The Uncertainty of Unreality

I don’t know who I am to write this. Maybe someone who saw it all happen without being someone who helped it happen… I hope.

I suppose there’s no way of knowing at this point.

It was gradual at first. I guess if I had to think back, it probably started with photoshop in the early days of the internet.

Strangers would share images modified by computer software to appear impossible. Sport was made of it: “Shopped!” (short for “Photoshopped”) someone would yell, and explain where they found the inconsistencies in the modified image.

Image modification became its own industry, and the best in the field were no less than artists. Eventually the impossible images shared were indistinguishable from reality. Only the content, the impossibility, made them fake.

The idea that more believable images could be passed as reality was not lost on us, but we thought a perfect lie was too taboo to tell. A kind of black magic too dangerous to be wielded by men.

But power makes men do dangerous things.

There was never a specific event that brought up this specter for all to see. No grand reveal that brought this issue to a societal forefront. It was always just an itch in the back of the collective mind that got worse every time you scratched it. “Is what I’m seeing reality?”

As the digital age oozed its way into all things, digital information became the primary source of media without anyone considering the caveats. Film and photographs had originals and news existed in print, providing a kind of physical backup that was hard to question and harder to erase.

A digital photograph was always suspect, but a news story could be changed from its original an infinite amount of times, modified and republished elsewhere as original, deleted outright, or worse: subtly changed in place to breed doubt in your own memory.

An individual saving a copy of the original became pointless the moment an individual could undetectably change the copy. The same could not be said for newspaper clippings. The trouble burning books used to be collecting all of them. Today they’re all in one place.

But this is all hindsight…

In some fields, there was comfort in peer-review. As the internet became more broadly accepted, the number of peer-reviewers rose exponentially. A claim could be refuted by amateur internet sleuths searching out old references, or archived reports.

In other fields, business consolidation had made this impossible. The digital age made huge corporations possible, and regulations made huge corporations more successful, multi-national conglomerates emerged. Though not in the way we expected.

Not giants which consumed their competition and grew larger themselves; they were more subtle. Phantom administrators which politely advised their competition that they were now under a different authority, and were to follow slightly different instructions which would be arriving shortly. Many giants run by a consortium.

Outwardly competing, but inwardly in lockstep.

Personally, I don’t think these conglomerates set out to control people, I think they were just adapting to the climate, and wound up in bed with people who actually did want control. Not that their original intent changes where we are today.

Gradually, messages from all fronts became more uniform. This time there were events which brought this issue forward.

News stories from many competing outlets would be released the same day using the same keywords and messages. One obscure news item received nationwide coverage, while others were invisible outside of social media.

Companies stopped comparing themselves, and began advertising an idenity. My choice of internet wasn’t about speed and price anymore, it was about a philosophy and the ideals that “made this country strong,” or similar nonsense.

It was as if we had already been divied up. The battle lines had already been drawn, and everyone was getting comfortable wherever they were. Actually, everyone was getting you comfortable where they’d placed you.

Entire industries marched shoulder to shoulder. Some more right than others, some more left, but all toward a single destination.

No competition, no deviation.

Buzzwords, calls for indignation and action, even diseases sprang into ubiquity overnight. Some became universal while others disappeared just as mysteriously as they had arrived; their objective apparently accomplished.

We called these things “fyral”, a shortening of either “officially viral” or “fake viral” (depending on who you ask) which meant it went “viral” on official outlets but no one cared enough to share it on social media.

Anyone who called this apparent collusion into question was derided. The more persistent voices were labeled conspiracy kooks and they would find their personal information “leaked” and made fyral until they shrank to nothingness.

The most prominent example being Michael Tam, source of the term “Being Tammed” and “Tammed if you do…” He started sharing financial records and matching money to companies and faces to campaigns. As we all know, his smartphone, cradled on his nightstand, “accidentally” recorded his sexual proclivities and “automatically” synched them to his previously unused public video account. We are frequently reminded of his fate, as it’s important to remind us what happens to those who dig.

The undertone was surfacing, and a popular realization was crystalizing, unspoken: There are no competing voices.

