Constructing belief in the post-truth era.

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What happens when you detach information from materiality? It’s a question I’ve been considering in my work for a few years, and one that digital humanists and archivists know to be important. Hilary Jenkinson believed the archivist ‘is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces’ [Jenkinson, 1947], because they are unobtrusive custodians of the real. But if we really have passed through a Baudrillardian mirror, and the image is now superior to the written word, what appears online takes on a new authority. What does that mean to how we construct belief?

My stepdaughter is 8 years old, and a huge Minecraft fan. She now only plays intermittently, and when she was visiting a month or two ago I asked her why she didn’t play on it quite so much anymore. She asked me had I heard of Herobrine. Herobrine is the product of a Creepypasta story: he appears in worlds constructed by Minecraft players, manipulating them and sometimes deleting them entirely. He takes on the persona of Steve, but has white eyes that glow in the darkness. He stalks players across the digital landscape.

There are myriad discussion threads on the subject of Herobrine. Minecraft players seem to delight in perpetuating his “ghost story”, particularly to new users of the game. My stepdaughter had obviously discussed him with other players and this had led her to question the point of playing if Herobrine was likely to delete the worlds she had laboriously creating. Also, I suspect, she was a little afraid that he would loom out of the Minecraft mist one day whilst she was playing, and scare her.

It struck me then that there was no means for my stepdaughter of truly checking the veracity of Herobrine’s existence. The discussion threads on which his existence is disputed are without reliable authorial attribution. Her pleasure and enjoyment of the game had been fundamentally affected by the myth.

Herobrine was probably influenced by the Slender Man phenomenon.

In 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured their friend into the woods in their hometown of Waukesha in Wisconsin, and stabbed her 19 times. They did this as a sacrifice to Slender Man, a character who was created for an Internet competition on the website Something Awful.

The idea was to see who could use their Photoshop skills to create the best new mythological creature…In the first of two photos, an unnaturally tall and spectral being in a prim black suit is seen in the shadows behind a group of young teenagers, followed by the vague caption: “‘We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them…’ -1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”

Knudsen’s second photo was stamped with a fake library seal…several children smile towards the camera, while those in the back gather around a tall figure in a suit, summoning them with long and eerie arms. This time, the caption reads: “One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as ‘The Slender Man’…Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. – 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.”

Slender Man: From Horror Meme to Inspiration for Murder | Rolling Stone Magazine, 2016

The development of the Slender Man meme was taken up by users of YouTube and 4chan, and a participatory relationship developed around the story. By 2011, the Slender Man had acquired Creepypasta status. The myth was made so real that Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, were prepared to stab one of their peers to death as a sacrifice to him. Both girls are to be tried in Court as adults, because the judicial system deems them capable of recognising right from wrong.

But are they? Once the usual referentials are discarded, and a perfect double of the real exists in the digital domain, how do we distinguish truth from fiction? If we are left with the simulacrum, what happens if the simulacrum tells lies?

There is a growing call for the dissemination of misinformation to be policed more effectively, particularly on sites like Facebook. In light of the recent US election result, Mark Zuckerberg has gone on record to dismiss the idea that Donald Trump’s victory was as a result of fake news stories perpetuated on social media.

Facebook wants to publish news and profit from it, but it does not want to act as a traditional news organisation would by separating fiction from facts using human editorial judgment. By relying on algorithms Facebook privileges engagement, not quality. It acts as a publisher without accepting the burdens of doing so. Yet, as Aldous Huxley noted, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”.

The Guardian view on social media: facts need to be labelled as facts | The Guardian, Editorial, 2016

What happens when the only source of information available to the majority is online, and that information is untrue? The least worst scenario is it drives people away from something that they enjoy. In worst case scenarios it leads to murder; and perhaps persuades a nation to vote in someone who espouses alt-right sympathies.

According to The New York Times, we have entered the age of post-truth politics:

According to the cultural historian Mary Poovey, the tendency to represent society in terms of facts first arose in late medieval times with the birth of accounting…it presented a type of truth that could apparently stand alone, without requiring any interpretation or faith on the part of the person reading it…accounting was joined by statistics, economics, surveys and a range of other numerical methods. But even as these methods expanded, they tended to be the preserve of small, tight-knit institutions, academic societies and professional associations who could uphold standards.

