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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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.
Yet there are some very important differences between a real, physical disease and a virtual, digital idea. It is these differences that make digital information so much more powerful than anything we’ve ever encountered before. For the special properties of the internet turn digital information into the most virulent, most contagious pathogen that humanity has ever encountered.
In a very real sense, a biological disease is information warfare. It’s an attempt to co-opt the information at the core of our existence and turn our own cells against us.
A virus really is nothing more than information—a message encoded in DNA or RNA—stuffed into an envelope made of proteins. It’s not really alive; it doesn’t eat, it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t reproduce on its own. If left alone, it will sit, inert, indefinitely. But when it encounters a living cell, like the ones in our bodies, the virus recognizes that it has an opportunity to reproduce, to produce more of its kind. So it springs into action, and the battle begins.
The first step is to find a target, a vulnerable cell, and stick to it. When a virus attaches to, say, a white blood cell, the virus’s envelope breaks open and injects the viral information into the cell’s protoplasm. From there, the information—a set of instructions encoded in a long chain of chemicals—works its way to the cell’s information-processing centers.
Our cells really are, fundamentally, information-processing machines: they read out the instructions, the genetic code, written in our DNA and take actions based upon that code, building proteins, turning chemical switches on or off, or even making changes to the cell’s instruction set. When viral information enters the cell, it takes over the information-processing machinery. Instead of manufacturing proteins and other compounds that the cell needs to function properly, the cell begins to synthesize proteins that make up the viral envelope—and to make copy after copy after copy of the viral instructions that have hijacked the cell’s machinery. The cell is no longer functioning as it should, processing and obeying the genetic code passed down from generation to generation of humans; it has become a slave to the viral information. Depending on the virus’s nature, the end can take different forms. Often the cell simply disintegrates, falling apart into fragments, which, full of viral instructions, assemble themselves into new viruses. The cell becomes the birth mother of a whole new generation of viruses, each primed to take over a new host with its only weapon: information.
No matter whether a disease is caused by a virus, a bacterium, or a parasite, the illness is caused by information warfare taking place in our bodies. This is true even of cancer: a cancer cell is, fundamentally, a cell that’s learned to ignore certain instructions that are designed to limit its spread throughout the body. Freed from such constraints, it attempts to replicate itself and spread its information as widely as possible, completely oblivious to the fact that if it’s successful, it will kill the organism in which it resides.
Epidemiologists have a standard measure for how contagious a disease is: a number known as R0, the basic reproductive number of the disease. In an ideal situation, R0 represents how many people, on average, get infected by a single person who comes down with the disease. That is, imagine that a disease has an R0 of 2. This means that if one person catches the bug, he’ll infect two people. Each of these two people will infect two more—a total of four new infections. Each of the four patients infects two more, causing eight new cases. And so forth. Naturally, the higher the R0 is, the faster the disease will spread through a population.
There are three big factors that affect R0: transmissibility, persistence, and interconnectedness. Transmissibility is a measure of how easy it is for a disease to jump from person to person. A high transmissibility means that the disease will spread easily (think influenza), whereas a low transmissibility means that it’s relatively difficult for the virus or bacterium to infect a new host (as with HIV or tuberculosis). Persistence tells you how long a person carrying the disease is infectious; with the flu, a person will stop spreading the disease after a few days, while with HIV or tuberculosis, the person can be a source of new infections for years and years. The more persistent the disease, the more new cases a given patient is likely to cause. Finally, interconnectedness tells you how many people a patient is likely to come into contact with in such a way that it spreads the disease. This depends a bit on the nature of the disease, but also on the patient’s social habits—and the structure of his society. In a highly social setting, patients are more likely to come into contact with lots of people in a short amount of time and spread the disease more widely.
Every time a whooping-cough patient coughs, for example, he spews bacteria into the air around him—bacteria that’s extremely well adapted for invading our bodies. It’s an extremely contagious disease. It’s also infectious for a relatively long time—for several weeks after the bacterium first takes hold; it resides in the body, safe from our immune defenses, happily spreading its information into the world unhindered. And whooping cough is infectious even at the very beginning of the ailment, when the symptoms are relatively mild, so the patient will be able to walk around and spread the disease in the community before he even realizes he’s come down with a serious disease. Thus, whooping cough has high transmissibility, high persistence, and a relatively high contact rate in a postindustrial society. Scientists estimate that it has an R0 of 12 or more; that is, in an unvaccinated population, every case of whooping cough will lead to twelve new cases. And those twelve lead to 144. And those 144 lead to 1,728, and so forth and so forth. Very rapidly, even a single case of whooping cough can lead to a major outbreak.