Internet sleuths no longer had competing references, no sources with a different message, and soon, no hard data to reference.

The hard data fell in two steps. Interpretation was the chosen method to massage a message out of hard data. Complicated studies and statistics were interpreted by “experts” to mean contrary things.

High crime rate? Well compared to the rate of previous growth, this is actually a reduction in crime. The previous stats? Well, we used our own researchers to determine them, and that process is an industry secret.

Sometimes outlets would argue contrary views over the same hard data, spinning their wheels for weeks on news and talk shows. I think they only did this to make us more confused.

The second hard data attack was by polarization. This was easy and effective, because if you went back far enough, everyone was connected to someone. The university that did the study had a board member who shared a dentist with a political donor? Now the study “has ties” to the politically motivated, and is obviously tainted.

Any data indicating an undesired outcome was labeled as propaganda released by partisan think-tanks to mislead people. The fact that this very label applied to itself just as easily was not lost of most of us.

Nevertheless, any argument referencing actual data inescapably ended with “Well, you would pick THAT source!” and deeper trenches on both sides.

Eventually all official sources had become too untrustworty. “The Uncertainty of Reality” was coined by a somewhat pretentious (and immediately partisan!) columnist, who pointed out that with no competing voices there was no peer review and no way of knowing if something reported was actually occurring, or if an argument was over an issue which didn’t exist.

Variations of the phrase caught on, and were frequently mentioned tongue-in-cheek. At first. Today, we use it like the punchline of a dark joke.

“Did you see that 37 people died in a bus fire in India?”
“Sure they did… In a certain reality…”

A question we’d never considered suddenly became all important: Is this reality? Is this actually, physically happening, somewhere on this Earth?

It’s amazing the question lingered so long when today the answer is so immediate and obvious: What’s the difference?

For a long time the most convincing argument for reality was a breadth of social media posts. Real-lifing an event was usually done with the massive amounts of individualized data supporting it.

When a war raged on the other side of the world, and every news outlet had the same pictures of the war, the same interviews with the same individuals, you could still go to social media and find thousands of people with names, histories, and personalities uploading original content that was outside the conglomerates.

It was called The Fifth Estate, and it was where real-lifing lived for a long time.

Once the social Turing Test had been broken one of the final threads broke with it.

Thousands or millions of social media people, posts, worries, arguments, speculations, videos, images, and emotions could be made in hours. The web of individuals made up wholecloth was always so complex it was virtually impossible to map the web of connections that might reveal the truth.

The automation of social media was also the death of viral, because much more trust had to be placed in the source to share it, and the seeds of doubt had already been planted.

Outside of your own social network of people, those who you were sure existed, little was certain.

Then came the Zings.

Even your personal network was subject to Zings. Which I think started out as a reference to Quislings, but the first use and origins don’t seem to exist anymore (supporting my speculation).

Zings are people willing to share and support stories from untrusted sources as if from trusted sources, or as their own.

Due to the heavy polarization, it was easy to convince many that supporting an untrue story was morally acceptable because it would cause others to see things the “correct” way. The ends justified the means. Obviously, some were simply paid, though I suspect “the ends” were enough for most.

The final straw was a story that went either mega-viral or mega-fyral (there was no way to tell at that point): “My entire network was Zings!”

The notion that you could be subtly controlled by friends, family, associates, and every piece of information you read was too much.

There is no trust. There are no facts.

People don’t change their minds. They don’t believe reason or truth. There are only two messages; that 3 + 2 = 5 and that 4 + 1 = 5. The destination is the same, only the paths differ.

We are being controled by distrust.

I know that what you’re reading right now is just as subject to polarization as anything. I know you can’t date the data on this file, and even if I wrote this with acid-free paper and indelible pen, someone would still argue the science for determining its authenticity was dubious at best, and another would argue the former was partisan and politically motivated.

I suppose I’m writing this for my own sanity. I guess I don’t care if you believe this– No. I do care. If there were a way I could prove it all to you I would, but there are no such things as facts anymore.

Only what a man can see with his unaugmented eyes, and feel in the pit of his stomach.

That things are wrong. And must be set right.

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The Uncertainty of Unreality

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