deluded us into imagining they will, that is how we destroy our country, becoming a place where we spray Brawndo onto crops because electrolytes are “what plants crave.”

Or becoming a place that elects Donald Trump.

Or becoming a place populated by people who hate Donald Trump but think that their hate alone – or, excuse me, their impassioned hate plus their ironic Twitter posts – without getting off their asses to actually do something about all the suffering in the world, is enough.  There are very clear actions you could take to push back against climate change and mass incarceration.

Kafka could look at fish.  Can we read Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” without shame? Here:


On comics.

On comics.

During graduate school, I was stuck sitting around a lot.  Even after I finished all my coursework, there were near-compulsory seminars to attend, and  lab-mates’ practice talks, and weekly group meetings wherein everyone would describe all the experiments that failed over the past few days.  Which could be a bit dull, sure, but I’m an indefatigable optimist.  When I was stuck in meetings, I would draw cartoons.

I’ve included a few episodes from my old webcomic, Evil Dave versus Regular Dave, in previous posts (here & here), but I thought that for today’s post I would slap up a few more.  The site where I’d originally posted these has apparently vanished, so unless I display them here they’ll be stuck doing the electronic equivalent of moldering in an out-of-the-way file folder.  That doesn’t help anyone!

Not that displaying these here will necessarily help, either.  Cartoons drawn in the midst of boring meetings tend more toward the absurd than uproariously funny.  Honestly, most episodes of Evil Dave versus Regular Dave aren’t humorous in the slightest.  For instance, the following: perhaps you can imagine the sort of lulling drone (“many of you in the audience today might have thought that we already understood yeast DNA replication well enough, but what I wanted to address was, what if we investigated these same processes with an eye to more rigorous mechanistic detail?”) could inspire this sort of cartoon.  Especially if the cartoonist was both an inept artist and someone who’d read too much Camus during high school.


Or the following (“I tried purifying another batch of the enzyme, and I followed Garret’s protocol exactly, but, after elution from a Q column, it precipitated.  So I tried leaving out the ion-exchange chromatography, but that time, after elution from a size-exclusion column, it precipitated.  So then I tried…”):



Even the few vaguely-humorous sentiments I included seemed to be primarily impulse control.  Rather than stand up and scream in the middle of a crowded auditorium full of emeritus professors nodding off while a colleague discusses his efforts to understand how bacteria assess optimal breeding strategies (this is called “quorum sensing,” and refers generally to the way gene expression changes as a function of population density in bacteria.  It’s also something that humans seem to be much worse at than bacteria.  Around the globe, it often seems like some of the highest rates of reproduction are found in places so crowded that infrastructure and the environment are already taxed to their limits), I’d draw something like this:



Who cares whether either Dave would really do that …  I wanted to leap up and pour juice on my head and start babbling demonic incantations!  Unfortunately, it seemed likely that my thesis committee would frown upon that sort of eccentricity.  And I’d never pour juice on my head.  Juice is too sticky, and too expensive.  For the final year or two of graduate school there was a song I sang every time I drove home from the grocery store: “There’s a hole in my head where the money goes … it’s called depression … I drink my juice.”  Although there were times when not even a ritzy juice like pomegranate or black cherry could cheer me up.

On the whole, I am much happier these days.  My current work — especially teaching the writing classes, which has a chance both to improve the dudes’ lives and to increase the chance that someone reading their work will recognize their fundamental humanity and feel ashamed of how we’ve treated them — feels meaningful in a way that my laboratory research did not.  My little family has enough money to live on. Our house is within a twenty minute walk of numerous libraries. We even have friends in town.

The only downside is that happiness, and a busy schedule, and very few doldrumish meetings to sit through, have led to Evil Dave versus Regular Dave languishing into near oblivion.  For something like two or three years while we were living in California, I posted these comics once a week.  The few I included in this post were culled from August 13th, 2009 to September 14th of that same year. There are many, many equally un-funny others. Now, it’s been ages since I’ve even looked at them.

With luck, perhaps my daughter will enjoy drawing.  Perhaps someday the strip will return, if she and I could sit and work on them together.