Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Hoaxes, Perspective, and Reality

Urban legends are something of a hobby of mine. I make frequent trips to Snopes, and my poor lecture-beleaguered mother has resigned herself to topping every forwarded e-mail to me with the header, "Is this true?" Which keeps her from sending out chain mail, and makes me feel useful.

In the interest of feeding my habit, I found a link through Snopes to a Wired article by Jonathon Keats about a man who hunted down the origin of what is probably the most widespread and longest-lived e-mail hoax known: the Bill Gates e-mail tracking scam.

I stumbled upon the Internet equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Here was a hoax that had been in circulation since 1997, laden with factual improbabilities and logical contradictions, widely reviled and frequently debunked yet thriving on a Net strewn with spam and other causes of universal cynicism - a prank lacking in both brains and brawn that nevertheless, cockroach-like, had outlasted the Melissa virus and Saddam Hussein.
The story behind the hoax is fascinating, and worth analyzing a bit.

There are plenty of reasons to educate yourself about urban legends and scams. One quick and dirty reason: it keeps you feeling street-wise. When I first discovered Snopes, I devoured the site with a relish born of feeling foolish for having been taken in so many times.

But there is an even better reason to continue to keep abreast of this particular school of meme: it's probably the best education you could ever give yourself about (to steal a phrase) lies and the liars who tell them. When you're done learning about lies, learn about those who believe and perpetuate them. Several traits make urban legend uniquely suitable for this kind of learning: a) their relative prevalence under controlled circumstances, b) the easy availability of debunking sites, and c) the wide range of themes addressed in them.

And why would you want to know about lies? What is the use?

This simple fact: the more lies you hear, see, and are able to identify as lies, the more you learn to identify them. Lies, after a while, look very similar.

Not exactly the same, of course. But they share similar characteristics. When you look at lie after lie after lie, harmless lies, hateful lies, frightening lies and funny lies, you begin to notice a similar tone in them, something that remains the same no matter who is doing the lying or what the topic is. I've never been able to put my finger on just exactly what that is. And it's possible that it's not true for everyone. But for most people, I believe it is true: the more lies you see, the more you get an instinct for them.

It's not infallible, but that doesn't mean it's not useful.

Jonathon Keats offers a philosophy of urban legends that might explain some of what I'm talking about:
Chernin's note to me echoed all these motivations, but also something more. She wrote that the message "seemed to have a knowledge about Internet technology that was, alas, all too plausible, since it suggested a clear invasion of privacy." (Remember, Microsoft was going to track each email.) "Things that seem preposterous no longer seem so preposterous. One's sense of reality is probably shaken by living in our times."

In fact, successful hoaxes have always preyed on our tendency to imagine the future through the lens of our own hopes and worries. A celebrated 19th-century prank convinced millions that Thomas Edison had invented a machine capable of converting soil into cereal. A "top secret" report that became a best-seller in 1967 concluded that an end to war "would almost certainly not be in the best interest of stable society." Publication of the deadpan parody led Lyndon Johnson to cable every US embassy, insisting the report didn't reflect foreign policy.
Perhaps the defining tone behind all hoaxes is fear.

There's a vast and interconnecting web of concepts, of which this idea is a node. Some of the web's other nodes, in my own mind, are ideas having to do with the following: idealism, maturity, hysteria, perspective, propaganda, realism, optimism, cynicism, idealism, perfection, comprimise. Circle those words around in your head for a little while; see how they connect to each other. How does the fear level in a presented message relate to other idealogical systems?

At one point in time, I could hear any political message, and it would be evaluated as fact by my brain. Now, I have filters in place. And one of the most reliable one is the scare-filter: is the purveyor of this message trying to scare me? If so, is the purveyor of the message attempting to scare me toward a specific purpose?

Don't react automatically. Some of the world's worst lies are scare tactics presented with absolutely no specific purpose in mind whatsoever. Personally, when I am confronted with a frightening message that has an obvious goal behind it, I am relieved. The idea of a problem which has a corresponding solution encapsulates a system of relative optimism; and relative anything can only be possible through perspective. Perspective, in the web of ideas, has much stronger ties to the nodes of truth and realism than hysteria does.

Simplified: Perspective is closer to the truth than hysteria.

In the face of Snopesian levels of disillusionment, it's possible to simply disavow all faith in mankind, and assume them to be, by and large, either scoundrels or dupes. But to do that is to take half a step. You complete the step by relating the way you feel to what you have just learned: perspective is closer to the truth than hysteria. To despair of all except a handful (conveniently including yourself) of mankind is a viewpoint that lacks relativity, and when you tug on lack of perspective in the system, you are pulling yourself closer to hysteria and to lies.

A contemporary scientific view of the above would lead me to conclude, not necessarily that I could be wrong, but that I could have stumbled upon an interpretation of the truth that is not as perfect as I could have achieved. I like that translation. It's optimistic, in my opinion. It demonstrates perspective.

Several times in the past few days, I have come across the following statement in opinion articles: "This is not the best solution, but it's the best we have so far." It's funny how often that statement presages a tremendous breakthrough, in my experience. It's rather like the "Do the simplest thing that will possibly work" idea in computer programming, a method which I've used many, many times to combat my own ADD tendencies to fixate upon imperfections. "Try something, then fix it," gets you un-stuck. It works. And when I notice a certain theory working over and over again in real life, the non-material sides of my consciousness sit up (metaphysically, of course) and take notice.

Reality is increasingly being shown to operate upon the basis of interactive probabilities. Perspective is a key element of being able to evaluate and thus succeed in the world. Relativity relates to reason.

It's easy to see how what I've written above relates to my opinions about recent events in politics. Expect very few discrete blocks of ideas from me; everything you ever see here will most likely relate to everything else.