Making Lamp Posts for Drunks

The pen is the most powerful of talismans, and writing its magical product. —Apollonius of Tyana

The power of the written word lies not just in its ability to educate but in its ability to deceive. We believe we live in a modern world free from superstition but, as Richard Stivers argues in Technology as Magic, modern technologies often function as magical practices once did. We use mass media not to enlighten ourselves but as to perform rituals that confirm our existing beliefs, whether those beliefs are beneficial or harmful. To paraphrase Andrew Lang, we use social media in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination.


A few weeks ago a friend of mine, who teaches at a University, joked that if Trump were to win the presidency he would propose setting up an MA in Agnotology, the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt (yes, I had to Google it, thus demonstrating my own ignorance and suitability for the course). He said, “This phenomenon needs to be studied – like global warming.”

A new study highlights just how right he is. Researchers looked at how well students across the U.S. can evaluate online sources of information. Here is a quote from the executive summary:

“Our “digital natives” may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while
simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The grand deceptions of the Brexit and Trump campaigns have highlighted the power of digital media to deceive, to create echo-chambers, filter bubbles, and personalized illusions. They are both cases of complex propaganda machines involving right-wing media barons, post-fact desperation, the digital bully pulpits, click-farms, a new yellow press, post-literacy, dangerous algorithms, and Macedonian teenagers creating fake news for cash.

I used to be a Senior Lecturer in Digital Media Design and one of the courses I taught covered Digital Media Theory. We looked at how digital media differs from print media and, amongst other topics, we considered issues of truth, bias, and deception. I tried to get my students to be critical of the news they read, to question all their sources, not to trust everything on Wikipedia, and to read with open eyes. I would occasionally use magic tricks to hammer home the point that you cannot believe everything you see and hear.

When I stopped teaching in 2007, very few of my students still read print newspapers most of them preferring to find all of their information online.

I have long argued that Illusion and Deception Design should be taught as a serious discipline to many practitioners from many fields including journalism, design, media, and computer science. We can’t afford to leave such an important undertaking to the sadly undervalued field of Media Studies.

Of course, it isn’t only words that can lie. We are getting better and better at producing fake images, fake video, and fake speech. When everything can be faked how do we believe anything?

And emerging technologies will make the situation even more complex. Virtual reality has the potential to be an empathy machine but it is also at heart a powerful deception machine.

A great deal of human communication is subconscious yet existing interfaces are designed primarily for conscious communication. The emerging combination of Thought Identification Technologies, Empathic Robotics, and Cold Data Reading will change this, opening up new ways of working, learning, gaming, deceiving, and pretending.

Mindreading Interfaces will make interaction more responsive and playful but also more mysterious, illusory, opaque, and insecure, and deceptive. What will Mindreading Designers need to consider?

We need to seriously consider how we would deliberately design for deception and illusion or we risk deceiving accidentally. To avoid making lamp-posts for drunks we need to understand Illusion and Deception Design as a discipline that extends far beyond the subtle tricks and sparkly boxes of the stage magician.

2 thoughts on “Making Lamp Posts for Drunks

  • Excellent stuff Stuart. Any insights on how to combat filter bubbles and fake news gratefully received! Here’s a start, based on one aspect, that I saw today: – a nice, coherent critique of what it is that media channels are doing that is antithetical to ‘news reporting’ and needs to stop. Another phenomenon that is clear from F*ckf*ce friends is that people of an ‘alternative’ bent (read, dance music/rave fans, experienced with strong marijuana and hallucinogenics) are being sucked in beyond an interest in ‘mild’ conspiracy theory (Kennedy assassination or 9/11, say) to totally reject anything that is promoted by ‘the mainstream’. In the past, with the domination of information channels by the state (BBC) and a small number of mostly right wing publications, such deconstruction, and the circulation of information and news that wasn’t represented in the mainstream, was important for ‘balance’ and for consciousness raising. Now, people casually dismiss anything that is ‘received wisdom’ as part of a conspiracy to deprive these self-deluding ‘noble truth-seekers’ of the real deal. In the process, important principles and ways of establishing truth are being abandoned. We could list these, but it is fair to say that simple heuristics like “do you trust the source?”, “is there an agenda here?” (cui bono), “is this more likely than the alternatives?” (Occam’s Razor) are being abandoned with regard to anything supporting one’s view (confirmation bias) but are inappropriately applied to things that have been painstakingly constructed to avoid false truth claims getting legitimacy (like the scientific process and experimentation). The fact that 90% of people are never given any help in the techniques of establishing truth is a major contributory factor. I wonder whether teaching the ‘art of illusion’ may simply flip people further into the paranoid delusion that ‘you can’t trust anything ‘they’ say’?

    • I think that part of the issue is how painful it feels to be wrong and how difficult people find it to change their minds. Chronic victims of conmen will vigorously resist admitting that they have been fooled because it is an emotionally painful thing to go through. Showing people how they can be fooled can be useful both demonstrate that everyone can be fooled, so there is no shame in it, and also to practice going through the experience of being fooled so that you can get to know that feeling and live with it. I’d suggest that it also helps to do this with others because admitting you’ve been fooled to yourself is one thing, admitting being fooled in public is quite another.
      I had a conversation earlier this year with someone who was in the early stages of planning a TV show that aims promote critical thinking about climate change. The plan was to get a group of people to doubt the evidence for climate change by using well-known techniques, such as those used by the pundits-for-hire in the book/movie Merchants of Doubt, then to demonstrate to them exactly how they had been misled. Hopefully, that kind of experience that can open minds more effectively than a lecture on critical thinking.

      I think your worry about flipping people into a ‘you can’t trust anything ‘they’ say’ mentality is spot on. That’s the danger we face. Whether the art of illusion makes things better or worse will depend on how we approach it, I think :/

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