I recently overheard a conversation between two strangers on a Peter Pan Bus, in which one of them said to the other, you see, the way information now is presented is in a distorted format.
It was the crux of a long conversation, the kind that lasts the duration of a four-hour bus ride, taking place between two eager talkers, neither of whom was sheepish about sharing the highly trivial, weirdly personal, and overtly political, all in the same breath.
I know what they meant: that generally, everything is off. That at this moment, an overwhelming amount of everyday information comes in blips, bleeps, alerts, tweets, streaks, and clickbait. Fake news, real news, in-between news; who’s to say what’s what anymore?
Never have we been more together and more separate, more omnipresent in the cloud of each other’s lives, but more removed from the physical present. We are here less, and always elsewhere more. “Here” is not here anymore.
But I find this to be a slightly tendentious statement.
Arguably, isn’t the history of human communication a history of distorted formats — of ever-evolving technologies designed to shift methods and means of information transmission in the interest of efficacy and efficiency?
Alphabets are distorted formats. Printing presses are distorted formats. Email is a distorted format. Walkmans, Discmans, iPods, bone-conduction headphones? Distorted formats. I’m mixing formats here, jumping from utilitarian linguistic technologies to machines for personal entertainment. And certainly, the dichotomy of necessity versus luxury complicates matters. But to say, “information now is presented in a distorted format,” is to suggest that 1) something resembling a correct format lingers somewhere on high, and that 2) it is a mistake to entertain new formats. But isn’t it in our nature to reinvent our distorted ways?
What fascinates me, however, is the suggestion that a monstrous, mutated quality is at play, one more terrifying than anything previous. We would be fools to say that the present moment isn’t one of the most distorted ever.
It’s 10:52 a.m. EDT as I write this, and since 4:00 this morning I’ve received a slew of promotional emails and at least four recognizably phishing expeditions — two that attempted to lure me into something (one from “Jasmine,” who wants me to stop sending her photos of myself; the other from “Mr. Anthony Richards,” writing with regard to an inheritance claim); the third was from Lyft, offering me cash; and the fourth, which came over my phone, for the second time in two days, was from an unidentified number in Tonga. Meanwhile, the President has already tweeted nine times in the past five hours. Any one of them will serve as a study in masterful manipulation and formal fallacy:
No sooner did I write the previous sentence that I received a news alert on my phone that, according to The New York Times, “The Trump administration will urge schools to ignore race in admissions.”
With their awkward syntax and frequent misspellings, email scams and spam are perhaps the most appropriate distorted format for our present condition. Take, for instance the first few lines from one that arrived several days ago:
I apologize if the content of my email is contrary to your moral ethics but I find it pleasurable to offer you my partnership in business. I am Cpt.Alejandro Ambrose, an officer in the US Army, presently serving in the Military with the 82nd Airborne Division Peace Keeping Force here in Afghanistan. I need your help in assisting me with the safe keeping of Two Military Trunk Boxes.
The conceit is almost always the same — an opening apology, followed by an offer coupled with the idea that somehow you, and only you could be the one. Often, what is so appealing about spam is the melodrama, the allure of partaking in something secret, something for which only we have been chosen — love, money, freedom-fighting.
Trump’s tweets aren’t too far off from the language of spam. There is an immediate, even intimate connection; the emotions are maxed out — love and hate with little in between. Everything sounds desperate, shouted or whispered (usually the former in Trump’s case). Like an email scam, everything in a Trump tweet sounds like it’s recruiting you, making you part of a thrilling saga.
But where, exactly, in this distorted format, is the implied mutation? Perhaps that is what’s so worrisome. Is it the rising level of distortion that feels so abnormal, or is it the distortion’s material means? Is it something inside us, growing without our awareness like an unidentified ailment? Worse still, are we being daily injected with something unbeknown to us?
Or are we all being weaned off sense and quietly taught to speak the language of spam?
Kindly note that, Mrs. Josephine Booth, citizen of United Kingdom UK who contacted you to distribute her funds to charity organizations Is dead, and her bank Halifax bank plc UK just contacted me as the representative attorney to late Mrs. Josephine Booth, to inform me of the deposited fund.
I have contacted Halifax bank upon which they informed me that they waited for you to show up for the claim of her funds valued at the sum of US$10,000,000.00 dollars but there was no turn-up from you.
PLEASE GET IN TOUCH WITH ME ASAP.