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The bestselling author of Proofiness and Zero explains how to separate fact from fantasy in the digital world
Digital information is a powerful tool that spreads unbelievably rapidly, infects all corners of society, and is all but impossible to control—even when that information is actually a lie. In Virtual Unreality, Charles Seife uses the skepticism, wit, and sharp facility for analysis that captivated readers in Proofiness and Zero to take us deep into the Internet information jungle and cut a path through the trickery, fakery, and cyber skullduggery that the online world enables.
Taking on everything from breaking news coverage and online dating to program trading and that eccentric and unreliable source that is Wikipedia, Seife arms his readers with actual tools—or weapons—for discerning truth from fiction online.
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Charles Seife is the author of five previous books, including Proofiness and Zero, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction and was a New York Times notable book. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, Wired, New Scientist, Science, Scientific American, and The Economist. He is a professor of journalism at New York University and lives in New York City.
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The new environment shaped by electric technology is a cannibalistic one that eats people. To survive one must study the habits of cannibals.
On October 5, 2001, the world learned what evil can lurk in the heart of a Muppet.
He was first spotted in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, at an anti-American rally. He was in the background, almost hidden from view, but there was no question: it was his unmistakable visage, jaundiced and unibrowed, glowering angrily over the right shoulder of enemy number one. The next sighting was in Djakarta, Indonesia. Again, he was hard to pick out at first—cameramen from Reuters and the Associated Press didn’t even notice him in their photographs for a few days—but there he was, directly behind the figure of Osama bin Laden. It was Bert, pointy-headed resident of Sesame Street, roommate of Ernie, pigeon fancier—and apparently right-hand man to the most important and most violent terrorist of modern times.
The image was everywhere. Furious mobs, chanting and shouting, bore the photograph of bin Laden and his fuzzy yellow henchman on posters and placards. “Do the global terror links reach even as far as Sesame Street? Is Bert the Muppet a henchman of terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden?” asked an astonished reporter for Fox News. The evidence was solid; several different photographers had taken pictures clearly showing Bert alongside Osama. Claims of a hoax were quickly dismissed by the news agencies responsible for the snapshots. “This is a legitimate photograph,” Reuters spokeswoman Felicia Cosby insisted, brushing off any insinuations that the photos might have been doctored. So did Jack Stokes of the Associated Press. “We haven’t changed the photo at all,” he said. “We have very strict editing guidelines.”
Bert’s corporate masters were furious about Bert’s appearance at pro–Al Qaeda rallies. “Sesame Street has always stood for mutual respect and understanding. We’re outraged that our characters would be used in this unfortunate and distasteful manner. This is not humorous,” Sesame Workshop producers told a CNN reporter. “The people responsible for this should be ashamed of themselves.”*
The man most responsible, Dino Ignacio, wasn’t ashamed. He was terrified.
Since the late 1990s, Ignacio, a California-based artist, had run Bert Is Evil, a mildly amusing surrealist website of the kind that proliferated in the early years of the internet.* The site portrayed the ill-tempered Muppet as a malevolent Forrest Gump, quietly present in the background at darker moments in human history. Ignacio digitally altered photographs to create a photographic record of his evil influence, such as a black-and-white shot of the Muppet sitting casually beside Adolf Hitler; a fuzzy Zapruder still where, barely visible, he lurks in the crowd; mugging for the camera along with O. J. Simpson. As Bert Is Evil grew a small cult following, fans created reams more photographic evidence. Bert squatting next to Pol Pot, Bert handing out Kool-Aid at Jonestown, Bert with Slobodan Milosevic, Bert with Joseph Stalin, with Saddam Hussein, with Robert Mugabe, with Ayatollah Khomeini.
And with Osama bin Laden. In the photo, Bert wears a ribbed white turtleneck and a windbreaker, and stares at the camera from a place of pride directly behind Osama bin Laden. Brows knitted, he grins evilly. The Muppet is clearly in his element.
Then September 11 happened. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda became symbols of resistance to the United States. Anti-American protesters around the world displayed his face on placards. And when a Bangladeshi print shop sought bin Laden photos for their (suddenly very profitable) protest-placard business, they found the one with Bert. Apparently, nobody seemed to think it odd that the terrorist mastermind had a Muppet henchman, so they slapped it on their latest placard design. From there, it was only a matter of hours before the photo was everywhere, in the hands of angry demonstrators seeking to glorify the name of Osama bin Laden.
