‘The scribe,’ he said sarcastically. So they were reading my work again, and of course they had suffered the fate of all snoops — they were upset by what they had discovered.
– Peter Carey, Amnesia (2014)
ringer, n. 2.Also called: dead ringer a person or thing that is almost identical to another
It’s easy to misconstrue what we see. So easy, in fact, that eyewitnesses are not regarded as terribly reliant conduits of reality and their testimony in a court of law is routinely regarded as suspect. It’s not much better for what we hear (or think we hear). Many years ago in Abu Dhabi, in my IB English class, I conducted a Chinese Whispers session as prep for a novel we were about to read (Camus’ The Stranger). By the time my very brief message got around from ear to ear, from student 1 through 19, it had changed dramatically. Aside from linguistic and locution issues, we often bring what we expect or want to perceive into the perception and communicate accordingly.
Misconstruing is not limited to the phenomena of everyday life, but is a problem for science as well. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for instance, states that formulating an absolute truth about a phenomenon is problematical because the object of our scrutiny is altered by the scrutiny itself.
I have been considering all this for awhile — for many years, actually — probably as a residual stream from my years studying philosophy, with a focus on phenomenology. But a more recent context for consideration is the growing opacity of the State at the same time that individual liberty and privacy are being intentionally eviscerated by the predictive algorithms of government and commerce, which scrape deeper and deeper into the collective psyche by the day, as though fracking the essence of our humanity to grease the wheels of empire. This quasi-fascist marriage of commerce and a militarized government (the world’s at war with abstract nouns, after all) is certainly no accident; indeed, it was David Petraeus, the then-head of the CIA, who so vociferously and proudly announced the dawn of ‘The Internet of Things’ and its promise to keep tabs on everything we do. For our own good, of course.
Of all the wild imaginings that whole democratic societies hold dear, the conceit of a benevolent authority is the one that has perplexed me most; we, the people, assume that an idealistic constitutional document, combined with free elections to put forward leaders who will represent our practical and social issues in the tax-paid legislature – we assume that we can then safely turn our attention back to lives of ordinary doubts and desires. And because we act, as citizens, in good faith, we assume that our leaders, who are themselves, after all, citizens, too, do so, and sooner or later we allow our attention to the transparency of governmental processes to lapse, until we don’t know what the bastards are up to, but they seem to know everything about us.
What we always seem to realize all-too-late is that there are deep psycho-social consequences to leadership behavior in a democracy. As long as we know the details to the What and Why of governance, we feel as social/political creatures that we can trust in its processes; we can trust others beyond mere tolerance; and, in short, that we can trust in Trust itself. Trust adds a bounce to your step. The homeland, for the American bourgeois at least, has often seemed a Peaceable Kingdom for the world to envy, where the lion sleeps tonight, a-weeba-wop, a-weeba-wop. But sooner or later that lion wakes up, and then your ass is lowing in the high grass. And that bound in your step is fuelled by terror. No more dreamy weeba-wop.
To many other nations, for a long time, American Exceptionalism was implicitly meritorious because that Trust worked, or seemed to. Open American energy and optimism, though often obnoxious (see Ugly American syndrome), was contagious because it brought sweeping innovations and an unshakeable faith in the future, or so it seemed. But the stolen US presidential election of 2000 (Americans looked the other way as thousands of Black votes were cast aside in fraudulent database purges), and the endlessly horrific aftermath of 9/11, has all but destroyed that faith and that trust. When America put the world on a on a permanent war-footing, beginning with the criminal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and promised to battle word-wielding abstract nouns forever, shifting the definition and parameters at pleasure, the world followed suit, more from fear than awe. Trust has been replaced with suspicion; the joie de vivre of optimism replaced with the scream of Nero’s fiddle as the Climate burns.