The Age of Post-Truth Politics | The New York Times, 2016

The problem is our critical faculties are continuously challenged by the material with which we are presented. That isn’t exclusive to the digital domain, of course: lies can be presented in ink as well as code. But the challenge is that if something like Slender Man, or Herobrine, becomes a participatory event in which people engage; when they create and develop in order to entrench a lie and become part of its origin story, and subsequent consumers of that material have no recourse to other sources of information that might contradict these myths, then how we construct our truth is fundamentally flawed. In addition, the critical skills that are essential to determine truth and authenticity are increasingly lacking.

I started this post with an anecdote about my stepdaughter’s use of Minecraft to construct alternative worlds for herself. We do the same thing with truth: we build it, block by block, and fashion our own hierarchies of understanding. Sometimes, the resulting edifice is destroyed by a lie. In a post-truth era, we should be careful on what foundations we rest our understanding upon.

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Combining Curatorial and academic perspectives for a better understanding of medieval manuscripts | Dr Susan Davies & Dr Maredudd ap Huw – Images

Dr Susan Davies examines a manuscript.
Dr Susan Davies examines a manuscript.
Drs Maredudd ap Huw and Eva de Visscher examine the Latin of one particular text.
Drs Maredudd ap Huw and Eva de Visscher examine the Latin of one particular text.
The workshop participants examine an artefact.
The workshop participants examine an artefact, accompanied by Dr Julie Mathias.
Dr Maredudd ap Huw exhibiting a manuscript, formerly a sheet of religious music, which had been re-used within another manuscript.
Dr Maredudd ap Huw exhibiting a manuscript, formerly a sheet of religious music, which had been re-used within another manuscript.
The group examine some leaves from a book of Psalms.
The group examine some leaves from a book of Psalms, under the watchful eye of Dr Susan Davies.

Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture | National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

For the last two days I have been in attendance at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, at a fantastic Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities workshop in medieval studies. I was fortunate enough to not only participate in the event as an attendee but also as a speaker on the first day. Entitled Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture, the intent was for the workshop to be discursive and interactive, and that was certainly the case.

The first paper of the day was presented jointly by Dr Elizabeth New of the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth, and Dr Julie Mathias, of the Department of Information Studies. Their discussion, entitled Deeds, Seals & Archival Collections, set the tone for the day. Dr New opened the session discussing the Penrice & Margam Estate Records, which are held at the National Library. This reasonably complete archival collection from Margam Abbey, in Glamorgan, contains material from the 12th century through to the Reformation. The collection is rich, and extensive, and fortuitously survived the fate of many other monastic collections, which were lost, destroyed and scattered during the dissolution of the monasteries. The Margam collection went wholesale into the hands of Rice Mansel, through intermarriage to the Talbot family of Penrice, and thereafter on deposit to the National Library, who finally took full possession of the collection in lieu of death duties.

Dr Mathias then took over the talk, showing the audience the National Register of Archives website. She told us that if you’re interested in a particular family or a collection, it is not safe to assume the records are all kept together. The Margam family, as an example, had thirteen collections, with papers scattered with organisations around the country. It is therefore always worth checking the National Archives website.

We then moved on to the Penrice & Margam Charter 20, the manuscript of which was circulated around the group. The handwriting, a Carolingian Minuscule (an 8th to 12th century handwriting, named after the Emperor Charlemagne) is made up of carefully formed letter shapes, with plenty of space between the words, and is an ancestor to our modern handwriting. Dr Mathias identified specific letters within the manuscript in order to determine a date: for example, a capital W, which didn’t appear until after the 12th century. Carolingian Minuscule eventually evolved in Anglicana, a cursive business script which allowed for the faster production of manuscripts. Charter 20, said Dr Mathias, had no date attached, but there was a place date, which put the manuscript as having been created either in Cardigan or Cardiff. There was some discussion of this point amongst the group, and Dr Mathias told us that if one is ever in doubt as to a particular abbreviation it was always best to consult Trice-Martin’s book of abbreviations and place names, to make doubly sure.

Dr New then moved on to examining the seal appended to the manuscript. She noted that the seal was much larger than the actual document, and that without the seal, the document is invalid – there was a shift to the use of seals as a form of validation. Seals from the middle ages would have been made of beeswax or tree resin, and quite often coloured – the seal on this particular Charter was a dark brown, and the seal of William, Earl of Gloucester. The seal would not have been this colour at the time of its creation: the belief is that seals of this sort were varnished, possibly with a varnish that was quite rich in colour, and used to preserve the wax and make it look fancier. This painting over of the wax fell out of fashion in the mid-13th century: elements of the seal, therefore, also assist in dating a manuscript, and are an integral part of the identification process.