Corrupted Blood made whooping cough look benign. Lofgren and Fefferman estimated that its R0 was in the hundreds—per hour. It was spread every time a character came into contact with an infected character’s blood. Since the disease made blood ooze out of a character’s every pore, it was likely that every avatar near an infected player would catch the disease as well. The transmissibility was incredibly high just from that alone. Even more interesting: the disease would rapidly kill its weaker victims, which would ordinarily limit the persistence of the disease. (After all, it’s harder for a dead person to spread an ailment.) However, there were a number of “reservoirs” where the disease would hide, waiting for the opportunity to infect new victims.
Players in World of Warcraft could have pets. Pets could get sick, too—and they wound up being a major reservoir of the disease. Even when a character had recovered from the disease, he would reunite with his sick pet and get reinfected, starting the ailment over again. Worse yet, there were extremely powerful “non-player characters” like shopkeepers and blacksmiths who also got sick but wouldn’t be killed by the virus. Like virtual versions of Typhoid Mary, they would harbor the disease and pass it on to other characters. There was no digital antibiotic or other cure that could clean out the reservoirs, so there the disease remained, waiting for fresh victims. Thus, its persistence was incredibly high, too.
But what put Corrupted Blood over the top was the third factor: interconnectedness. In the digital universe of World of Warcraft,interconnectedness went far beyond anything that could be realized in real life. Characters had the ability to teleport from city to city in an instant, spreading the disease far more quickly and widely than a real flesh-and-blood human ever could. In a virtual world, a character could be anywhere and everywhere in the blink of an eye, and with him came the disease. As a consequence, Corrupted Blood was unstoppable in a way no earthly disease could be. As Lofgren and Fefferman wrote:
In an effort to control the outbreak, Blizzard Entertainment employees imposed quarantine measures, isolating infected players from as-yet uninfected areas. These strategies failed because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, an inability to seal off a section of the game world effectively, and more than likely player resistance to the notion. The game’s developers did, however, have an option that remains unavailable to public-health officials: resetting the computers. When the servers ravaged by the epidemic were reset and the effect removed, the outbreak came to a halt.
The disease was so powerful that the gods had to intervene, reset the world, and start anew.
Computer diseases, like physical diseases, are at heart a competition around the spread of information; the invading organism attempts to get its own bits and bytes copied and spread around, even as the host attempts to stop the invasion.
Even though Corrupted Blood was merely a flow of information in a virtual universe, Lofgren and Fefferman were able to pick out some interesting consequences of ultra-high-transmissibility diseases—and one could easily imagine that if there happened to be a super-infectious outbreak of a real disease, the same consequences would apply in real life. For example, they noted that the outbreak was made worse by people who came to the aid of the first victims of the disease. World of Warcraft characters that were able to heal others quickly swarmed into the cities, only to catch the disease themselves and help it to spread. Just as bad, their healing powers kept infected characters alive longer, allowing them to spread the disease more effectively. When a disease with huge transmissibility and long persistence strikes a society with huge interconnectedness, the traditional ways of stopping the spread might be worse than useless—they might do more harm than good.
In other words, once your transmissibility, interconnectedness, and persistence increase beyond a certain point, the old rules break down.
Transmissibility, persistence, and connectedness govern how diseases spread in a population. They also dictate how information flows in a society. The great revolutions in the way humans have learned to communicate all are, fundamentally, discoveries that have changed the nature of these three properties.
Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years; primitive societies have been around for at least several tens of thousands. Yet we have very little insight into what these societies were like or what those early citizens believed. All we have is fragments: a shard of pottery, a well-worn tool, an unmarked grave, a rustic figurine. All else is lost to time; the memories and thoughts of those primordial peoples are entirely gone, except for perhaps a few ghostly whispers that echo in our earliest myths and in the ancient roots of our languages.
