Lethal Chip

I’ve just watched a video on television that curdled my blood. Its title is Millennial Year. With the bombast of a titanic revelation, it spreads the good news: Humanity has the potential to attain perfection with the aid of a chip implant for everyone on earth.

Although the video’s authors do not attempt to explain the process of extrasensory mind-to-mind communication they assume that the process exists. Since thought itself is far from being thoroughly understood and having experienced telepathy personally, I accept their assumption. But I abhor the video’s appalling message.

Early in the video, we see a swarm of bees. That serves to set the scene for the message. Then, in order to soften the negative impact of the message, the authors introduce us to the venerable Michio Kaku who cheerfully reinforces the virtues of Swarm Intelligence. Ah!…hence the busy bees at work!

There is no mention that bees communicate their needs by dances, buzzes, and chemicals, not telepathy. Bees have done that for 130 million years. We are also shown swarms of birds and fish as two other examples of Swarm Intelligence.  The same is true of mammals, including latecomers, human beings.

Regrettably, the video is totally in tune with the tone of current society. It absurdly extolls the eagerly anticipated chip’s ability to provide a dinner group with ‘telepathic’ communication while they are eating. We see actors at the table awkwardly enhancing their telepathic skills with facial expressions while chewing food (multitasking); the chip would also provide faster communication than spoken language (this satisfies today’s obsession for speed); the video is slick. It is filled with clichés, e.g., the use of The Blue Danube as background music in one of the scenes. Apparently, the pretentious film, titled 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to have amateur writers join the flock of Kubrick admirers (auteurs are on the rise).    

Having seen the video only once, I am not certain about the order of its content. But its message is absolutely clear. I’m shocked by its blatant endorsement of Swarm Intelligence, Collective Intelligence, and Hive Mind. Even its authors sensed that those terms would not sit well with some of us. Anticipating our contempt for North Korean absolute conformity, they soften those terms with a colossal euphemism, eDemocracy, the heinous concept of a chip-based ‘human Internet’ consisting of 8 billion people thinking about solutions to human problems through billions of Nano chips.

But what about the collective thought of the Hive Mind? Wouldn’t it at best be average? According to the authors, that’s not a problem: all we need do for the perfection of humanity is “shed ego, self, and individuality!” No comment.

[Note: I wrote a whimsical science fiction article for this web site in April 27, 2016, titled One and subtitled A Fiction Soon to be Real. Now, I’m saddened to know that my subtext was somewhat prescient.]

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The Great Disconnect

[Part 2 of Two]

[Continued from Critical Paradox, Part 1 of Two, February 21, 2017]

“Crown jewel of the Information Age, the Internet throbs with an incomparably vast source of accurate information.  It is also obviously saturated with incorrect, false, and even deliberately misleading information on a grand scale.”

─ Critical Paradox (Part 1 of Two)

At the instant of conception, we have no control over our DNA, miniscule control (if any) over our environment in the womb, and very little control during our infancy and early childhood. Those critical factors, traditionally known as ‘heredity and environment,’ significantly determine our interaction with life.

The next major stage of life is ‘Coming of Age.’ Whatever the dynamics of heredity and environment may be, the teenager no longer asks, “Why is the sky blue?” Now, he questions the complex issues of humankind. It is at this point that the overwhelming majority of teenagers have a proclivity towards group conformity.  Crazy socks and stunts are merely one way to be a popular member of the group; authentic individualists tend to be loners. Either way, gaps between parents and children do not necessarily include political differences. Family generation gaps, e.g., between father and son or mother and daughter are what I affectionately perceive as ‘semi-primordial.’ On the other hand, Generation Gaps (with a capital ‘G’) are societal gaps and are generally associated with largescale events, e.g., extraordinary economic conditions or political events, including major wars. But in the ‘60s the political familial gap was as wide as its societal gap.

The term “Generation Gap” itself originated in the ‘60s.  Several generation titles, e.g., “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Lost Generation,” speak for themselves as do many other generational titles, but most Americans refer to the ‘60s by its timeline: “the ‘60s.”

In reference to the sudden widespread use of drugs, especially by the young, it has been said of the ‘60s, “If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there.” I vividly remember the ‘60s and was definitely ‘there.’  When Charles Dickens writes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” his description can easily be applied to the ‘60s. I was a bit past my coming of age but had empathy for the young ‘flower people.’

In the ‘60s, the young warned each other, “Never trust anyone over 30!” It had not occurred to them that they too would someday be over 30.  They are elderly now and discreetly no longer impose an age limit on honesty. Some are still countercultural, others conformists, and a few have since discovered that it’s possible to be over 30 and honest at the same time. Those few were honest before and during the ‘60s, and several still are honest.  Honesty tends to be permanent.

The causes and effects of societal gaps are usually described in broad strokes. But generational titles, facts, and entangled interpretations of facts intertwine in the larger context of historic events. For example, the Great Depression (the ‘30s) refers to a worldwide economic depression. The Greatest Generation gets its title from a book written decades later (‘90s) by a famous commentator in deference to the heroism of depression victims and WWll soldiers. The combined timeline for those two events (the ‘30s to the end of WWll) is such that the same individual might have experienced both the depression and WWll.

