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.

Pokémon GO and the cultural sector

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If the mantra of the cultural sector is now: “Gotta catch them all!”, then Pokemon make particularly pertinent representatives. 

Gotta catch them all?

Many of you will remember the original Pokémon phenomenon: my cousins, who were small boys during the height of the craze, would frequently watch the show whilst visiting our grandmother. There were the usual anime tropes: “big eyes, small mouth”, the Americanised theme tune, and lots of cheering. With its catchphrase ポケモンGETだぜー!which translated to “Pokémon Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, Ash Ketchum (the lead character, known as Satoshi in Japan) and his array of friends, who changed regularly across the seasons, sought to capture and train some of the huge array of Pokémon – 729 named varieties – so that they could be made to fight one another in stadiums, in front of huge audiences.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the subjugation of an entire species for the entertainment of another, even if that species is fictional, but hey ho. In any case, “Pokémon is the second-most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo’s Mario franchise“. To me, it certainly wasn’t as good as the cartoons from my childhood: She-Ra, Mysterious Cities of Gold, DuckTales. There seemed to be altogether too many close-ups and freeze frames: it was over-bright, and what the Hell was that yellow thing? Bear in mind, this is coming from a woman who was quite capable, in her youth, of suspending disbelief enough to watch Biker Mice From Mars. 

It was, and is, easy to dismiss the phenomenon as a means of making money (and it did, through its swap cards and Nintendo games, make billions of Yen) but aside from the fact it is fantastically entertaining and clearly a huge pop culture experience, it also has fascinating connotations with religion. In The Guardian article entitled If Pokémon Go feels like a religion, that’s because it kind of is, Hannah Gould, an anthropologist, wrote:

Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, teaches that the world is inhabited by thousands of kami, or gods. When made offerings of food and incense, kami bestow good luck in business, studies and health, but when disrespected, they can turn vindictive.

Pokemon are akin to these kami: they can be found all around us, capricious as any gods. And the adulation children still have for the Pokémon universe is often as powerful as those who believe in an afterlife. 

More fascinatingly, Gould cites Anne Allison, a scholar of contemporary Japan, and her work Millennial Monsters, when she comments that Pokémon:

demonstrate(s) a kind of ‘techno-animism’, which imbues digital technologies with a spirit or soul…This type of animism is embedded in commodity consumerism, where emotive ties between people and things are used to push products. But it is equally a means of fighting the dislocation of modern life by allowing consumers to create meaning, connection and intimacy in their daily routine.

I would suggest that Pokémon GO is an extension of this desire to reconnect with the “real”, as so much of it is dependent upon a participant’s activities in the physical domain. It muddies the waters between here and there, by using a phone’s GPS system to project an augmented reality onto the real world as seen through your camera lens. It is the sort of juxtaposition between the real world and the digital that captures, albeit fleetingly, our needs and desires. Perhaps, in this currently confusing world of BREXIT and 24-hour news, we need to have virtual reality in the form of a grinning, yellow, hyperactive Pikachu, transposed onto the world as we pass through it.

Capturing a Charmeleon: using GO in the cultural sector

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Taking the old and making it new: the essence of the digital humanities.

One of the key elements of Pokémon GO are the significant stopping points within the app, designated by the designer Niantic and often being monuments, libraries or other sites of historic or cultural and local interest.

So how can the cultural sector ride this phenomenal wave of interest that’s currently being borne out? In the first instance, as a venue, you would need to determine whether you’re near a PokéStop or a Gym. If you’re on the map as a stop, then you are very likely to see an increase in visitors, whether they’re coming through the door or walking around the grounds. At such stops you can collect Pokéballs, or snacks for your creatures, or receive medical treatment. 

If you’re a PokéGym, then your venue will be a place for users to fight and train their Pokémon. You can also take over these venues, if your Pokémon are strong enough. I’m not quite yet (you have to be a Level 5 trainer), but you can essentially capture the flag at these Gyms, and become the anointed trainer there. 

The National Archives in London is one such cultural organization designated as a Gym in the Pokéworld. 

One GO user, Alex Finnis, has written an article on areas he’s tracked them through London. St Pancras Station is a PokéGym, for example, and Hyde Park is a rich hunting ground for the creatures.

You can also lure Pokémon to your location: once you have set a Lure, then Pokémon will be drawn to it and thus, those who seek them will soon follow. Some businesses in the United States have enticed players into their businesses by offering discounts on products for those who set lures; the more Pokémon, the more people trying to catch them, and visiting your business or cultural organisation.

Niantic are yet to accept submissions for businesses to become portals, as each stop or gym needs to be a public space and to be permanent, but monetising this must surely be the next step.

Hell no, Pokémon GO!

You may, of course, feel that engaging in augmented reality dumbs down the cultural sector: entertainment disguised for our consumption as education, but nothing more than crumbs allocated to us by the superior classes. With our faces glued to a smartphone screen, we rarely look up; and now, when we do, a corporation controls what we look at.

There are certainly arguments against its use. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery, both designated PokéStop, have asked that users avoid playing the game at the sites, as doing so was inappropriate to the sanctity of those places. And the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) in Amsterdam has asked that hunters avoid the hospital, after players were found wandering around restricted areas.

Are those the sorts of visitors we want to our libraries, our exhibitions, our rare collections? The answer is, most assuredly. Tech-savvy participants in the cultural experience are what push us forward. 

But engagement is, of course, more than simply packing numbers through the door, but also encouraging them to really immerse themselves with our collections. But how best to incorporate it into an exhibition? How can it be used appropriately, and effectively? 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we plonk a Jigglypuff in the British Library, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in using GO as a means of making  gamers familiar with cultural institutions that they would never have dared enter previously. And augmented reality has been used to great effect by organisations such as the Museum of London in the past with their StreetMuseum app. 

One of the interesting things about the Pokemon GO phenomenon is that, whilst using AR can often feel like an isolating, individual experience (one is usually bound to a particular area in a museum, or wearing Google Glass), there are a significant number of users reporting on the way in which hunting for the virtual creatures has actually brought people together in the real world. 

Tonight I caught a Bulbasaur. It was clinging to my lounge curtains, so I threw a ball at it and captured it. It was a singularly edifying experience, as experiencing culture should be. I am hooked.