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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Monmouthpedia and the Fable of Borges’ Map.

The fable of Borges’ Map is probably familiar to a fair few people. It is the story of an empire where cartography becomes such an exact science that the map measures the country it portrays exactly in every detail.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. | Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

The story elaborates on a concept in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: a fictional map that had “the scale of a mile to the mile”. One of Carroll’s characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well”.

The ambition displayed in the tale was for the whole world to be rendered accurately in map form. One can understand the desire to present the world in as great a detail as possible: isn’t that what all academics do, in their own small ways? Create their own maps of the territories they occupy, seeking to enlighten, to explain? I first encountered the fable in Jean Baudrillard‘s Simulacra & Simulation, and was very struck by his idea that we have become so reliant upon our maps of the world that we have lost touch with the reality behind them. Whilst I believe that this deep-seated fear is one which has ramifications for the Digital Humanities, in particular I saw how Borges’ Map might be applied to the case of Wikipedia, and in particular its work with the town of Monmouth.

Monmouthpedia is touted as “the world’s first Wikipedia town”. The aim of the project is:

“…to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant, animal and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible, but with a special focus on Welsh. This is a different scale of wiki-project. The project is jointly funded by Monmouthshire County Council and Wikimedia UK, Monmouthshire County Council intend to install free town wide Wi-Fi for the project.”

Basically, a vast number of objects within the town have a QR code placed upon them (or a QRpedia code, as they are termed here – not your traditional black and white codes but plaques appended to properties), which lead you to a Wikipedia page containing information about the thing you’re looking at. As Monmouth is particularly rich in archaeology, there are now over a thousand QRpedia codes in Monmouth leading the visitor to Wikipedia. The walls of the museum are dissolved completely here – the learning experience can be found on every street corner, and every tree, and to a certain extent, it could be claimed that this learning experience is liberated from the bounds of cultural hegemony, being available to all and directing the user to a democratically edited website, where the knowledge is supplied by the user, for the user. (Of course, the user is not completely liberated: one has to be in possession of a smartphone, and the Wikipedia articles and artefacts endorsed with QRpedia codes have to be chosen by someone.) But I confess, I love the idea of Monmouthpedia, and intend to visit soon in order to experience it fully for myself. And QRpedia codes are popping up in cities all over the world – Johannesburg, Bremen, to name but two. We are slowly, and inexorably, mapping the world around us, “the scale of a mile to a mile”, providing us with all the information we might require about a specific object.

And yet.

The heritage sector are keen to use QR codes. They’re inexpensive to produce and the user can be directed to wherever the organisation using the code chooses to send them. But anecdotal evidence during my time on placement at the National Library of Wales suggested their use was limited, and they are increasingly being supplanted by augmented reality, image-recognition applications or near-field communication (NFC).

And what are the theoretical implications of mapping the world around us? Are we in danger of recreating Borges’ map digitally – creating a map which encompasses every surface, point for point? And if that is the aim, to map everything, are we in danger of losing ourselves within the QR code: where nothing outside of it is acknowledged as real?

Once again, I must say that the idea of removing learning from the cultural hegemony is a marvellous thing to me, and that is why I adore the idea of Mounmouthpedia. But in the back of my mind lingers Borges’ fable, the tale of the map which became the world.