Over countless generations, human civilization advanced. We mastered fire. We learned to tame animals and till the soil. We created art and crafted religions. We extracted gold and other precious materials from the bowels of the earth and learned to smelt copper. And all of this happened in the dark, amorphous ages of early humanity. Then, five millennia ago, a new invention first blazed, lighting our way out of the undifferentiated murk of ancient time. The written word.
In prehistoric times, humans could certainly communicate with one another, transmitting information. We would speak, shout, gesture. We could remember what we had been told and what we had seen and tell it to our friends and family. But this communication method was inherently limited.
The information had to be communicated from person to person. This meant that the information wasn’t very transmissible; one person could spread the news to only a handful of people at a time. And this meant that it could travel only as far and as fast as people could travel. Interconnectedness was low.
More important, the medium in which that information was stored was the human brain, which meant that the information was stored and recalled imperfectly, with a chance of losing fidelity each time it was used or transmitted. Information passed on in this way is likely to be distorted and then even lost entirely after just a few retellings. Even though information can be kept relatively pristine for decades or even generations, especially through the use of trained storytellers or griots, most information has no hope of surviving intact as century after century slips by. Persistence was low; the information was as perishable and fallible as the brains it was stored in. And this is why we have so little information from the earliest civilizations.
Then, five thousand years ago or so, we humans figured out how to preserve information by setting it down in an external, physical form that could survive long after the demise of the flesh from whence it sprang. Our ideas finally began to transcend time. The printed word (or the chiseled one)—in clay, in stone, upon papyrus—made our thoughts persistent enough to survive hundreds or even thousands of years. The birth of the written word was, quite literally, the dawn of history.
From an epidemiologist’s point of view, the great revolution of writing was fundamentally one of persistence. It improved transmissibility somewhat: an inscription on a monument or a scroll in a library could reach more people than a single orator could—though this was tempered by the fact that it took much longer to inscribe a copy by longhand than it did for a speaker to relay the same information. And the interconnectedness was mostly unchanged; the information could spread only as far and as fast as people could carry the word abroad. But the newfound persistence of written language transformed civilization.
The persistence afforded by writing was amazing; we can read inscriptions about monarchs and temples and property transactions that would have been forgotten four millennia ago but for the fact that someone thought to set the information down in writing. However, that persistence is flawed. It’s dependent not only on the creation of a written record, but also the physical survival of that record despite the weathering of centuries. Ancient books are littered with references to volumes that have submerged back under the sea of time, never again to resurface. All we have left are cryptic references. In the book of Joshua, for example, the description of the famous battle at Jericho says that “the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher?” We know little about what the Book of Jasher was, or what it contained—but there are not one but two references to it in the Bible. (The second reference, in 2 Samuel, involves the Israelite army’s learning to use the bow in warfare.) So, too, have we lost the Book of the Wars of the Lord, the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel, the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, and many more.
Most of the knowledge accumulated in the ancient world is gone for good, because even relatively permanent media can be destroyed. A fire can destroy papyrus; a conqueror can smash stone and clay. A document’s survival depends not only upon the medium it’s written on, but also upon how widely disseminated it has become—the more copies there are, the harder it is to lose that document for eternity. Unfortunately, writing was labor-intensive and expensive. Copying had to be done by hand, and thus copies of even the most popular works of ancient times were incredibly rare by today’s standards. A single catastrophic event, like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, could (and did) extirpate large sections of our collective memory.
When a book was important enough for scribes to make large numbers of copies, the very fact that it had to be copied by hand threatened the information the book contained, because the act of copying would create disparate versions of the original. If we’re lucky enough to have several copies of an ancient manuscript, it’s the norm for these copies to differ, often in significant ways. Copyists would make errors or, even worse, edit the work, inserting or deleting elements of the text if the whim struck them. Even in the best-case scenario—when there’s a deep prohibition against altering the text or introducing errors—mistakes creep in. With the Torah, for example, copyists are enjoined to copy not just every letter but every character faithfully; failing to do so, even in the slightest respect, renders the scroll unusable. Yet even so, you can see errors that have crept in over the years: enlarged or shrunken characters, backward and upside-down letters, even a “broken” version of a vowel. These anomalies, likely introduced initially by scribes’ errors, are now copied faithfully—any Torah must contain these now deliberate mistakes in order to be considered kosher. The very act of copying the manuscript degraded the information it contained at the very same time that it enhanced its persistence.