Millions did, and of course a few of us are still ‘around.’

My parents, two siblings and I didn’t experience a family gap. Being comfortable with my parents and grandparents, I took a pass on familiar rebellion.  Still a child in the mid- ‘30s I wasn’t aware that there was a worldwide depression, but I was sharply aware of my family’s struggle to survive.

Too young to be employed, I had the notion that I might at least help keep the Depression ─ with a capital ‘D’─ out of our home. One of my tricks was to create menus that I placed alongside seven plates at a dinner table set for members of three no-gap generations. The menus described the items of food and drink we were to have for dinner.  Inspired by the mouth-watering fragrances wafting from the kitchen, I inscribed elaborate titles on the menus for those dinner items in Italian, French, and hyped English depending on what was to be served for dinner that evening. On my menus beans and peas were ‘Légumes Céleste’; boiled potatoes were ‘Pommes de Terre Bouilles Extraordinaire;’ and the homemade wine was ‘Vino Straordinario.’  I didn’t know it then, but the inexpensive dinners my mother and grandmother prepared on a miniscule budget were actually Michelin three-star gourmet specialties!

At that table I was the youngest generation. Now I am the oldest generation at any table in the world. Perhaps it is my longevity that prompts me to combine several generations into a single period. Specifically, those generations are as follows: Baby Boomers, X, Y, and Z (a.k.a. IGEN/Millennials/ Centennials).  I think that’s why (authorities?) resorted to the postwar birth boom and the alphabet soup for post-1946 generational titles.

[Note: Typical of current linguistic fuzziness, generational titles vary. Of course that’s okay when The Great Generation is also called The Greatest Generation or The GI generation. The same is true of other generations that have two or more titles for the same generation. But during my research for this article, I noted that the iGEN generation has six or seven titles, none of which relates to any of its other titles. A social media ‘guru’ online cheerfully explains that the ‘i’ in iGEN ─ also capitalized as IGEN ─ can have a variety of very different meanings. He said, “we’ll just have to wait awhile” before choosing what the ‘I’ will eventually mean.” I add to that: “Does the ‘guru’ include the first person singular as the ultimate title? If so, wouldn’t that meaning require title disambiguation along with the Me Generation?]

If the vast volume of information available online and other sources that define the baby boomer and alphabet soup generations were to be crunched into a single historic period, the result would be the predominance of economic, workplace, and technological concerns.

There are workshops to expand an employee’s electronic communication skills to suit generational preferences, e.g., E-mail vs phone vs. face-to-face communications. There are workshops designed to smooth business relationships and age sensitivities between the young and the not so young employees.

And then there is me. My workshop is life.

As a child, I interacted every day with several people whose coming of age was in the late 19th century. Four of them, my grandparents, were born in Italy but came to live in America beginning with the period of America’s “Gay Nineties.”

[They spoke to me in Sicilian. Grandma told me about her teenage abduction in Sicily. She was walking on a dirt road close to home. Suddenly, a carriage driven by a coachman roared down the road. It was stopped by its driver within a few feet of her.  Grandpa jumped out of the carriage, threw a hood over her head, and carried her into the cab.  Her father and brothers pursued the carriage. They overtook it. They were about to kill grandpa.  But grandma, fearing she would lose her eligibility for marriage because she was alone with a man in a carriage, opened the carriage door, removed her hood, and announced, “He’s my husband now!” He was the grandfather that made the homemade wine that I titled ‘Vino Straordinario.’ When he died, Grandma was devastated. I didn’t understand why then, but now I do. As a native American in a subcultural Sicilian society, I developed a sense of generational differences that spanned two cultures and several generations.]

Mom and dad spoke to me in English and Sicilian. At dinner we all spoke in Sicilian in respect for my grandparents. As a child, I had a firsthand glimpse of “The Roaring Twenties.” An uncle of the same generation as my parents spoke to me about his experiences in the trenches of WWl. There was nothing formal about the narratives of their past. Yet, their intimate conversations with me were a form of higher education. At that time, grandparents, their children, and grandchildren spoke and learned from each other both in fun and in depth.

My mom was born in Palermo, the capitol of Sicily. The entire coast of Sicily was once a province of ancient Greece. When speaking English to me, she would occasionally slip into Sicilian, her native language, to dramatically quote a proverb. At twenty, I read a classic Greek play by Sophocles in which that proverb appears.  I was struck by that prime example of Western Civilization’s continuity: From Sophocles to mom to me.

Generations and their gaps do not exist in a vacuum. And since procreation is continuous, several generations (not just three) are contemporaries at any given moment. They affect each other directly and indirectly whatever their generational differences in age. The ‘snapshot’ descriptions of generations following 1946 reflect a superficial and economy-focused assessment of American generations following WW2. Their differences are primarily described in terms of the workplace and technology. I’m far more inclined to learn about the moral fiber of a generation. It is from those descriptions and personal experiences that I absorb the essence of generations.

