Constructing belief in the post-truth era.


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.


Anthropomorphism & British Weather

“What’s your name” Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?”
“Cats don’t have names,” it said.
“No?” said Coraline.
“No,” said the cat. “Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.” [Neil Gaiman, Coraline]

My brother and sister-in-law were recently driving me to my local train station after a brief trip home to South Wales over the Christmas period. I was idly checking the rail app on my phone to determine whether or not any of the services I hoped to access that day had been cancelled: Storm Frank was hitting the UK in a big way, particularly the North of England, putting areas like Cumbria under siege from torrential rain and winds, and flooding. “Some weather we’ve been having recently, isn’t it?” My brother said, as I half-tuned in to the conversation. “I’d swear it’s got worse since they started giving them names.”

Later that day, as I was passing through the Welsh Marches, I read an article on The Guardian website that seemed to reiterate what my brother had put voice to a few hours earlier. In an article entitled Does a storm cause more or less pain if it has a human name? the writer laid out the history of the naming of storms.

According to the weather historian Philip Eden, the very first person to do so was an expatriate British meteorologist, Clement Wragge, who was in charge of the Queensland state meteorological department during the late 19th century and gave names to tropical cyclones to make them more memorable.

But it was not until the late 1940s that his counterparts in the US realised that names were far easier to remember than the standard convention, which simply used the year and a specific number. Giving each individual storm a name – which was made official in 1953 – made a lot of sense in a country where more than one major weather event can occur at the same time.

At first, the convention was to use female names. But from the late 1970s onwards, after protests against sexism, male names were finally added to the list.

Putting aside the innate sexism involved in only giving storms female names (women being, of course, temperamental and destructive in their worst moods) it seems a very American thing to do, to name a weather front: the Met Office, however, has begun to do the same. And so far we have had the likes of Abigail, Barney, Desmond and Frank, determinedly prosaic names, to draw our attention to them in a way which, to my mind, seems to heighten their importance whilst simultaneously suggesting that they are not important. It’s not simply another rainy day: it’s Storm Abigail, tearing up the Welsh coastline, or Storm Frank, battering the already beleaguered citizens of York.

When we name something, we attempt to exert authority over it. In America, so sayeth The Guardian article, the naming of different weather systems was so as to differentiate one from another in a country where many different weather systems proliferate. What is the reason for doing so in the UK?

I could look to Bourdieu and suggest that the naming of things like storms is simply another form of social classification: after all, as Bourdieu says:

principles of division, inextricably logical and sociological, function within and for the purposes of the struggle between social groups…What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of the groups and therefore of their mobilisation and demobilisation. [479]

Bourdieu talks about “occupational titles”, the selection of labels intended to increase social recognition. In giving the storms a name, then, we are enhancing their status as something to be considered important. Conversely, however, their labels are almost embarrassingly pedestrian. What does this suggest? That storms are meant to appeal to the bourgeoise, to the Abigails and Franks of the world; an acceptable conversational topic in a world often agonisingly on the brink of some huge conflict. Or that in giving them these conventional names we are at one and the same time implying importance and removing it. And who names the storms? Who has power over their classification?

Bourdieu said that culture is often popularised to appeal to the masses, and that cultural artefacts which stem from “pop” culture are decried as of less importance than “proper” culture. I wonder, then, in this age of fracking and increasingly bad weather inextricably linked by many to climate change, the naming of these storms is meant to undermine their importance in some way, to make us think that they’re not significant?

In Ursula Le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy a magician’s power comes from his knowledge of the names of things like, for example:

The true name of the falcon, to which falcon must come…for magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing. [46-47]

And the importance of naming things is not lost in the digital, either, because the correct name can mean the difference between an effective resource and an underused one. A programmer’s power is therefore no different to that of a wizard, if we say code is a variation of the Old Speech [Le Guin, 46-47].

In The Power of Names: In Culture and in MathematicsLoren Graham, a Professor of History of Science Emeritus at MIT, discusses the concept of naming in Mathematics.

The great Russian-French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, still alive but no longer active as a mathematician, put a heavy emphasis on “naming” as a way to gain cognitive power over mathematical objects even before they have been understood. One observer of Grothendieck’s work wrote, “Grothendieck had an air for choosing striking evocative names for new concepts; indeed, he saw the act of naming mathematical objects as an integral part of their discovery, as a way to grasp them even before they have been entirely understood.” Mathematicians occasionally observe that, on the basis of intuition, they sometimes develop concepts that are at first ineffable and resist definition; these concepts must be named before they can be brought under control and properly enter the mathematical world. Naming can be the path toward that control. [p.231]

Names, then, are important things. They can mean social status, and a way of giving understanding to the ineffable. They can mean the difference between the success and failure of an endeavour (who amongst us hasn’t spend hours agonising of the title of a journal article or essay?). They can mean the difference between magic and mundanity. Sometimes, perhaps, they can even just be names.

If you were wondering, my train wasn’t cancelled.