We then moved to another manuscript, Penrice & Margam Charter 198, where the writing becomes, as Dr Mathias put it, “a little more laterally compressed”, as we move into the Anglicana era. Dr New mentions the sealing clause included within the text of the manuscript, an identifying factor in manuscript studies that we don’t see until the early 13th century, and usually comes before the witness list within a document (although this is not always the case, so caution should be taken when searching for it). In the case of Charter 198 it is an unusual clause: it states “My seal is appended”, but there are two seals attached to the manuscript, one being the communal seal of the burgesses of Kenfig in South Glamorgan (now, apparently, buried by the sand dunes, but once a small and thriving town) and the other being the seal of Alice, widow of John Prevat. “My seal”, she states rather forlornly in the sealing clause, “is to many unknown.” Alice probably hadn’t needed to use a seal until after the death of her husband, and no doubt needed the seal of the burgesses of Kenfig as further validation of her own, new seal.

Dr Mathias took us through some of the aspects of Penrice & Margam Charter 443. A 15th century manuscript, written in Anglicana despite the rise during this period of the Secretary hand, there is a sealing clause contained within the text and two seals (those of Hugh Kene and Agnes, his wife), which are attached to one tag. There were obviously two separate seal matrices, with different designs – one is made up interlaced letters, H&K (presumably a monogram of his initials) and the other is endorsed with male and female heads, and a phrase relating to love and loyalty, but Agnes herself is not specifically referenced on the seals. Hugh Kene is clearly identified by his initials, but we only know that Agnes used it because she is mentioned in the sealing clause.

Penrice & Margam Charter 17 has a sealing clause which, quite shockingly, has writing on it in pencil, where someone during the 20th century has made a note of the Abbey the manuscript mentions in the text. Aside from this transgression, the manuscript is interesting because the sealing clause mentions the fact that a seal has been loaned for the purpose of validating the document. The seal, that of the Prior of St Michael of Ogmore, shows an ecclesiastical figure. A similar seal can be found at the National Museum Wales: the photograph below is an image of that seal, and not the one at the National Library, but I have included it to give you some idea as to the beauty of this fragile artefact.

ImageWhat’s also interesting about this manuscript is that the sealing clause appears to have been added at a later date to the manuscript: presumably a space for a name was left until such time as someone willing to lend their seal could be found. The witness list in this manuscript is particularly long, possibly because the person providing the gift to Margam, the seal-less Ketherech, son of John Du, needed more than one witness because without a seal, he lacked validity.

There were many other manuscripts and seals shown to the group: Penrice & Margam Charter 54, Caradog Uerbis to Margam, in which Uerbis makes it clear in the document that the document, and he himself, is “under the seal of my lord”; and Penrice & Margam Charter 72, Ifor Fychan and sons to Margam, which has only one seal which represents Fychan and his sons, the matrix being made to represent the whole group. There was also Penrice & Margam Charter 84, the Papal Bulla of Innocent III, and Penrice & Margam Charter 1978, endorsed with the seal of Geoffrey Sturmi of Stormy Down. The image on the seal is that of a man dressed as a hunter or forester. I have included an image of Geoffrey’s seal, taken from an artefact held at the National Museum Wales.

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Dr New said that the academic Robert Patterson, working from photographs, thought that the monks of Margam forged the seal to get themselves more land, but Dr New believes that it is genuine. Patterson thought the contents of the manuscript and what is being gifted within it doesn’t seem right, but it is probably almost impossible for them to have forged the documents, and the seal was used several times thereafter with no question as to its validity. In this case, Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s opinion that “The monks of Margam are not to be trusted” seems false.

I have included here several other images of seals, in this case seal replicas which Dr New passed around the group, the images of which are reproduced here with her kind permission. One was the Great Seal of Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror:

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And this wonderful seal, which I think is a seal of Henry VIII but I may be very incorrect on this as I didn’t make a clear note, so if anyone out there has the knowledge and can attribute this correctly, please do!

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We were astonishingly privileged to be able to get access to so many rare and beautiful manuscripts, and to have the expertise of Dr Mathias and Dr New on hand to take us through these objects. You’d be pretty hard pressed to get a better opening session at a conference: I’ve certainly yet to find it.