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The Calagari Effect

In an earlier life, I was an opera singer and one of my first roles was a small supporting role in Verdi’s “La Traviata”. I would sit in the wings and watch rehearsals and performances following another role I hoped to grow into in the future. This character enters in the third act and begins to tell the heroine a story that will change the course of her life and consequently, the opera. The moment is etched in my mind; the character enters and tries to persuade the soprano to leave her lover for the good of the lover’s family and ultimately all concerned. Actually not that moment but the moment where I thought to myself, “is he lying?” It seems that in movies, plays and many other media that we assume that when someone is speaking that they are telling the truth. We never think that like Otello (or Othello if you prefer) we are being fed a lie, and are being manipulated. Indeed the greatest examples of this is from Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr Calagari” where in the entire story we are being told turns out to be the point of view from a man in an insane asylum and may be entirely untrue. And yet for the entirety of the story we believe what he says having no reason to doubt our tale. This Calagari effect means that we take everything as true until we are forced by circumstance to prove it true or otherwise.
This “Calagari effect” takes on new importance in this internet age. Every moment we are on the internet we are being inundated with information and yet we have no ability to validate much of it. I work with an associate in Chennai India and on a lark I googled pictures of his city. Having never been there I have to ask, is this really Chennai? If so or not, how do I know? As we rely more and more on the internet to give us experiences and help us understand the world outside of ourselves, how can we divine that we are seeing what is truly there? Perhaps the greatest gift of the internet is instilling in us the doubt of what is really there and force us to look for truth beyond the keyboard.

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a scene from The Cabinet of Dr Calagari

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All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I hate my wife’s computer. It might just be that I work on a PC and she has a Mac but the whole feel of the keyboard seems to be somehow alien and distant from Q, my PC laptop. The funny thing is that I have no reason to dislike her laptop.  I hardly ever use it and this left me thinking, I wonder I don’t like it because it doesn’t like me. Perhaps it’s the height of personification to put emotions on to our computers but is the opposite true? Are they completely benign? Can a computer be evil or good? We don’t give those qualities to other tools- guns are the mere vehicles of tragedy, alone they can do nothing. And while there is hardly an evil toaster or a virtuous backhoe but we do seem to worry about our computers- that they can slip outside of our control, begin to think for themselves and put humans on the road to extinction. Are we really worried about what they could do or just afraid of losing the illusion of control. Perhaps that is that just a more palatable idea then our being watched over by machines of loving grace- that an electronic Eden is more than we can imagine?

While writing this post I came across the documentary “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Adam Curtis which Part One of can be viewed here

 

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I want to be the person my computer thinks I am.

I find the Brexit strangely fascinating. Not only for the fact that one nation would be thinking about leaving this amazing union of countries but that the fact that a nation could remove itself from this community and in this era of information security it does give one pause to think, Having been a member of a group, how can one remove themselves and all the information that they feel was theirs? Now we all know a divorce can get ugly with people arguing over things but what about arguing about what you know or what you might have learned while you were together. Is it possible to say, this data is yours and this data is mine? And what about companies that are being broken apart after years as a single entity? The long tail teaches us that there is not an expiration on data if we keep our scope for metrics wide enough. We know it is impossible to un-see something and while things can be forgotten, how can we choose what we will forget and what we will remember. While we can easily delete information from our electronic data, we can’t do the same with our minds, And since we can delete and copy information so easily, what proof do we have that it will actually happen? Even more so, who would decide who gets what data? Can we give it a dollar value or is it too mercurial even to have a price attached to it. Perhaps, like Falstaff, we find no value in honor, though I doubt it.

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In your Interface!

One of the books that lives on my night stand is Elizabeth Eisenstein’s “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change” . I was flipping through it the other night and I was reminded how early books were made to look like scrolls and the print font to look like handwriting to show the value of this new innovation in information technology. This got me thinking about the computer touch screen interface. Are we using the “book” model to guide our access to information and if we are will be begin to find new ways to communicate with computers and perhaps a new way to relate and relate to information and the world around us. Perhaps one day the humble Google search page will seem as antiquated as the dead sea scrolls or an old map where sea monsters roam the landscape of our ignorance.

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