So things stood until the invention of the printing press. In the West, the age of print began in the fifteenth century, with Johannes Gutenberg.* By putting interchangeable, easily fabricated metal letters into a frame, Gutenberg was able to churn out huge numbers of nearly error-free copies of the same manuscript cheaply and quickly. Not only did this increase persistence by virtue of the existence of many, many more copies of important works than ever before; it also revolutionized transmissibility.
Back when information had to be copied by hand, a single storyteller could reach thousands of people in the time it took to write out just a single copy of a manuscript longhand. Even though the written copy was hardier—and it could survive for much longer than a storyteller would—mere writing didn’t herald a dramatic change in how easy it was for ideas to spread from person to person. It was still a slow and difficult process, limited by the small number of copies of the information. But after the invention of the printing press, it became possible to print hundreds or thousands of copies of a document, which meant that transmitting information had become as easy as handing out one copy of a mass-produced pamphlet. Information, even complex information that takes pages and pages to set down, could spread more quickly, more easily, and more widely than ever before. Our voices had suddenly become amplified. The information had become much more transmissible.
Nevertheless, the spread of that information was limited by the time it took to physically transport a book or a pamphlet from place to place. The printing press made information easy to spread through a society, but it couldn’t change the speed at which that information would travel. It would take weeks and even months for messages to cross the Atlantic from Britain to North America, for example. This is why the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the formal end of the War of 1812—it took more than a month before the warriors on the American continent would discover that the hostilities were supposed to have ended. So, while information was more transmissible, the interconnectedness of people was more or less the same as it was in ancient times. News could spread only as far and as fast as people could carry it on their backs. As a result, there were always people in a society who had zero chance of encountering a new piece of information for days and weeks and months after it had first emerged.
This didn’t change for centuries. Information could travel only as fast as post-horse. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the telegraph made it possible to send messages across the world in an instant. It took only seconds for the phrase “What hath God wrought?” to fly from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, a trip that would have taken hours even by train. With that message, information was liberated. It was no longer shackled to the movements of people. And then, with the invention of wireless, the sender and receiver didn’t even have to be connected in any physical manner. Information could simply wing its way through the air at the speed of light, leaving its flesh-bound creators far behind.
This was a revolution in interconnectedness. Parts of the world that were previously isolated from one another, information-wise, had suddenly been brought into direct contact. It used to be that after leaving port and sailing away from the shore, a passenger on a ship was totally cut off from the rest of the world. But by the early twentieth century, even that had ceased to be true, as the infamous Hawley Crippen discovered.
In 1910, Dr. Crippen murdered his wife and, along with his lover, fled England aboard a cruise liner bound for Canada. After setting sail, the captain recognized the fugitives and sent a message via wireless to the mainland: “HAVE STRONG SUSPICION THAT CRIPPEN . . . AND ACCOMPLICE ARE AMONG SALOON PASSENGERS.” A Scotland Yard agent boarded a faster ship, beat the doctor to Canada, and slapped the manacles on the murderer before he could set foot in the New World. Even a ship in the middle of the ocean was no longer isolated from the rest of society.
Telegraphy both wired and wireless, telephony, radio, television, satellite communications—all of these inventions allow communication of various kinds at the speed of light, linking us all together more tightly and thoroughly. It is now possible to find out what is happening on the opposite end of the globe with little more effort than it takes to find out what’s going on a few miles away. Physical distance has ceased to be a barrier to information.
Even as these inventions increased interconnectedness, in some sense they decreased persistence: a telephone conversation or a radio transmission was, by its very lack of physicality, evanescent. It had to be: information needed to be captured, transformed into something that could be moved around at the speed of light, then transformed again into a form that we could view and understand. The information couldn’t be inscribed in a medium as immutable as a stone tablet, because the very act of high-speed transmission required that the information be able to change. It took extra effort (and often new inventions) to take that protean light-speed information and chain it to a fixed medium. It wasn’t easy to preserve the information in a television broadcast so that it could be replayed over and over again. But these barriers to fixing broadcast information in a permanent medium could be overcome, however imperfectly, with ticker tape or magnetic tape or fax paper—it was possible to create a lasting physical record of information that had flown across the world in a fraction of a second.*
Then came the internet.