Also, at the risk of seeming presumptuous, I think of generations in the traditional biological sense rather than in overlapping 20-year periods. Based on that premise, the post-war period to the present might be condensed into a single period and labeled, The Information Age.

Fast Forward to The Information Age

I believe the stream of history flows deeper when a culture is reviewed in terms of its values and direction, not primarily its economy. Of course the worldwide Great Depression is an exception: the devastating economy, exacerbated by America’s dust bowl, was the primary event of the ‘30s.

After the war, familial intercommunications somewhat diminished.  Television replaced conversation. Families watched TV at the dinner table and directly after that watched it from the couch. A whole evening might go by with minimal conversation except during commercials and rushes to the refrigerator or bathroom during commercials.  When the family had separate TVs in the home to suit age and taste differences, conversation diminished to a word or two such as, “Good Night.”

Assuming a family has dinners together, at today’s table it is not unusual for teenage children to  text their friends through most if not all of dinnertime, even though mom and dad are the hosts for those dinners. At larger gatherings and celebratory parties, frenzied fingers click in communication with friends who are not present at the party. In effect, they are ‘somewhere else.’

The current Generation (Z) generally avoids significant conversations about anything that happened prior to its coming of age.  Yes, that has always been true of the young because the young are…well…young. But today’s generation is bereft of a sense of historic continuity. And that lack is exacerbated by their extraordinary lack of elementary knowledge of what happened before they came of age.

I’ve spoken to twenty-year-olds who never heard of ancient Greece let alone that it ignited Western Civilization.  A university student told me that her history lessons begin with ancient Rome! Another student majoring in Music, never heard of Puccini! Another student shocked me when I pointed to a framed Hubble photo of the galaxy Andromeda hanging on a wall in my living room. He told me that he didn’t know that galaxies exist and that there is a universe packed with them! Please note that I don’t ‘test’ anyone about knowledge ─ ever. Know also that the incidences I’ve cited are just three of countless chance exchanges I’ve had with America’s young. They reveal a great disconnect from significant knowledge.

The kids have the universe nestled in the palms of their hands. They were born into a society in which exponential information is at the tip of their fingers. Yet, they are bereft of elementary knowledge about science, art, and history, the grand triumvirate of civilization. Throughout history, the bonding factors of the young and the more mature have always been based on a sense of existential continuity, a factor which is virtually nonexistent in today’s young. The kids talk to ‘Alexa,’ but have little to talk about with their parents.

The kids are addicted to multitasking, a practice that breeds errors. They are obsessed by the Internet and its electronic progeny. At the workplace, the briefer their communications ─ verbal or written ─ the better. The dark energy of social media dominates the world of communications. How ironic in the Information Age!

In the natural course of time, my generation is on the verge of extinction.  We and our children have largely closed generational gaps. We have more or less amalgamated into the harmonious recognition that we have much more in common than in our differences.

This time, the gap is not merely generational. This time, the gap is not just another ripple in the stream of American social evolution. This time, a silent, negative gap has widened to the extent of a rip in America’s existential continuity.

America needs a Renaissance of its own. I hope it will find one.

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Critical Paradox

[Part 1 of Two]

At ninety, I think of this article as virtually posthumous. You see, I have a compulsion to convey my life experience to the young as rapidly and as much as dwindling time will allow. So, I’d better hurry.

But first, lest I be accused of being ‘retro’ just because I’m a nonagenarian, I unequivocally regard the Internet as at least momentous as the advent of the printing press. Instant electronic communication combined with absolute freedom of speech and global online availability have revolutionized the methodology and dispersal of information. Great!

That being said, I’d like to share my perspective on two Internet pitfalls to which its users are subjected…that is, if they allow themselves to be subjected.

The Minor Pitfall

When I initially click online, I feel assaulted by the instant appearance of an unsolicited and automated ‘slide’ show under the banner of AOL News. The general pattern of each slide’s ‘layout’ is the same. There is a headline at the top, followed by four or five brief sentences that lead to but almost always avoid specifics of the slide’s content unless the unwary user clicks for the continuance of the opening text by clicking onto a briefly paused slide. If he does that, he often is ambushed into an advertisement!

With my tongue firmly tucked in cheek, I can’t resist whimsically maligning the AOL feature in and by itself with my own made-up headlines followed by a few comments.  As I’m sure you’ve noticed, sometimes actual examples are better than imagined ones. Accordingly, I’ve identified and underlined a segment below as Imagined Headlines, the other as Actual Headlines. All headlines are in italicized bold type.

Imagined Headlines

A New Perspective on Reality. In anticipation of a philosophic piece, a user clicks for the substance of the fleeting headline. Suddenly, she finds herself ambushed into an advertisement for eyeglasses. Roseanne Reveals Her Terrible Secret. The article is a ploy to keep Rosanne visible. ∙Five Foods that Will Kill You. I’ve eaten at least one of those ‘deadly’ foods on a daily basis since I was a child and my longevity has reached its ninth decade. Food headlines are virtually a daily staple in slide headlines that are often designed to peddle a book, doctor, or dietician∙ Stephen Hawking Warns of Alien Global Genocide. From time to time, we hear from the brilliant cosmologist who has a penchant for keeping himself visible in a competitive world. There have been several grim warnings from him about the end of the human race.

