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.

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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:

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On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

On ‘Cat’s Cradle’ and whether or not it’s sci-fi.

The bookshelves at the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project are chaotic.  Not everyone who volunteers there is a big reader, so sometimes people don’t know where a book might belong.  But the bigger problem is with books themselves.  Most — especially the good ones — are about more than one thing.

The shelves have vague categories to make it easier to find a book that’ll be enjoyed by, say, a prisoner who wants to read about Norse mythology, or about classic cars, or about gardening, etc.  But many books could reasonably fit in several different places.  I always use the rule of thumb, “Where would I look for this if I was filling a package for somebody who’d love it?”, but, even then, somebody else’s brain might leap to different ideas after reading the exact same inmate’s letter.

Last week, for instance, a few of us spent a minute arguing about Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  Not a real argument, mind you, just the kind of friendly debate that people use to distract themselves from feeling sad about the fact that they’re filling a package for a 32-year-old dude who’s been in jail since he turned 19 for possession of small amounts of cocaine.  A little levity helps sometimes.

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Image by wplynn on Flickr.

So, Cat’s Cradle?  I say “literary fiction.”  Second choice, “classics.”  But another well-read volunteer said, “sci fi.”  She forwarded the evidence of “ice-9,” a special type of water crystal that could destroy the world.

The book is definitely speculative.  You don’t need to worry that someone will drop a small seed crystal of ice-9 into the ocean and cause everyone to freeze.  But it’s very mildly speculative, I’d say.  Less so that the imaginary drugs in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, for instance, or the elevators in Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or even the packing density of folded paper in Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.  All of those, to my knowledge, are very rarely considered to be science fiction.

Not only does Cat’s Cradle seem to be less speculative than any of those, but it also features some of my favorite writing about how the general populace interacts with scientific findings.  Consider this passage from early in the book, where the narrator has gone to investigate a famous recently-deceased scientist.

“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

          “Who was?” I asked.

          “Dr. Hoenikker–the old man.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He didn’t show up.”

          “So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

          “Oh, we got one.  Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said.  She didn’t see anything funny in that.  She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her.  She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.  “He said, the trouble with the world was…”

          She had to stop and think.

          “The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly, “that people were still superstitious instead of scientific.  He was if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”

          “He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in.  He scratched his head and frowned.  “Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

          “I missed that,” I murmured.

          “I saw that,” said Sandra.  “About two days ago.”

          “That’s right,” said the bartender.

          “What is the secret of life?” I asked.

          “I forget,” said Sandra.

          “Protein,” the bartender declared.  “They found out something about protein.”

          “Yeah,” said Sandra, “that’s it.”

Vonnegut beautifully captures the way science is often treated in the popular press.  Exceedingly important, graced with insight about the secret of life… and yet still the purvey of weirdos.  Other people.  For the masses, it’s enough to read that scientists have discovered something or other, forget the details, and carry on with their lives.

I mean, I do this too.  I read an article that there might be another planet in our solar system — five or so other astronomical objects have peculiar orbits, suggesting that they’ve been influenced by a heavy, perhaps planet-sized, object — nodded, murmured “That’s nice,” but didn’t feel a thing.

Or there was — and this is even closer to the “secret of life” gag in Vonnegut’s passage — the time when I read that astronomers had tallied the Doppler shifts for many distant objects and decided that our universe will not be collapsing in on itself. The current best guess for how the universe will end is that expanding space will push everything apart faster and faster until emptiness abounds. The universe will be dark, every particle lonely and cold.

I read about all that, thought, “Whoa, that’s heavy,” and drew a comic strip. That’s all, though. Unveiled secrets of the universe didn’t change how I live my life.

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So, the science behind ice-9?  It’s pretty standard thermodynamics.  When water freezes, there are several different configurations it might solidify into, and each of these has a slightly different stability.  Vonnegut’s ice-9 is a hypothetical configuration that is very stable but difficult to form.

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Image by wplynn on Flickr.

Describing this to math and numbers people — to scientists — is pretty easy.  I’d draw a graph that shows a deep valley hidden by a mountain.  I’d say “this is the energy level diagram for ice-9, and even though water would be happiest in its lowest-energy state, it can’t get there because it’d pass through such a high-energy transition state.”  If you were a scientist, you’d nod sagely — “yes yes, we learned all this as undergraduates.”  If you’re not, I can only assume that your eyes would glaze over with boredom.

So here’s an analogy instead: qwerty computer keyboards are ridiculous.  They were designed to make people type slowly.  A world in which everyone used an efficient keyboard layout would be better.  But the process of changing everything would be aggravating.  Having to remember two different layouts — because the computers at the public library would presumably still have qwerty keyboards long after you’d upgraded your rig at home — would make our fingers slow and sloppy.

