Where This Meets That
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles took to the airwaves with his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Many people reportedly believed the commercial-free radio broadcast to be a legitimate newscast of true, unfolding events, and some degree of public anger ensued upon revelation that it was indeed only a work of fiction.
Since time immemorial, trickers have tricked us through various means of trickery. The magician’s sleight of hand, the filmmaker’s distortional lens, the liar’s cunning tongue, and so on.
As I’ve discussed before, today’s technology gives us unprecedented tools by which to learn and carry out these (and countless other) trades.
Anyone wanting to learn a magic trick need only to “google” descriptions of the trick to find the general guidelines and then practice sufficiently to become believable.
Movies can astound us with their ability to suspend our disbelief for entertainment. But special effects that were once cutting edge now look dated and shoddy and are reproducible today by anyone with average technical savvy and a drive to do so. Modern tools enable anyone with only slightly more skill to conjure quite believable special effects.
This is all well and good for the purposes of entertaining us. As a species of cogent romantics, we need mystery; it provokes us to ponder. But there is a line, of course, between honest entertainment and outright deception. Intimately grappling with the fringes of this line is an increasingly evasive reality.
Information = Ignorance?
For eons, we trusted that “seeing is believing,” but is that the case anymore? The fact is that the barriers of mass communication have never been lower, and consequently the tools to propagate mass deception have never been more potent than today. This state of affairs led Mark Crispin Miller to make the counter-intuitive declaration that, “The Age of Information, has turned out to be the Age of Ignorance.”
The Internet has given new life to urban legends, and skilled viral marketing campaigns can take our suspension of disbelief to new levels. Have a look at a couple examples below of viral campaigns that have “taken flight” online in recent times only to be unequivocally proven false.
Marketing for income or attention is one thing, but if a hobbyist can deceive the multitudes, what about those in power? Satirical films like Network and Wag the Dog have brilliantly (and hilariously) explored the possibilities concerning the resources available to the Establishment.
Media tampering for political purposes is nothing new. The 150-year-old portrait of Abraham Lincoln shown at right actually only contains Lincoln’s head; the rest is a portrait of former Vice President John Calhoun, who apparently looked more presidential (far right).
Dictators like Stalin and Hitler frequently removed opponents from photographs, effectively tossing them down an Orwellian memory hole. But their photographic manipulations are, of course, comparatively petty examples compared to their notorious media manipulations that resulted in pervasive human suffering and death.
In 1997, the National Security Archive released documentation of proposals made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to President Kennedy in 1962 to stage terrorist attacks on US targets, frame Cuba as the perpetrators, the use the media to build public support for force against Castro. Kennedy rejected the proposed “Operation Northwoods,” but the ungerminated proposal should nevertheless alarm an alert, democratically-minded populace.
On February 5, 2003, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the official US case for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power in an address to the United Nations. Powell’s exhibits included alleged military video, satellite reconnaissance photos, and intercepted audio communications. Iraqi officials rebutted, calling Powell’s evidence “stunts” and “special effects.” Ten years later, time has sided with Iraq’s views (of Powell’s case, at least).
Of course, war is an ancient tragedy. Perhaps every human generation has shared earth with it. The point here is that populations don’t goad their governments into war; it has always worked the other way around, and use of the media is always a key tool to mold perceptions.
But What about Tomorrow?
In our world of increased “virtualization,” the day rapidly approaches when the real “brick and mortar” world will simply provide framework for a pervasive virtual world. I recently read a fascinating keynote address given by science-fiction author Charlie Stross to the LOGIN 2009 Conference in Seattle in which he attempted to provide a glimpse into the world of gaming in the year 2030.
Stross visualizes 2030 as, “a world where the internet has turned inside-out; instead of being something you visit inside a box with a coloured screen, it’s draped all over the landscape around you, invisible until you put on a pair of glasses or pick up your always-on mobile phone. A phone which is to today’s iPhone as a modern laptop is to an original Apple II; a device which always knows where you are, where your possessions are, and without which you are — literally — lost and forgetful.”
Alarming, yes, but is this vision plausible? Absolutely.
Stross’s address transcends the seemingly narrow subject of “gaming in 2030”, because gaming is only a single interface to a merging continuum of media technology. Mexican director and author Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) told Wired magazine last year that, “In the next 10 years, we’re going to see all the forms of entertainment—film, television, video, games, and print—melding into a single-platform ‘story engine.'”
You can already see it in video games available today, like sports games that incorporate real-time, real-world updates and adventure games that include cinematic story-lines in vast, manipulable virtual universes. And while we see all these different forms of media merging, we also see the consolidation of interfaces to access media content into singular, pocket-sized devices.
The Smartphone “Oracle”
Consider the swath of media the iPhone has allowed us to consolidate:
– Music players
– Video players
– Cameras (still, video, and surveillance)
– Print media (news, books, magazines, and manuals)
– Tools (alarm clocks, calculators, GPS systems, flashlights, levels, etc.)
– Games (card, board, & video)
– Water coolers (chatter)
Layer on top the full spectrum of worldviews accessible through the handheld oracle of today’s “smartphone”, factor in a variable for source anonymity, and it’s worth asking the contrarian question: Does “reality” risk collateral damage in the crossfire of the unprecedented aggregation of ideas and perspectives offered by vanishing barriers of communication?
Imagine a time when the “real world” is, as Stross described above, “draped” with the Internet, when perspectives on the world are custom-tailored to each individual’s tastes.
For example, homes will have “smart windows” through which residents can change the view from their back yard to a tropical beach as easily as we currently change our computer desktop backgrounds today. An individual with an obsessive-compulsive disorder who fears walking on lined, tiled floors might one day simply activate a preference in his augmented vision of the world to remove such lines from floors in his view. It’s even foreseeable that two people sharing a table at a restaurant might experience two totally different atmospheres, according to their unique preferences, including contrasting decors and background music.
It’s nearly as fun to imagine as it is problematic and paradoxical. In some ways, it hearkens back to the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, when right at the pinnacle of its capabilities mankind went mad.
What will become of “reality” when we can replace it with “virtuality”? On the surface, the need for a shared, cultural mainstream “reality” seems fundamental, but who will drive it and to what end? Because a “reality” is shared doesn’t make it “real”; only relatively so.
When human logic yields all reference to always-hackable virtual applications, will 2+2 still yield 4? And who will we be to argue?
“The world is a wonderfully weird place, consensual reality is significantly flawed, no institution can be trusted, certainty is a mirage, security a delusion, and the tyranny of the dull mind forever threatens — but our lives are not as limited as we think they are, all things are possible, laughter is holier than piety, freedom is sweeter than fame, and in the end it’s love and love alone that really matters.” – Tom Robbins, Author
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