There was always that one guy in High School (at least when I was in high school) who would go to the mat to try to make you believe that Paul Mc Cartney was dead. True to form, the urban legend states that in 1967 Paul McCartney had been killed in a traffic accident while driving along the M1 motorway. While there was no real proof, only rumors, and hazy evidence, the rumor persisted and still has its followers today. The insecurity of the past, the idea that we can’t be sure of what really happened can take many forms, from a false memory, where a person recalls something that did not happen or differently from the way it happened but the idea is taken to a whole new level around 2014 when a concept “The Mandella Effect” began to take hold. It seems that some people remembered Nelson Mandela’s tragic death in a South African prison, prior to late 2009. (In this reality, Mandela died in 2013.) The idea being that someone had gone back to tamper with the past and re-set our experience of it. While we have often spoken of cyber truth in this blog, this idea seems to take the idea into a much larger and more terrifying realm. While a computer could easily erase our bank records we like to think that we have some memory of what happened and that other people could confirm our story. However, the more terrifying reality is that we could find ourselves in a George Bailey like fate, alive and remembering a world in which he never existed. As we continue to hear more tales of data being stolen, do we not see that the true goal may not be just our data but the very fact that we ever existed?
There is an old joke about the performer in the circus who as he gets older keeps falling farther and farther down in the billing. A friend who he hasn’t seen in years sees him cleaning up the elephant dung and asks, “what happened, you were a big star! when the old performer replies, “ Yes but I’m still in show-business!” This punchline came to mind when I read in the BBC that professors at medical schools are finding that their surgery students are losing the dexterity to stitch patients. Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. It seems that the simple skills that used to be common to us all, cutting textiles, measuring ingredients, repairing something that’s broken, learning woodwork or holding an instrument are no longer common in today’s young people. While we may be learning skills to help us swipe through screens of pixels, we may no longer be getting the training to live in the real world.
Post-apocalyptic television shows, like the Walking Dead and and movies such as World War Z create a fantasy where we test our survival skills by pitting us against zombies, over the top creatures or even other people in a world removed from the modern conveniences. Yet perhaps we don’t really need the zombies to bring us to our knees, we seem to be doing that for ourselves by losing even the most simple skills we need for survival. While its pretty to think we can navigate a world gone mad, many of us can not across town without a strong internet connection. So while we may not be able to stitch up a wound, at least we can do our Cyber Monday shopping in record time.
I like Chicago. No, that isn’t right. I love Chicago. Not only was it a place that I grew up but also a place that made me the person that I am today. For me it is the Billy Goat Tavern, The Burghoff, Rocky’s Fish House and many other haunts that no longer exit in the way that I knew them. Every so often I think about moving back to the Windy City and what it would be like to be back there. However, my thoughts are rooted in the city that I grew up in and not in the city that exists now. Unfortunately I am able to access this phantom city any time in my memory, no matter how far the reality may have moved on. This seems like the situation that many people are now finding with the internet, as search engines and algorithms that bring us the information that will reinforce our world view and keep us in that rut, unchallenged by different points of view and in some cases in a haze of fake news. We seem to find ourselves in funnels of yes men of information that no longer challenge our belief but instead reinforce them. Will we demand that this new media challenge us or will we take the blue pill and drift off on a missile of misinformation?
I like Christopher Marlowe. If a person can be said to have a favorite Elizabethan playwright, then Marlowe would be mine. So my ears perked up on hearing that researchers doing a word to word comparison now believe that Christopher Marlowe wrote some of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and may have a hand in other works of the bard. The idea of determining exactly who did what in a creation of a piece of art is certainly not new, scholars regularly debate over who is responsible in the works of John Lennon and Mc Sir Paul McCartney, the cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso and many others.
When one sits down to read a work of fiction and often a work of non-fiction, one can tell a great deal about the author from the style in which they work. Most readers would never confuse Hemingway with Faulkner nor Dickens with Twain; and yet is this true of writers in computer code?
While it would not be debated that code is a form of communication, even if it is with a machine, which human communications do have but does the communication with a computer have some aspect of the writer inherent in it? There are many articles as to what personalities make a good coder, but what about the personality in the code? When one communicates with a machine do we lose our humanity and communicate in a mode devoid of human characteristics. When we speak to our pets we don’t speak like automatons and we have names and assign personalities to our cars or other mechanical items we have a relationship with. Does our communication with computers remove our humanness to the point that, were we to go back and look at a piece of code be completely unable to ascertain anything about the author or even if the author were human? Could it be that in speaking with computers, we find ourselves losing the thing that makes us, us?
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.
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.
When I was growing up the Chicago Reader was a source of popular culture and cutting edge cartoons. I remember one that was a virtual trip to Comiskey Park- the ball park where the Chicago White Sox played. The cartoon consisted of a drawing of a steel beam that you could cut out and assemble into a column with instructions to hang this from the brim of a hat right in front of your face- in effect wherever you looked you would see a post and not the baseball game. Listening to public radio the other day I was reminded of that cartoon. It seems that Mohammad is the most popular name in the world. It surprised me until I was confronted with the small frame of reference with which I view the world. I don’t know anyone for whom English is not their first language, I am not aware that I know anyone who was not born in the United States. When I look around my office and often around the city I live in I don’t see anyone without the same colour skin that I have. With the internet we now have the ability to find a world view that encompasses the entire world and doesn’t just reinforce the world view that we already have. Google maps can show us not only where we are in space but show us the world around us. Let us hope that the internet will be used to draw our eye from what is close at hand and back to the horizon that beckons us onward. The sun setting isn’t the end of a day but the beginning of a journey, calling us.