Or those early white settlers traveling westward through America.  If they could reach California, they’d be living easy.  The weather’s nice, the soil fertile.  But there were dangerous mountains in the way.  While crossing those mountains (my information here comes solely from the Oregon Trail computer game), people were dropping left & right (and having naughty words engraved on their tombstones) from dysentery.

Vonnegut proposed, though, that a seed crystal of ice-9 would lower the energy barrier of that transition state.  This is a pretty common phenomenon, actually.  Ice-9 works the same way as mad cow disease.  Prions are a protein configuration more stable than the functional form but difficult to reach.  Once a small amount of the protein assumes that new configuration, though, it can catalyze the mis-folding of all the rest in your brain.

Just like the suddenly-solid oceans at the end of Cat’s Cradle, prions freeze up the brain.  Then the brain stops working.  Then you’re all done being alive.

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A human prion protein.

Just you, though.  Ice-9 killed everybody.  So, sure, Cat’s Cradle is sci-fi-esque.  But quite realistic.  Plus — and I suppose this is the biggest reason why I wouldn’t call it science fiction — Vonnegut wastes little time explaining how his speculations work.  You can believe him or not — yes, his ideas are reasonable, but he feels no imperative to prove that to you.  Instead he introduces the mild speculation as a way to investigate how people behave.

Vonnegut winks at his readers.  At the beginning of the book his character dutifully recites that if everyone studied science more, the world’s troubles would be over.  But Vonnegut himself glosses over the science of his world, instead lavishly describing the philosophies that arose in response to the discovery of ice-9.

I think the dude’s priorities are in the right place.  I mean, look at our society.  We’re spending huge amounts of money investigating rare childhood diseases, or the routine maladies of age… but we spend a pittance on childhood nutrition, which would benefit people far more.  Our society’s biggest problems are philosophical.  We don’t help those children: they earned their fate by choosing to be born poor.

On Simon Critchley’s ‘Memory Theater’ and other people’s lost time.

On Simon Critchley’s ‘Memory Theater’ and other people’s lost time.

Memory is fascinating.  It’s incredible that mere patterns of linkages could cause a past experience to overwhelm us.  And we remember so much — most people seem able to vividly recall occurrences from a wide variety of times throughout their lives.

unnamed (8)I’ve written a few posts about memory previously (here, here, and here), and so was obviously excited when I saw an advertisement for Simon Critchley’s new book Memory Theater.  In addition to my fascination with neuroscientists’ efforts to understand memory, futurists’ efforts to reproduce it, and therapists’ efforts to re-color it, I’ve always loved writers’ efforts to understand the workings of their own minds.  Because memory is so difficult to appreciate from outside someone’s head, hearing someone’s description of what memory feels like is still one of the best ways to understand the phenomenon.  Proust is still mentioned quite frequently in neuroscience reviews.

Critchley’s book also appeared as though it would address the workings of our minds.  The basic plot is simple enough.  A philosopher receives boxes full of a friend’s old notes after that friend’s death.  The notes contain both musings on memory and, alarmingly, a set of charts, one of which predicts the date of the philosopher’s own impending demise.

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Reading the description of a box full of occult astrological charts, I couldn’t help but think of the “Jimmerson Spiral” from Charles Portis’s Masters of Atlantis.  A lovely book, Masters of Atlantis, featuring an incredibly unreflective man named Lamar Jimmerson who starts a cult in the United States after being scammed in Europe.  A grifter named Robert sold him a specious pamphlet about an exciting new religious order, the Gnomon, and, after failing to find higher leadership in the order, Lamar assumes that he himself might be regent.  He returns to the U.S., spreads the order, and embellishes the cult with his own speculations… including the idea that fate can be predicted based on a diagram he deems the “Jimmerson Spiral.”  The book is full of wry humor, very understated, like in this early passage:

unnamedThe Armistice came and many of the doughboys set up a clamor to be sent home at once, though not Corporal Jimmerson, who remained loyally at his switchboard.  He even volunteered to stay behind and help with all the administrative mopping-up tasks, so as to replenish his savings.  In May 1919, he received his discharge in Paris, and went immediately to Marseilles and got deck passage on a mail boat to the island of Malta.

On arrival in Valletta he took a room at a cheap waterfront hotel called the Gregale.  He then set out in search of the Gnomon Temple and his Gnomon brothers.  He walked the streets looking at faces, looking for Robert, and clambered about on the rocky slopes surrounding the gray city that sometimes looked brown.  He talked to taxicab drivers.  They professed to know nothing.  No one at the post office could help.  He managed to get an appointment with the secretary to the island’s most famous resident, the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but the fellow said he had never heard of Gnomons or Gnomonry and that the Grand Master could not be bothered with casual inquiries.