The news shot round the world in an instant. Bert really was in the company of terrorists. It was as if Ignacio’s imagination had suddenly transformed itself from fantasy to reality. Bert really was now the most evil puppet on the face of the planet. “Yesterday a lot of you alerted me to a picture of a Taliban propaganda poster with Bert,” Ignacio wrote on his website shortly after finding out about the poster. “Reality is imitating the Web! I am honestly freaked out! Holy shit!” He took the site down immediately. “I am doing this because I feel this has gotten too close to reality and I choose to be responsible enough to stop it right here.”
Of course, he couldn’t. Nobody could. The photograph had gone global, and no power on earth could possibly remove it from circulation, unpublishing what had been published. And this was part of what spooked Ignacio. It was a queasy feeling that he had subtly altered the fabric of reality. There it was in the newspapers: Bert, grinning, his portrait carried by a crowd vowing to destroy America. It started off as a joke, a whimsical idea—and somehow pure thought had crystallized and become real.
Digital information is different.
The switch to digital information is a revolution as important as the advent of the printing press. On one level, there’s no difference in content between a printed book and an e-book, a handwritten sheet of paper and a scanned PDF, an old photograph and a digital image, an old celluloid copy ofCasablanca and one on DVD. The information contained in those different media assaults our senses in roughly the same way; if done well, the digital is all but indistinguishable from the analog. But there’s still a difference.
Digital information is a break from everything we’ve known before because it has a combination of physical properties shared by no other form of information. It can move around the world at the speed of light. It can be stored in virtually no space at all without fear of decay or degradation. It can be copied with perfect fidelity at almost no cost. All media, be it print, visual, audio, or something else, can be processed by a computer sophisticated enough and can be stored in essentially identical devices. At first glance, these properties might not seem that important, much less revolutionary. But by looking at the field of epidemiology, we can see that these very properties make digital information a superbug of the mind, something that spreads unbelievably rapidly, infects all corners of society, and becomes all but impossible to control. When we learned to turn all of our information into bits and bytes, we unleashed an entirely new creature upon the world, one whose powers—and dangers—we only dimly understand. The digital medium is changing the way we interact with the world.
In some ways, it is akin to the birth of genetic engineering. In the past three decades, we’ve designed tools that allow us to remove, insert, and delete bits of code from the genomes of living organisms. By exploiting some of the peculiar and seemingly contradictory properties of DNA and RNA—such as their ability to replicate over and over nearly error free while, at the same time, being extremely susceptible to errors inserted by lab technicians—we’ve learned to alter our very biology. For better or for worse, we’ve become genetic engineers.
In roughly the same period in which we began altering the genome, we learned how to insert bits and pieces into our reality and delete them as well. We’ve created new tools that allow us to exploit some peculiar and seemingly contradictory properties of information; we’ve learned to alter our very perception of truth. We have become reality engineers.
It used to take the entire resources of a totalitarian state—one that controlled the media, one that had absolute control of the information consumed by its citizens—to construct an alternate reality for its populace. Now, thanks to the new tools at our disposal, a single person can do it on a small scale. Big organizations are learning how to do it in a deliberate and systematic way. The digital revolution has dramatically changed not just how we gather information about the world but also how we can tamper with the information that others are gathering.
What’s more, digital information is changing our perception of identity and reshaping our society. We’re altering our behavior toward one another because of the influence of the online world—we humans are deeply social animals, and the online world is reshaping how we make and maintain social bonds. In so doing, it’s altering the way we interact with one another, changing the nature of public discourse, and driving us to ever more extreme beliefs.
The parallel with biology is deeper than it might seem at first. Just as organisms are engaged in a constant genetic struggle, attempting to defeat one another in the battleground of natural selection, so too is there a silent war in the realm of information. Underneath the headlines, imperceptible until you know where to look, there’s an ever-escalating evolutionary arms race, waged by robots and corporations as well as by humans. There are feints and thrusts, attacks and counterattacks, as different parties vie for supremacy. Media outlets are rising and falling based upon how well they adapt to the ever-changing digital landscape. And it is all a war over who gets the ability to affect your reality, to shape your social interactions, to manipulate your beliefs and control your behavior.