Actual Headlines

Before beginning this article, I had listed those imagined headlines (above) as typical examples of ‘shell game’ slides. However, I always make strong efforts to be as accurate as possible before I submit an article. To that end and after I had listed my headlines and comments, I searched for an actual headline on AOL News.  As I expected, I found one in a few minutes. That headline was, “Biggest Event in Human History” Immanent. But there is a catch! Note that the word “Immanent” appears  after the word “History” and after the closing quotation mark. That is not a typographical or printing error. It is, however, a deliberate deception by the advertiser to avoid libel. In the body of the copy, the word “Immanent” is not included at all. Instead, the “biggest event in human history” [not capitalized] is represented as a Stephen Hawking quote (and implied endorsement) for Tier Zero, whatever that is!

Einstein Was Wrong (or its literal equivalent) is a frequent headline on the Internet and on the slide show. I’ve come across dozens of websites in search engines written by aspiring cosmologists who hope to rival Einstein’s fame by disclaiming his incomparable discovery of Specific and General Relativity, those twin phenomenon (still referred to as ‘theories’!) which have been repeatedly proved for more than a century. Hypotheses can be proved wrong, but proved theories cannot be ‘unproved.

Another of my favorite real headlines is The Universe is a Hologram! Yeah, and reindeer fly.

Clicking for random, unrelated, and misleading headlines under the banner of “news” is a form of surfing the net. On the other hand, browsing the net, the kind of search that is based on specific user goals, provides significant information for the user without playing the ‘shell game’ of misleading headlines. The only time I use the AOL slide feature is when I see only a tiny fragment of a news item on TV that seems important enough to research.  But even then, entering a key word search is at least as productive as the cumbersome AOL News feature.

A long time ago and shortly after my first full exploration of an AOL slide show, I learned to resist the temptation to click onto that first unsolicited slide no matter how sensational its headline. Now, I directly enter a key word for a search even if the first AOL headline tells me that beginning at 5:22 a.m. next Tuesday the world will end. No problem: I’ll sleep through the global event or, better yet, set the alarm to watch it.

The Major Pitfall

The AOL News feature is a whisper lost in the Internet’s roar. In itself, that feature is a microcosmic model of the Internet. But the Internet is a colossus. It has no beginning or end. Its ‘form’ is formless. It has no preconceived order. And that is as it should be.

The Internet exerts an undefinable yet immense impact on human behavior, especially as it relates to an unprecedented generational gap that exponentially exceeds any other rift in the history of humankind. This gap is like no other before it.  Past gaps were resolved by an amalgamation of tradition and innovation. That is no longer true.

In the past, despite disparate lifestyles, people at different ages from grandparents to grandchildren developed common ground to stand on for mutually beneficial relationships. As a positive result, the gap shrunk as they learned from each other. Tragically, that has not happened since the beginning of the 21st century.

Crown jewel of the Information Age, the Internet throbs with an incomparably vast source of information. Obviously, it is also saturated with incorrect, false, or even deliberately misleading information on a grand scale. Perhaps what I’ve learned about the search for truth on this side of my life cycle, combined with my experience through three generation gaps, will be of use to you.

[To be continued in Part 2 of Two, titled The Great Disconnect]

 

 

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Endangered Sound

Lest you misunderstand me to be a misogynist, allow me to state at the beginning that this article is prompted by esthetics not anger.

Dear Ladies:

On September 22, 2014, I posted an article titled, Ladies…please…! In it, I grumbled about the widespread vocal affectation that has swept across America’s women with the intensity of an out-of-control viral epidemic. “Vocal Fry,” is the ill-conceived notion that women need to distort whatever natural voice they’re born with to the sound of a pneumatic drill blasting through granite in order to acquire an authoritative sound. That sound is an assault on the human ear.

Two years later, the drill relentlessly goes on. The number of its practitioners is now well over two-thirds of female celebrities, particularly newscasters, political pundits, politicians, and weatherwomen. [Note: In stark contrast to the overwhelming number of vocal fry speakers, Janice Huff (NBC, Channel 4, 11 o’clock News) is a meteorologist whose natural voice is so beautiful that I often switch to that channel not necessarily to watch a weather report, but just to hear her speak! Her voice is like honey to the tongue and music to the ear. I’ve been in love with her rich, mellow sound for decades. In stark contrast to vocal fry practitioners, she provides therapeutic relief for those of us who are badgered by vocal fry. In addition to her professional clarity, Ms. Huff consistently enhances her day-after-day performances with a freshness of style unique in the weather forecasting field.]

Vocal Fry is forever imbedded in many films. The period of some films can be identified by the incidence of vocal fry actors. I literally cannot listen to their sound. I’m often compelled to change television channels to avoid exposure to the intensely irritating sound of vocal fry. I often find myself switching away from a film because the fry sizzles in more than one actress. If the leading lady is a vocal fryer, I’m unable to endure the granite drill no matter how fine the film  may be otherwise.