Lamar found three Rosenbergs and one Pappus in Valletta, none of whom would admit to being Master of Gnomons or Perfect Adept of Hermetical Science.  He tried each of them a second time, appearing before them silently on this occasion, wearing his Poma and flashing the Codex.  He greeted them with various Gnomon salutes–with his arms crossed, with his right hand grasping his left wrist, with his hands at his sides and the heel of his right foot forming a T against the instep of his left foot.  At last in desperation he removed his Poma and clasped both hands atop his head, his arms making a kind of triangle.  This was the sign for “Need assistance” and was not to be used lightly, Robert had told him.  But Pappus and the Rosenbergs only turned away in fright or disgust.

Was he being too direct?  A man who wishes to become a Freemason must himself take the initiative; his membership cannot be solicited.  With Gnomonry, as Robert had explained, it was just the reverse.  A man must be invited into the order; he must be bidden to approach the Master.  Perhaps he was being too pushy.  He must be patient.  He must wait.

In addition to Masters of Atlantis, I often found myself thinking of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.  Sebald’s work came to mind due to the discursive nature of Critchley’s text: in addition to passages describing events as they occur in the narrator’s temporal frame of reference, we read about philosophy, philosophers, musicians, and the narrator’s own past.

Thomas Bernhard’s Correction is alluded to throughout.  The protagonist of Correction is similarly tasked with understanding a misguided construction project from the scattered notes remaining after a friend’s suicide.  Indeed, both Correction and Memory Theater build toward the idea that perfection and cessation are inextricably linked.  And both use interesting stylistic devices to convey a sense of madness to the reader.  In Correction, there’s a disorienting propensity for repetition, as though the ideas and even sentences themselves are being worked over again and again in search of some platonic ideal.  In Memory Theater, Critchley conveys mental duress through his liberal use of choppy sentence fragments; when these work well, the effect is quite striking:

I went to see a psychiatrist with psychoanalytic sympathies on the Upper East Side.  Expensive.  Platitudinous.  Useless.  He suggested hospitalization and prescribed antipsychotic drugs.

The protagonist of Memory Theater becomes obsessed with building an edifice to physically embody his memories.  He invents symbols to represent everything he knows and uses these symbols to decorate figurines within a small chapel.  Sitting inside, he feels that he can slowly move his gaze through the building and recollect everything he knows.

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Clearly a foolhardy proposition.  The fascinating thing about how much we remember is that it would take reams and reams of text to describe the same set of information stored by our neurons.  In that tiny lump of fatty flesh.  The theater built by Critchley’s protagonist obviously can’t convey the contents of his mind to anyone else, and it couldn’t even stir his own remembrance of everything he knows.  He only built figurines to represent the memories he was able to consciously recall.  If someone gave him a relic from his past, much more might swell forth unbidden.  Memories he hadn’t even realized he still had.

Those relics are fascinating.  Such small objects.  And yet immense, sprawling narratives might be hidden by each.

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I couldn’t find an image of #6, so here’s #18 instead.

For instance, a prisoner recently requested that I send a book of photography.  I looked through our inventory and pulled The Best of Photojournalism 6 for him.  Then began flipping through the pages: the prisoner’s facility, in addition to disallowing hardcover books and anything with spiral bindings, won’t let me send pornography.  The Best of Photojournalism 6 certainly didn’t sound pornographic, but I figured a guard might flip through and check for racy photographs, which meant that, if I wanted to make sure the package didn’t get returned, I ought to too.

I didn’t notice anything overly scandalous, just a photograph that’d been used to illustrate a magazine article on peeping toms.  This showed a man holding binoculars to his face, and reflected in each eyepiece was the silhouette of a woman undressing behind a diaphanously curtained window.  The artist had made the image by cutting out the pictures of the window w/ undressing woman, pasting them into the eyepieces of his binocular image, then re-photographing the entire collage.

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My hasty recreation of an image from “Best of Photojournalism 6.”  I sent the package over a month ago now, so apparently the binocular image was not racy enough to make it bounce!

As I was flipping through the book, a letter fell out.

Dear Photographer: One or more pictures you submitted is under consideration for “The Best of Photojournalism 8.”  Please give me some personal insight into your feelings about this photograph, what you were trying to do, etc.  This will give added perspective to the picture as it is used in “The Best of PJ/8.”

The letter was postmarked two months before I was born.

How strange, I thought.  This photographer received his acceptance notice, tucked it away into a previous edition of the series, and then, years later, donated that book.  Good ol’ PJ/6.

I hope he kept his copy of volume 8, the one in which his own work (presumably) appeared.

And, getting back to Simon Critchley’s work — you can easily imagine that the recollections triggered by holding that envelope again and reading the actual letter inside would be far more vivid than anything the photographer might recall if shown a symbolic representation of that episode from his life.  It’s quite possible that if the photographer were building his own memory theater, he wouldn’t even think to include anything related to that picture from over three decades ago.  But surely there’s a story.

I suppose Amélie would try to get the letter to him and let him remember.