Jason Read on Truth in a Networked World


USM Philosophy Professor Jason Read and I will be panelists at Think + Drink: Truth in a Networked World at SPACE Gallery on Wednesday, May 7th. The event is organized by Maine Humanities Council. We had a long, meandering conversation about the topic at Sonny’s where I was fueled by booze, Prof. Read by black coffee.

STEED: So… Truth…

READ: In a networked world.

In other words, truth where we are all of the time. [Laughs]

It is interesting that they picked truth instead of knowledge. I feel like knowledge, in some sense, is where you might start talking about Wikipedia and how easy it is to look stuff up. But just by saying truth, we’re not talking about that anymore. It is no longer about finding the movie I saw that guy in a couple minutes and settling every argument. I feel like it is about talking about something kind of bigger than these. And maybe it’s just the way that I feel because we have to address it, but race is important, as is food and intimacy, but in a certain sense I feel like a little bit more was dropped in front it us.

I feel like what I struggle with is the “in the networked world” piece. How many thousands of years have we been wrestling with the definition of “truth” in the first place? And then how do we look at “in the networked world”? Do we examine the tools you were mentioning before like Wikipedia? Or do we look at the way that we are in this world and how being in it changes the way we look at the world overall? It’s pretty big, and one reason I am excited for when the conversation actually takes place is that it is so big that I start thinking about it I immediately buckle a little bit.

People are constantly making distinctions between their “real” friends and people they have just “friended” in the context of social media. And then there is the impression that if you are looking at your phone in a public place that you are not actually there. So on the one hand, truth seems imposing but on the other hand, it is not alien to what people are already talking about when discussing social media.

With the existence of various social media platforms and associated knowledge resources and tools like Wikipedia, we have gotten particularly adept at creating memes out of actual facts as well as disinformation while also being absolutely insane about whether information is true or false. For example, there was that guy who was on a plane and made up a whole story about giving some terrible passenger hell. Before people knew the truth, it went viral and people were so excited because while the story wasn’t true, it was true in the sense that we all have been on a plane with a wretched passenger who we’d like to fuck with. But, you know, it wasn’t true in the sense that it actually happened. So this guy creates a story that wasn’t true, which people were sort of willing to believe because it was resonant with their experiences. There is this arc where it is going up, up, up, up, up because of its popularity. Then it became evident that he made the story up, and so on the other side of the arc it is going down, down, down, down, down while people, one after another, are tearing the whole thing apart. I was one of those people. On the other end of the arc, everyone gets to commiserate over the outrage of this thing happening. 

It makes me think of the issue of fiction in the networked world. People appear to want true stories more than they want interesting fiction. I just saw that Morgan Spurlock and the Weinsteins have optioned the Associated Press… they have a standing deal with the Associated Press where they can option any AP story as a television show or in whatever format they want. They can turn any story into a movie or TV show and it is a very strange thing. But it speaks to people loving odd nonfiction. Weird news from around the world is no longer this little piece of the paper, it has become more of what a lot of what we share is. It confirms our existing biases or whatever we want to hear, like that made up story speaks to how we feel about how obnoxious people have become on planes.

I was 13 or 14 when I first got onto the Internet and it had not yet become the profile-centric thing that it is today. There were message boards or whatever and commiserating over weirdness was part of its DNA. It was a matter of finding out how to connect with other weirdos within my own classification. The way it works now is that some really insane thing happens that we can all get behind, or that speaks specifically to our perspective of how, exactly, we believe the world to be fucked up. I guess that speaks to what you were saying about biases. It has been instrumental in absorbing subculture into mass culture.

I think back to Mike Daisey, who did the thing on Apple / Foxconn for This American Life [which turned out to be partly fictional, for which Daisey was notoriously scold by host Ira Glass on a later show]. There was obviously a lot about the working conditions there that were true. There were those suicide prevention nets. It would have been very easy to have a true story about all of that which resonated but in his one-man show, which worked as a one-man show, he added that moment where he showed a Foxconn employee an iPad. It was just a thing he had to work on and so-on. One the one-hand, how could you not think you’re going to get found out? On the other hand, why not tell that story as a story? Why claim that it is truth?

Personally, if I see something that is too good, or too revealing about some idea of how I see the world, I wait a bit to see if it is not actually the focus of a hoax. These is a whole genre of things online that people will believe even if they are not true. Sarah Palin saying that maybe a Malaysian jet went straight up to Heaven is one of them. It is not something that she said, but it is something you could imagine her saying.

I did the same with that airplane story. It fit my experience a little too well for me to initially believe that it was actually true. It felt like the story itself understood my experience more than I did and was architected that way on purpose.