Very often, there are as many vocal fry speakers as there are women on a TV talk show! Close your eyes while they are speaking and you will find that you can’t tell which of the women is speaking. They all sound alike. The sound is similar to that of someone afflicted with a severe respiratory problem like laryngitis (inflamed voice box). Although laryngitis is a natural biological anomaly, the raspy, gravelly sound of vocal fry is an affectation deliberately created by squeezing the larynx thereby allowing air to haphazardly flap vocal chords. Social motivations for this affectation are discussed in the article cited above.

Very much less practiced by professional males, vocal fry is an affectation overwhelmingly practiced by women. When a man creates that sound it is not quite as affected as that of a woman because his vocal range is usually naturally lower than that of a woman and the contrast between his natural voice and his occasionally fried words is not quite as jarring as that of a woman. For example, when the newscaster and commentator, Shepard Smith, speaks the word “world” he invariably fries the letters “orld.” On the other hand, when women fry their words the sound is blatantly ugly. For example, Kim Kardashian’s  fluent vocal fry is incomparably ugly. I don’t know why she’s famous, except that role models are not necessarily special. Someday, and only by chance, I may see what it is that she does to make her famous, but judging by her vocal affectation, there’s no point in checking her resumé.

What concerns me most, ladies, is that unlike virtually all ill-conceived cultural fads, this one threatens to affect children. They are the best of mimics, especially when learning a language. To exacerbate matters, this cultural phenomenon is easy to emulate. It is now in its second generation. Time is running out. Please restore your naturally varied voices as soon as possible. Don’t allow this cultural nightmare to affect our language permanently. Don’t allow “feminism” to diminish your femininity.

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“Words, words, words”

-Hamlet

My previous article posted October 10, 2016 and titled A Plague on Both Your Houses was generated by my revulsion to a vicious lie. I specifically dealt with only one of the two presidential candidates because the lie was beyond politics as usual. But in terms of the other candidate, the title of that article speaks for itself.

Now I’d like to reveal another kind of lie. This time it is about our Fourth Estate. This time it is about the abuse of free speech. This time it is about subtext that is deliberately designed to trick a reader into thinking what he is reading means something other than the actual text. This time the lie is the “smoke and mirrors” of dishonest wordsmiths. A not so subtle but perfect example of their dishonesty follows.

On October 23 AOL writes: Among Democrats and Democrat-leaning likely voters, 88 percent said that Clinton won the (third) debate. An overwhelming majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning likely voters, 77 percent said that Trump won the (third) debate. [underlines mine]

My question: Why is 77 percent overwhelming while 88 percent is not!

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A Plague on Both Your Houses

-Shakespeare

For obvious reasons I have no intention of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I don’t feel guilty about not voting because New York is not a swing state, so my single vote is of no consequence.

I’m also aware that conflicting political lies are (as always) rampant on both sides of the aisle, and that in the long-run they are a wash. But through the many decades that I’ve heard all kinds of political lies from partisan advocates, those that are most disturbing to me are vicious lies. Clinton is guilty of such a lie.

If you are a voter in a swing state and pondering on whether or not Clinton is trustworthy, this commentary will provide you with a definitive “no” in answer to that question. Of course knowing for certain that she is not trustworthy does not necessarily disqualify her from your vote. You may decide to vote for her because you prefer her over Trump whether she’s trustworthy or not, even if only because you believe she is the “lesser of two evils,” a common reason that millions of people vote for one candidate or the other.

The press and most social media have largely underplayed Clinton’s incredibly unfair lie. Although I’m not a political partisan, I’m compelled to provide you with the following information in the event that you are not aware of it.

A day or so ago, most media claimed that Donald Trump said veterans who suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are weak (!). I thought, “That doesn’t sound right. Trump knows a statement like that would guarantee that he’d lose the election.” Later in the week, my speculation about the mainstream media’s deceiving claim was confirmed by two video clips I saw on TV.

The first video clip shows us what Trump actually said. (I would like to quote his words verbatim and entirely but could not find either clip online.) In response to a question he was asked about aid for veterans who suffer from PTSD as a result of their war experiences, Trump was unmistakably sympathetic to their suffering. Part of his response was that while some people “in this room” (a press session?) may not necessarily be mentally injured by PTSD resulting from war experiences, other people (veterans) may suffer from PTSD and that those disabled veterans should receive aid. His message was absolutely clear. It was unequivocally sympathetic to and in favor of helping PTSD veterans. Explicitly or implicitly, Trump absolutely did not call PTSD veterans “weak.” Nevertheless, “Weak” was the media’s spun buzz word.