It’s a frightening picture, to be sure, but don’t think that this book is a Luddite screed about the evils of the internet. Far from it. Gone are the days of scanning periodical indices so that you can figure out which scratched-up microfilm might contain a scrap of useful information. Gone are the days of trying to figure out where someone lives by using a pile of white-pages directories. Anyone who cares about knowledge and information on a small scale—not to mention someone who needs to use a database to sort through hundreds of thousands of pieces of data—knows that the digital revolution is a wonderful thing. It has banished a zillion tedious tasks from our lives and made possible countless things that could never have been contemplated before. We were once confined to our village, and then to our telephone network. We are now interconnected so that each of us has the ability to communicate with billions of other people on the planet—the world has become a very small place. Digital devices are becoming a part of our sensorium, shoveling information into our brains and, in its way, becoming as indispensible to us as our eyes and ears. Digital information is a superlatively powerful tool.
But because of that power, you must try to understand not just how digital information can be used, but how it can be misused. And once you learn to see the signs, you can see how (and why) people are using the properties of digital information to try to alter your perception of reality. Just as important, you can figure out how to see through digital manipulations and thus how to counter them.
That’s the point of this book—not to rail against the internet, but to act as a guide for the skeptic, a handbook for those who wish to understand how digital information is affecting us. For many of the things we perceive—or don’t perceive—are altered by the digital medium through which we all now interact with the world.
We now live in a world where the real and the virtual can no longer be completely disentangled. At times, there is little distinction between what is real and what is unreal. This is virtual unreality, and, as Dino Ignacio knows, the results can be very uncomfortable.
Even though Ignacio took down his website as soon as he found out about the protest in Bangladesh, he was unable to stop the association of Bert the Muppet with Osama the terrorist. A faked photo had linked the two in a way that could not be undone. Not even death would sever the relationship.
On May 2, 2011, nearly a decade after Ignacio deleted his website, two specially modified Black Hawk helicopters flew low over the Pakistani countryside. The Navy SEAL team inside made their last-minute preparations for the raid. In case their radio traffic was being monitored, the team had assigned code names to everybody who might be in the compound.
As the SEALs forced their way into the house, the target popped his head out of the bedroom and then quickly retreated, slamming the door behind him. The team had found their prey. It was the United States’ public enemy number one. It was Osama bin Laden.
Like everyone else in the compound, bin Laden had been assigned a code name. To SEAL Team Six, their target was “Bert.” Two shots rang out. One to the chest and one to the skull.
Bert was dead.
A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.
In terms of sheer gruesomeness, it’s hard to beat the disease now known as “Corrupted Blood.”
When the syndrome takes hold, a victim periodically spews blood from every pore, creating a fine mist. Quite naturally, anyone caught nearby is likely to be covered—and infected, making Corrupted Blood a hugely contagious disease. And exquisitely deadly, as scientists discovered in late 2005.
Within a few short hours of the first case of the disease, the plague was already spreading out of control. Despite every effort to quarantine the region of the outbreak, the contagion moved quickly into populated areas, “turning the capital cities into death traps,” according to epidemiologists Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren. On YouTube, you can find dozens of videos of the early part of the pandemic, when the chaos began. The scenes are all the same: people run willy-nilly, unsure of how to react. Then panic sets in. The mob rushes in all directions, trying to get away from the infected. Soon the air is filled with gut-wrenching “squick” sounds of victims spurting blood, punctuated only by the screams of the dying.
Within a few hours of the initial outbreak, even major cities like Ironforge and Orgrimmar were uninhabitable. Dead bodies lay everywhere, unburied and unmourned. And the entire world was in peril.
There was a solution, but it was drastic: complete annihilation. In other words, reboot. Humans, dwarves, orcs—all the characters in the World of Warcraft universe—popped briefly out of existence as engineers worked to rid the system of the plague that had ruined their artificial cosmos.
Corrupted Blood was a virtual disease in a fantasy world; it was not a physical organism, but a collection of bits and bytes that resided on computers. However, when the World of Warcraft programmers introduced it—intending it to be a challenge to high-level players fighting in a particular dungeon—it escaped. The digital plague behaved so much like a real disease that epidemiologists like Fefferman and Lofgren used it as a model for how a real-life pathogen spreads through a population. At the same time, the Corrupted Blood plague can be used to demonstrate exactly the reverse: the spread of bits and bytes—information—through a population is very much like a disease outbreak.
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