Thursday, 7 February 2013

Literal Internet

A few weeks ago when the Golden Globes were on, I admit to watching them and Jodie Foster's speech. The next day everyone pretty much reacted the same way, saying she wasn't being "clear" enough in her "confession" to being gay. But of course anyone watching should not have had any trouble figuring that out.  I was just reading a blog post by Jim Emerson about the speech, which goes into more than enough detail about what she said exactly. I realized something curious: in the current age internet, everyone seems to assume that everyone else has to be as literal as possible. 

Facebook is a good example. I was experimenting with posting some pseudo random, i.e. made-up, thoughts and fake conversations. This attempt confirmed that if one posts anything that isn't literally true, you tend to confuse people. Moreover people just don't tend to do that. In the age of Facebook and blogs, most online activity is based on sincere opinions or photo-based vacation/work/food (ugh)/baby updates. A third possible use of Facebook is to share a link of someone doing something "funny" (but real), or someone else's sincere opinion. Consider that video from a few months back of a child being almost snatched by a giant bird in Mount Royal park: it made the news because *gasp* it was fake!  

I remembered Ebert pointing this out back in 2009 in his article The Age of Credulity. To quote:
These days, there is no room for ambiguity, and few rewards for critical thinking. Now every word of a politician is pumped dry by his opponent, looking for sinister meanings. Many political ads are an insult to the intelligence. Here I am not discussing politics. I am discussing credulity. If you were to see a TV ad charging that a politician supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergarten children, would you (1) believe it, or (2) very much doubt it? The authors of the ad spent big money in a bet on the credulity and unquestioning thinking of the viewership. Ask yourself what such an ad believes about us.
What I see is that thank to there being less anonymity online now, people have translated that into meaning you have to say only what you see, and conversely (and more unnervingly), understand things to mean exactly as people say. The flood of real-time media in addition to friend's photos and shallow blogs means you can't find many willing to make stuff up. I bet Swift would not believe how gullible we are. Conversely, The Onion is some kind of last bastion of hope, though even here sometimes straight-up report actual news (with a twist) or being counterfactual. 

My brother quizzed me with three articles, asking which one is real. Here they are:

Reality is crazier than imagination. Maybe the reason we need people to make stuff up now and then is for a mental check. If you just accept things as always being crazy, when do you know if things have gone too far? The absolute craziest thing to happen in 2012 was the Stop Kony movement. It was perfect: the harsh reality of how the world really works and the online credulity of current internet users met like an unstoppable force meeting an impenetrable object. The outcome was more insane than anything I could have imagined. 

Back to Foster's speech. Analysts reflecting back seem to agree there was some sort of, perhaps unintended, brilliance achieve merely by not being strictly clear. The best way to anger the "online" community is to be ambiguous. Great works of literature and film meant to be symbolic are being ignored precisely for that reason. High res video is going to make abstract art hard to produce. Think of how old-school video games had much more character. Watching Wreck-it-Ralph you see how true this is. Music is always abstract, but then people aren't upgrading their audio equipment the same way as they are adding more lines of resolution to their TV: the MP3 format has been around how long now? 

Popular shows are based on how "real" they look. I think this is what makes The Wire so famous right now. Reality TV is weird since it purports to be true yet is more heavily edited than any piece of fiction. Both seem more "real" despite everyone knowing there is a "fake" element to any story. That much never goes away. What's going away is the ability to interpret what you see. To know you are facing a Rashomon-type event and it's up to you to choose an ending. That's why Fantasy novels are still popular: utter fiction, but completely unambiguous. Bilbo goes to the mountain and slays a dragon and goes home, no two ways about it. What's disappearing is story-telling that leaves you deliberately to write your own endings. 

I was browsing the 2012 Sight and Sound poll and found some movies that might not be "understood" anymore: Man with a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, 2001, Breathless, Au Hazard Balthazar, and Persona. Those last two will really annoy a modern audience. Naturally Rashomon is in there too. This is why I think Les Mis told as a straight story, i.e. about the characters, is so silly. The book is really about what going on around them and they are just serving as coat racks for more interesting descriptions of the Paris sewers, Waterloo, the church, the textile industry, prostitution, etc. Take that all away and you are left with a handful of characters and a plot that makes no sense. Only a modern audience would eat that up. Think of how the newest incarnation was sold: Come see a "live" musical. That's right, an abstract outburst of singing made to look more realistic!  

I guess the tragic part is when themes are lost in a story because no-one is left to see them. Groundhog Day is still a celebrated movie, but I wonder how many first-time viewers understand its thematic elements? Even Ebert missed this the first time around before later adding it to his Great Movies collection. Or another example: Yogi Berra quotes taken literally mean nothing. Then you realize it's a brilliant mocking of 99% of real-world sports analysis. How many get that kind of humour anymore?

Abstract, credulous-challenging stuff is more important than ever to act as a teaching tool for reality. No, not just for reading the news, but even doing science and math, which are abstract to their very core. Even, and perhaps especially in rigorous disciplines, non-practicioners tend forget that a symbol will always remain a symbol until you can interpret it. This skill is only becoming more important to have, but fewer and fewer seem to possess it.

Can we introduce a new word for this phenomenon? Is this the age of the "liternet"? 

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