The second clip was that of Clinton who, along with much of the media, blatantly distorted what Trump said. Clinton didn’t simply ‘imply’ that Trump’s full statement was one of indifference to those disabled veterans. Nor did she simply misunderstand Trump’s position on aiding them. She deliberately lied by distorting Trump’s words beyond recognition and spun them into the opposite of Trump’s actual statement. The tone of her voice was one of deep indignation, a lie in and of itself. That lie is not just run-of-the-mill politics. It’s an unforgivable kind of lie.

[Note: While watching the second presidential debate, I noticed that in her list of reasons for Trump’s unfitness to be president she included his ‘indifference’ to “the disabled,” By avoiding the word “veterans” she safely removed any reference to the real veterans’ incident and at the same time shrewdly implied that she was referring to all the disabled. That is the act of an expert liar.]

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Tinkering with Reality

SCIENCE

In quantum physics, the very act of observing an electron affects the results: we can observe the velocity or position of an electron, but not both at the same time. An analogy to this is that the presence of news media changes an event being reported because people behave differently when they know they are being observed.

In 1971 there was an experiment designed and supervised by a psychologist, Dr. Zimbardo. The subjects of that experiment were university students. Forty-Four years later the event was replicated in a 2015 film. Both events are titled The Stanford Prisoner Experiment; both events are reviewed and discussed extensively in books, essays, school classrooms, and online. But I think—and hope—that this article provides an additional and fresh perspective of that experiment.

ART

Theater is an art. It slips in and out of reality with the exquisite agility of a chameleon. In the performing arts, reality and fantasy are blended by collaborative artists.

Audiences also collaborate with artists. When viewing a film, an audience allows itself to suspend its sense of reality. It ignores the fact that the actor’s words are scripted, that the director directed the film as a whole, and that actors do more than just speak their lines.

Early in the film, we are shown a staged ‘arrest’ of a student. Like that student, we are already fully aware that his arrest is staged. (In the original 1971 experiment, although students had been previously vetted and selected for the experiment, they did not expect ‘police’ to arrest them! I read somewhere that the policeman was real.) In the film, the student openly flashes knowing smiles and chuckles as he is frisked, handcuffed, blindfolded, and led into a real police car.

The film cuts to a simulated ‘prison,’ a hallway in the basement of Stanford University that includes a row of offices which are made to look like barred prison cells. Like his fellow student ‘prisoners,’ he has his blindfold removed and is deloused by students who play ‘prison guards.’ For a few minutes into an orientation session, the jocular tone set at the arrest scene continues.

But the fun is short-lived. One of the guards implicitly but firmly asserts guard leadership and establishes an abusive tone beginning midway during the orientation session and becoming increasingly sadistic through the rest of the experiment.

Fast Forward: A moment after the body of the film ends in Black Screen, there is a tag of four or five clips beginning with the actor who played Dr. Zimbardo. Still playing the doctor, he delivers a brief monologue in which he states that the results of the experiment surpassed his expectations. I assume that his words, if not literally those of the real Dr. Zimbardo, are paraphrases of his words.

Incongruously, whereas the actor sits behind his desk and speaks directly to the audience still in character, all the other actors except two appear in neutral sets (curtains) and without a hint of their film characters, speak directly to the audience as themselves.

Their identities as ‘self’ rather than ‘character’ is clear when one of them tells the audience, “The person I knew as ‘Tom’ was disappearing.” Another unmistakable indication that they are speaking for themselves is that the actor who played the leader of the guards in the film drops his southern accent in the clip he shares with a prisoner. Like all the others, these two actors are no longer in costume.

In what is the last and most notable clip in the tag, these two actors speak to each other. The guard’s tone is detached and calm as it mostly is in the body of the film; the prisoner’s tone is accusative and angry as if he had ‘lived’ his role. During their confrontational dialogue (not necessarily in this order) the prisoner berates the guard with “You’re a nice guy…I know you’re a nice guy” but bitterly accuses him of over-the-top cruelty. Whereupon, the guard coolly asks the prisoner, “What would you have done in my position?” The prisoner angrily responds, “I don’t know…I wasn’t…I don’t know what I would do.” Referring to the guard’s portrayal of cruelty, the prisoner sarcastically commends the guard for his “masterpiece” performance and that he could not possibly match it. He also compliments the guard for his sadistic “inventiveness.”

Inventiveness? Whoa! The film is scripted! Yet, we are expected to believe that the guard invented lines and actions while the cameras rolled! The prisoner’s reference to the guard’s ‘inventiveness’ is blatantly incompatible with the film’s otherwise straightforward screenplay. But I found no criticism of that incompatibility in any of the many articles I read about the film.

I think I know why I found no mention of that incompatibility. One of the original prisoners in the 1971 experiment was an amateur actor! His name was Eshelman. He apparently slipped under the radar when he was vetted and accepted as a subject for the experiment. During the entire experiment, Eshelman unilaterally chose to play his role as a sadistic guard. As is often cited, Eshelman modeled his character after Strother Martin’s portrayal in Cool Hand Luke (1967). I haven’t seen that film but from what I’ve read, the 2015 film actor played his guard modeled after that of Strother Martin. Perhaps he chose to play a copy of a copy or he may have been obliged to do that. Either way that is a trivial matter.