When I was a kid, there were only a finite amount of references and pop culture experiences available to me. I am sure people 20 years older than me will think that I am insane for saying this, thinking that we had exposure to an endless trove of pop culture, but it was really limited to a handful of shows on a handful of channels and you could really only watch them when they were on. Access was not instant. And as a result, there are people of a certain age for whom a reference means something very particular. It does not only signify what the reference points at specifically, but it also harkens back to the way that it was experienced.

But our daughter, who is 5, watches very particular videos on YouTube. She actually watches these tutorial videos that teach how to sculpt various things out of Play-Doh and she loves them. It is so specific in its content. There will be pockets of people who have seen them, but maybe only a thirty thousandth of the population will understand that experience. And so with the way that we now share things, and all content is accessible and instant, there is no longer a macro-fabric of references that resonates to this great number of people. There will be, perhaps, a number of meta-cultures. Perhaps what will unite everyone is the experience of how the content is consumed or absorbed.

Right. The form is all the more the same even though the content differs. No matter what thing you are into, you are probably watching it on YouTube. From cooking to clips from movies or old live shows of punk bands or whatever. I feel like the interface is the shared experience. You could say “Nickelodeon” to some people and have a bunch of a people in a room light up but you can’t really say “YouTube” and get the same response. They would light up, but it would mean very different things to people. It is universal, but it does not unify.

Though there was a piece on This American Life where a woman had ASMR but she didn’t know it. It is where people speaking in these particular tones end up triggering a neurological response that feels like an orgasm-y high. So anyway, she didn’t know she had it and she somehow fell down the YouTube rabbit hole and realized what she had by finding people who make videos specifically to trigger ASMR while looking up Bob Ross. What really resonated is there is this woman who has this thing and she doesn’t even know it is a thing until she finds a community of people who have the same thing online years after realizing she has this thing. And then she did nothing else but to find every trace of evidence of that condition online.

I have an obsession with communities that are obsessed with something. Back in 1982, Dominique Dunne was murdered. She was an actress in, among other things, the Poltergeist. She was strangled by her boyfriend, who was, because of some technicality, released from prison after serving only 4 years. So anyway, I am obsessed with this small, ongoing, super-invested community of people who are obsessed with the pursuit of getting the justice for this woman that was not ultimately served for one reason or another. And it is going on 32 years later. The boyfriend changed his name and went into hiding and that community is obsessed with this woman, finding that boyfriend and making his life Hell. You know, maybe there is an experience in their lives where justice was not served or whatever or maybe they lost children… But think of the trajectory of this thing. This woman dies, it is more or less forgotten over the years, and then people begin to get online in the 90s and then around the year 2000 people start of form active, online communities of obsession around her and this case. There is a tiny culture around this person. And before those participants of it knew of that culture, they probably found like something was missing until they found their tribes, like that woman from This American Life.

Maybe that is going to be the experience that resonates and brings people together. There is an itch that you have, but you can’t define it, and then you find other people who know and understand it and then you can’t stop knowing about it.

Right, the experience is about going down a rabbit hole. [Both acknowledge that White Rabbit is playing at the bar and laugh]

I remember knowing that there was a Poltergeist curse… in that a lot of people related to the movie died young. And it is interesting to think that we could somehow know that without Wikipedia. There is something to be said about this idea of this strange standardization that occurs. It doesn’t matter what your obsession is anymore, you have the ability to find the website devoted to the obsession.

Do you ever find comfort in not finding something online? There is this woman Tiffany Brissette who was in that weird sitcom Small Wonder. She played the robot daughter. There was this super long period up until a couple years ago where there was absolutely no information about her online and I loved that. She had gone off the radar entirely. I don’t know why I find that refreshing but I do.

True, I feel that way. Sometimes I will remember a scene from a movie and I will look it up on YouTube and if I can’t find it… I am sometimes comforted by having to go by a vague memory of a thing. For example, there is this thing where in the 60s Marvel did this really low budget animation where they took pages of the comic book and animated their mouths moving. It was shown in different places. Somehow in Cleveland in the 80s, it was shown on television. In the 60s, they had the theme song like, “Iron man was great and strong…” or whatever. But in the one on television in the 80s, someone had replaced the theme song with “We Are the Champions” by Queen. I would love nothing more than to see this clip of Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America singing “We Are the Champions” by Queen, but you can’t find it. Maybe I dreamed it.

Which raises the question to me: Who are these unknown workers who are uploading your favorite scenes to YouTube, which strikes me as a thankless task for the 50 or 60 likes they get. They are there for us to be able to settle arguments like, “No, there is really a scene in a movie where a zombie fights a shark,” and you look it up and see the video that they posted.

And so this creates a really fascination iteration of If a Tree Falls. If you can’t find it online, did it really happen?

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.