And with it came what may be the ultimate information revolution. Digital information—information stored in bits and bytes—combined all the attributes of the previous revolutions. Digital information is incredibly persistent. Not only does a single copy, stored correctly, last longer than a book; it also costs almost nothing to store data—and the storage takes up almost no space at all. Digital information can be copied with perfect fidelity in a tiny fraction of a second, dwarfing the abilities of even the best printing press. And anywhere there’s power and an internet connection, or even a cell-phone signal or a decent view of the sky, it’s possible to hook into the internet and access vast stores of digital information in the far corners of the globe. Persistence, transmissibility, and interconnectedness were all increased dramatically as the whole world came online. From an epidemiological point of view, the R0 of information had just gone through the roof.
For good and for ill, digital information is now the most contagious thing on the planet.
At its core, your brain is an information-processing machine. It takes information from the outside world through its sense organs, extracts the important stuff, churns on it, and digests it. Then, based upon that new information as well as information it already has stored up, it decides how to behave.
Bad information is a disease that attacks the brain. It messes with your head, making you do things that you shouldn’t, causing you to make wrong decisions. Just as a potent virus co-opts your cells’ machinery, bad information can co-opt your behavior. It can alter the way you interact with the world and, as a result, it can change the world.
At noon on May 16, 2007, the technology website Engadget posted a scoop about Apple. Thanks to a leaked internal memo, the Engadget crew had gotten wind that there was going to be a several-month delay in the release of the new iPhone. It was bad news for Apple, which had been banking on huge sales from the new device. Within seconds the stock was plunging, and it quickly lost more than 2 percent of its value. Hundreds upon hundreds of people had lost—and others had gained—millions of dollars.
Within a few minutes, an Apple representative called the website with an important piece of information: the memo was a fake. Someone had crafted a fraudulent but convincing-looking internal memo and e-mailed it to various people; by using a spoofed e-mail address, the hoaxer made it look as if the e-mail had come from Apple itself. So what Engadget had considered a reliable source was anything but—it was somebody who had wanted to mess with Apple by spreading bad information.
In less than half an hour, the stock had climbed back almost to its previous value—but not before a lot of money changed hands. A bit of bad information had, in a few minutes, changed people’s perception of the value of a company; and almost as quickly, the misperception disappeared. A worthless piece of information, conjured out of thin air and disguised in just the right way, wound up echoing around the world, had a real financial impact on individual portfolios, and affected the fortunes of a major company.
The market has always fluttered at the slightest rumors. What is new about digital information is the volume of information that flies back and forth between so many people so quickly and so effectively and with so little verification of the facts contained within. But the speed at which a rumor takes hold and, consequently, the dramatic effects that bad information can have are almost unthinkable. Witness the “flash crash” of 2010. In less than five minutes, the Dow Jones dropped fully six hundred points as traders around the world sold stocks. One trillion dollars had simply evaporated. The trillion dollars was back fifteen minutes later. And stock traders from Bombay to Kalamazoo were all experiencing the same heart palpitations.*
Digital information has an unbelievably high R0, and this means that it’s hard to stop once it emerges. It spreads from person to person—even those at a great distance—incredibly quickly, thanks to its high transmissibility and the high interconnectedness of digital society. Once it escapes into the wild, it’s all but impossible to stop its spread. This is wonderful, so long as the information is correct and useful. But if it’s wrong, if it alters our brains for the worse, if it makes us make mistakes and think incorrect things, it’s a scourge.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Virtual Unreality
Mr. Seife (a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of five books on science and math) . . . is a meticulous writer, and he quickly won me over—unfortunately. . . . [H]is portrait is persuasive and thus disconcerting and frightening.
—Howard Schneider, The Wall Street Journal
“Virtual Unreality is a talisman we gullible can wield in the hope that we won’t get fooled again.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
Praise for Proofiness
"Passionate...this is more than a math book; it's an eye-opening civics lesson."--The New York Times Book Review
"An admirable salvo against quantitative bamboozlement by the media and the government."--The Boston Globe
"A delightful and remarkably revealing book that should be required reading for...well, everyone."--Booklist (starred review)
"Detailed and hardhitting."--The Charlotte Observer
"If Stephen Colbert had had time to write a math book, he surely would have written Proofiness."--The Dallas Morning News
Praise for Decoding the Universe
"For the former liberal arts major and other right-brainers, Seife is the man."--Salon.com
"A timely book."--New Scientist
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