However, what is of consequence is Mr. Eshelman’s real performance in the 1971 experiment. It was not exactly what it seemed to be. He didn’t play an ordinary guard as he had been chosen to do. Instead, he unilaterally and secretly set out to see how far his sadistic words and actions would take him before the prisoners would tell him to curtail his cruelty. That is exactly what the 2015 film’s guard tells the prisoner in their confrontational clip, much to the prisoner’s chagrin.

In that clip, those two actors speak as themselves but not really for themselves even though the scene is ostensibly played as an extemporaneous encounter session. The clip does not conform to the pattern established by the three or four other clips. The inconsistency may be 1) an artistic oversight or 2) an attempt to compensate for the absence of the Eshelman factor in the film’s narrative or 3) a powerful revelation of the lingering harmful effects that a negative environment can inflict on an individual even though he is an actor who not only knows that the situation is simulated but that the situation is in and of itself similar to his make believe profession!

Item 1, although possible, is extremely unlikely. Item 2 is possible because a) it helps support the documentary aspects of the original experiment and b) because it satisfies those who are familiar with the underlying Eshelman factor, a story within a story which would add time to the film and complicate its basic message. Item 3 is not credible. Harmful effects have been reported by laymen subjects who have subjected themselves to situational behavior experiments. I take them at their word. But the experiment’s subjects in the film are professional actors. Tom’s description of his ‘disappearing’ self is not credible. Statements of other prisoners with similar descriptions of their experience are also not credible. The same is so of our furious prisoner. There are several reasons why many actors give credence to the notion of ‘living the role,’ the main one of which is that it makes good copy. But good actors are too busy practicing their acting craft to get ‘lost in the role,’ A Double Life (1948) notwithstanding.

The clip is strategically placed at the very end of the film’s tag. That placement is not a matter of chance. It is placed there as the main feature of what is basically an epilogue. I also think that the actors were in the awkward position of having to glance for a prompt or two, especially at the end of their scene when the guard seemed to question someone ‘out there’ with his eyes as to whether he should go on with the scene or end it. This is not at all to say that the scene isn’t done well. On a personal note, I congratulate the screenwriter, director, actors, and technicians for the creation of a good film despite the challenges and ambiguity of its subject matter.

According to Dr. Zimbardo, actors who applied for participation in the experiment were assigned roles as guards or prisoners by the flip of a coin. It follows that the flip of a coin determined the specific results of that particular experiment. But Eshelman’s real performance heavily determined the experiment’s results.

What if the coin flip had designated Eshelman as a prisoner instead of a guard!

Flipping a coin implies that human behavior is universally uniform. Dr. Zimbardo’s experiment ‘begs the question’ at its conception. Psycosociological experiments invariably do that. That does not happen with illusive electrons. Even if we discount the doctor’s premises, subjectivity, and experimental interventions and the students’ knowledge that they are being observed as subjects in an experiment, it and all others like it are fatally flawed by the scientifically mandatory exclusion of moral issues, the very essence of what is being studied!

ETHICS

“Choice is a corollary of free will. Neither can exist without the other.”
                                                                                                                     —Me

In other words, moral judgment is obviated when an individual finds himself at the receiving end of a bullet.

Although psychosocial and clinical therapy can be very helpful to us, the essence of human behavior is better described by fine artists. They are much better at it. For example, the films Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, and Judgment at Nuremberg have much more to say about human behavior than any experiment possibly can. Sophie did what she had to do; Schindler was compassionately compelled to do what he did under great risk to himself; and moral judgment is a profoundly personal matter for millions of anonymous people in darkened theaters throughout the world.

Rewind: The purpose of the experiment and several similar experiments worldwide before, during, and after the Stanford experiment reenacted in the 2015 film, was and remains an attempt to determine whether people are wired to alter their moral behavior under duress or maintain immutable moral standards whatever the situation. That is part of the centuries-old philosophic headings like Nature vs. Nurture, more recently packaged as Genes vs. Environment or Person vs. Situation and the granddaddy of them all: Free Will vs. Determinism.

The Stanton prison experiment wobbles on intellectual quicksand. For example, there is a scene in which a prisoner asks for a parole in what we know to be a staged ‘parole hearing.’ The bogus ‘Parole Board’ consists of Dr. Zimbardo, a few assistants, and the doctor’s girlfriend who volunteered to be part of the simulated board. Given the opening dialogue for that scene there is nothing to indicate whether the prisoner plays along with the elaborately staged hearing because he believes he must do so or because he believes that his imprisonment is real after all.

In either case, as the scene progresses the prisoner desperately pleads for a parole: this time unquestionably for real. In response to his desperate pleas for a parole, one of the doctor’s assistants coldly ‘reads’ aloud a list of the prisoner’s bogus criminal charges. The prisoner remains silent even though he, like all the other students, had no criminal records whatever. In the middle of the assistant’s recitation of charges, the volunteer surreptitiously glances over the assistant’s shoulder and notices that he is ‘reading’ fake charges from a blank sheet of paper.

