I recently had to break the news to my seven-year-old son that some of information obtained via the Internet is not, in fact, true. He looked thunderstruck. “What do you mean?” he cried. “People can just make stuff up and pretend it’s real? Don’t the people in charge of computers control that?”
Notwithstanding Edward Snowden’s recent revelations regarding surveillance or the fact that my personal data is owned not by me, but by the cloud, I tried to explain that there is no central regulatory agency for The Computer.
My son’s reaction: “Well that’s wrong, and when I grow up…” He set his mouth in a determined line. “That.Will. Change.”
So much for freedom of expression. Before my kid grows up to head the Ministry of Truth in his Orwellian state, I asked him to consider that the people posting to YouTube might be making stuff up. Or playing a joke. Or be mentally disturbed. Or getting their facts muddled. In this case, the “facts” in question revolved around cryptozoology, which is the “scientific field” devoted to the study of creatures like the LochNess Monster, the Chupacabra and Bigfoot. Over the Christmas break, my teenaged nephew had helpfully shared some Youtube videos of Sasquatch sightings on his newly acquired tablet computer. I probably should have checked to see what the two boys were doing more quickly, but after just a few minutes, my son summoned me to his side, triumphant.
Surely now, having seen footage of Bigfoot and Sasquatch, I would have to believe–as he does–that these creatures are real. But instead of conceding and lacing up my hiking boots for our monster catching mission, I called into question the veracity of the Stuff We Read on The Computer. And to add insult to injury, I said that not all books are trustworthy. This just about blew his mind.
“Then how do you know,” he demanded, “when books aren’t telling the truth?” I gave a rambling, mom-ish sort of answer that discussed fiction versus nonfiction, good judgment and the meaning of the word skepticism. (Yawn, I know), but of course, the answer is: sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes we’re fooled.
What made me think of this conversation, which took place a couple weeks back, was a far more recent instance of my own credulity. I was looking for a book-related subject to blog about today, and several of my Facebook contacts had shared an infographic about reading that featured the following “facts”: 33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives; 42% of college grads never read another book after college; 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.” Yikes. (As a publishing industry professional, I am one susceptible chicken little to these sky-is-falling-style statistics). But just before I posted that infographic to this blog, I did a little digging. Turns out the guy who created the infographic had got his data wrong. None of that stuff is true. The retraction that he posted on his blog did not, however, go viral. I’m sure he wasn’t trying to trick anyone, but the information is out there.
Just like Bigfoot.