It is easy to misconstrue at any time, but especially in ours. Misconstruing came to mind the other night when I was watching a re-run of a Seinfeld episode – “The Diplomat’s Club” – the one in which Elaine is peevishly looking after a grumpy old rich guy who is now on his death bed. Elaine lights up when she learns that her ministrations have not been for naught, as he has named her in his will in appreciation for her service. Elaine visits him in his hospital room and, wishing to make him more comfortable, carries a pluffed pillow over toward him, not realizing that she is being spied upon, and that the spy sees not an attempt at comforting but an attempt at murder, which she ‘interrupts’ heroically and proceeds to undermine Elaine, who, as result loses her place in the will and, of course, the bounce in her step.
But misconstruing does not always lead to a punch line and a laugh track. There are more recent examples in ‘real life’ where misconstruing has lead to misidentification and profound repercussions. For instance, last September, just after a British-accented ISIS jihadist beheaded a journalist, Australia used emergency powers for the first time to conduct a massive raid on an Islamic man in Sydney, reportedly affiliated with ISIS, who, an informant said, owned a scary sword. After hysterical TV coverage of his arrest, his sword turned out to be ceremonial and plastic (a fact not subsequently widely reported), and the Islamic sect he belonged to was actually hostile to that inspiring ISIS. Luckily, the man was not killed in the raid, but the end result was the almost-immediate passage of sweeping new anti-terror legislation in parliament that contains severe implicit restrictions on civil liberties and the threat of torture and disappearing ‘suspects’.
It is not much of a step from misconstruing to misidentifying, and unlike as with the Sydney swordsman, it does not always end well for the targeted one. After the Boston Marathon bombing the FBI released a photo of the suspects online. One viewer thought the photo looked an awful lot like his ‘friend’, Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student, and he began tweeting this information to the cyberworld. Soon Reddit picked it up, and almost immediately a swarming vigilante mob began pursuing Sunil. The trouble is, after a panicky few hours, Sunil was soon thereafter discovered in the ocean, drowned (circumstances still unclear). Just like a promising Ivy Leaguer’s life was snuffed out.
Recently, Melissa Howard had a piece in Overland magazine, “Spot the Terrorist,” that briefly details not only facets of Sunil’s case but the rise of online vigilantism (or sleuthing, as Howard has it) in general. No doubt, there’s a lot of instant gratification to mobbing a target. As with the delightful distancing of remote-control drone kills and the lovely story arcs of long distance American sniper work, donning a virtual white hood on the Internet must seem like Heaven’s playground to all the reactionary-aggressives out there. There isn’t any question that some people – perhaps many people – are finding it harder and harder to distinguish between real people and targets from some Call of Duty scenario. But when you swarm, not only do you belong to ‘a greater cause’ for awhile, but the guilt and shame you might otherwise feel, becomes a load widely distributed, and consequently diluted by the warm and smarmy swarminess.
Early last year, there was the Joseph Kony saga, where children were crowdsourced on Facebook to ‘Get Kony’. This is an example of how dangerous cyber-manipulation can be (the sensation died, and Kony is still at large). It doesn’t help that Facebook was recently discovered to be experimenting, in cooperation with the US military, on the emotional manipulation of users. This corporate-military alliance is not an anomaly: We ourselves are being militarized, drafted into service, whenever we use the Internet, exchanging our data packages, copied by Google and NSA, and those who resist will be tomorrow’s burning cross victims, and with more than 1.5 million people on the US secret Watch List (i.e., suspects, dissidents, and assorted undesirables) there’s plenty of torching ahead.
We are all potential Sunils, Konys and bin Ladens, in the abstract. This is not mere paranoia. One of the more frightening portions of the recent film Citizenfour came early on when government whistleblower Jacob Appelbaum, speaking before a group of activists and journos, painted a picture of how our personal data points aggregate, and he told the group that data trails follow us everywhere, and if one is even perceived as a suspect or as a government target that that status will follow you around for the rest of your life, with all the potential negative consequences attached. East Germany’s Stasi reportedly had some 170, 000 informants willing to snitch, undermine and even some scores tin order to earn brownie points from The Man, but that was before the Internet. Now, with its prevalence in our lives, available informants no doubt reach into the millions. You can be forgiven for looking around to wonder who you can trust; or if snoopy neighbors are listening in.
But what’s more, digital vigilantism and stalking feeds the fires of shrill lunatics and psychopaths who were already a problem before America took her gloves off and announced to the world, “No more Mrs. Nice Girl.” There used to be an American TV program called Perverted Justice, in which vigilantes would ‘expose’ various miscreants to the public (they seemed to specialize in pedophile cases), and worked to do all they could do to destroy their target, including anonymously messaging the target’s friends, family, and co-workers to germinate seeds of suspicion and hate. The program was finally cancelled, after being exposed for corruption, misrepresentations and mistakes, but not before they had fatally tarnished targets. It is a sad state of affairs when the truthfulness of a lie is measured by the success of the disseminated smear. Scarier still, when people accept a spy’s authority, saying, “I know the spying is wrong and illegal, but look what he says he found.”
The true destructive mindset of these psychopathic justice-ranters became especially clear to me a couple of years ago when my wife received a Facebook update from someone she knew. On the friend’s page someone had posted a “public service announcement” that was, in fact, a wild accusation, including “details” of a child molestation and rape by the friend’s husband. The details were loudly graphic and hinted at a call for bush justice against the husband, after, the post said, he’d been tried and let off on a technicality. It was truly shocking stuff. But what gives it away as a smear is the fact that no checkable details were provided – no victim names, no supporting witnesses named, no links to public documents indicating arraignments or findings is present. The targeted husband and wife knew nothing about the post until my wife alerted them. It is, as presented, little more than a hate-filled slander rant. There is no indication that it ever happened.
It gets worse still. Given the technology now available (and the terrifying stuff on its way), what with infra-red cameras, thermal imaging, rootkits, wireless highjacking, surreptitious PC enslavement, anyone could wake up one day and discover themselves a target of abuse and degradation as part of someone else’s idea of fun or a good hunt. And depending on the stuff you are made of, you may go Luddite, or get meek, or become a model prisoner in the Prism yard. After all, it’s a case of ‘national security’, right? All a case of fighting the terror Triffids who arrived one day from outer space, without cause, and began horrifying us with their British accented sword-wielding.
In this near-future mirrored world you may even try to break free. There’ll be leeway, no doubt. You will be allowed to confront yourself in the mirror. Your masters will e-jubilate when you give yourself the rude finger in the mirror. They will delight with you when you play the mirror as an absurdist prop. And they may even look the other way when frustration builds and you try to shoot you way out of the glass house (one should not shoot bullets in glass houses, as they say). To them, it’s all a game; and you’re the pinball. But may the gods help you if you turn, in earnest, to the one-way mirror and tell them, a la Walter White, what you really think, your expression all contempt and derision (an alternate Heisenberg principle). Then, Holy Jacob, you in the shit.
Because it’s all about controlling the narrative, and if you try to escape the part they’ve set for you to become a True Man or True Woman, if you try to alter the dialogue or the story arc – well, next thing you know, you won’t be like the relatively benign Jim Carrey in the Truman Show, but more like Merseult in Camus’ The Stranger, wherein peripheral personages testify against your dispositional deficiencies, and you’ll wake up one day treated and cursed like Peter Lorre in “M,” until pursued and trapped, they come to ‘take’ you in the end, like Stan in Pinter’s The Birthday Party, to blow out your bloody candles.
This world of 8o% poor, 19 % middle class, and 1% ruling class has reached the Heisenberg stage of uncertainty, familiar patterns disappearing into the kaleidoscope of colorful chaos created by corporates and the underworld of spooks. Oh the irony of having all these predictive algorithms to destroy each other with, leaving no stone unturned, except of the accusers’ and watchers’, all the while ignoring the algorithm of nature for which prediction is all-too-easy and for which there is no misconstruing.
Aye, now it’s dark; there’s no misconstruing that.
NOTE: An abbreviated posting of this piece appeared in the Prague Post today.