The actress plays that moment as though her suspicions are aroused. As a viewer, I thought, “Had Dr. Zimbardo neglected to tell her that none of the students ever had real criminal charges against them?” Despite more pleading, the prisoner is denied parole and is on his way out of the room under guard custody when she interrupts their exit and asks the prisoner if he would forfeit his pay in exchange for a parole. He definitively says he would, and he and the guard exit. There follows a dramatic and meaningful series of glances amongst the remaining ‘board’ that projects serious ethical concerns about what has just happened.

If the scene reflects an incident that occurred in the real 1971 experiment, as I believe it does, it raises questions about the validity of the experiment itself. Even if the student in the original experiment (and on film) believed that his imprisonment was somehow real, it would have taken nothing short of a lobotomy for him to have forgotten his alleged charges, let alone the stipulation in his contract that he could quit the experiment at any time.

All he had to do at the hearing was demand to be released all together!

In both the film and its tag, when the actor who plays Dr. Zimbardo speaks of the results of the experiment, he speaks of them as though they are amazing. I too am amazed, but for reasons radically different than those of the doctor. I am amazed by the real doctor Zimbardo’s naïve notion that human behavior can be accurately analyzed when the ‘subjects’ know that they are being observed. I am amazed that psychologists—of all people—accept roleplaying as evidentiary for real-life prison behavior, especially since the students have no prison records or criminal charges and that their source for information about prison life is the movies! The students do not live prison life, they act it. For example, all the students are told that the guards would run the prison and dictate all prison rules but they must not physically harm the prisoners.

Where does that happen in real prisons!

I am also amazed by Dr. Zimbardo’s words:

Essentially I was the pilot of the movie and then I was the researcher and unfortunately the superintendent who got sucked into the situation…I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than research psychologist.

What happened to the inviable ‘independent variable’ principle for all scientific experiments! When that question is asked of the doctor, he rudely cuts the questioner off with, “Are you questioning my authority?”

But what mostly amazes me about human behavioral experiments is that anyone—let alone a psychologist—believes that experiments are necessary to demonstrate that there are no limits to negative ‘situational behavior.’ History and current events are packed with real examples of negative situational behavior. The same is true of heroic behavior, although that reality is generally understated in most reports of situational behavior.

Pause:
Largely of interest to prison administrators, the results of the Stanford prison experiment told us what we already knew before Day One of the experiment. They add nothing to the body of knowledge gathered from the most infamous events in recorded history such as the Nazi Holocaust. It doesn’t take a certified psychologist to know that Nazi occupied Europe, including Germany, was a huge outdoor prison run by leaders who were morally destitute. Add to that the carefully selected sadistic commandants who ran the concentration camps within that outdoor prison and you have the ultimate examples of ‘situational behavior.’ The films cited above amply and brilliantly deal with real life human behavior. Going a step further, I posit that our behavior is a complex phenomenon that simultaneously and continuously combines both internal and external factors.

I hope I do not offend holocaust victims and their loved ones when I cite those unspeakable situations in the same article that discusses pointless experiments. I do that only because both subjects refer to the same issue.

With tongue in cheek, I suggest that if the students’ simulated prison had consisted of luxurious rooms in a posh hotel with exquisite dinners served on demand, the results of the experiment would be essentially the same: the students would be ‘at each other’ shortly after they met. Dr. Zimbardo did not account for testosterone taking its natural course.

Would testosterone alone have generated the student and guard negative behavior? You bet it would. Men have killed each other because of fender-benders. When probing human behavior, the possible factors required to almost fully understand it is staggering. Wouldn’t the prisoners act as they did because they knew the guards would not physically harm them with their strictly decorative nightsticks? Wouldn’t the guards or prisoners ignore their moral principles because they were just acting? Actors do that all the time. If they didn’t we’d have run out of Desdemona’s long ago. I silently asked myself hundreds of mostly rhetorical questions as I watched the film. I’m sure lots of us do.

For all we know, the amateur actor who played the main guard in the original experiment may have indulged in an autoerotic S&M fantasy, especially when he invented the Frankenstein and Camel tasks for the prisoners. Had he tried that with real prisoners they would have assaulted him on the spot with the intent to kill. There is no question about that!

The film’s tag includes a huge table around which are gathered the film’s ensemble of artists. I see that tableau as a sort of curtain call. No one speaks. As an ensemble, the actors project a subtext of reflection. Although also pensive, the actor who played the sadistic guard arrogantly puffs a cigarette and skillfully exhales perfect smoke-rings. Like the character he played, he had his own agenda. Actors always know they are being observed.

MY TAG

For centuries, ethics has held its place as a major branch of philosophy. When I was a teenager, I became aware of the concept of the Nature vs. Nurture argument. I thought—and still think—that nature and nurture are the palette from which our individual brush mixes, matches, and creates the colors that build our character, a function of our will. Unlike the illusive electron, we have the free will within us to behave negatively or positively whether we are observed or not. By that, I don’t mean as subjects of an experiment. So called ‘results’ of situational and/or genetic behavior tell us very little about an individual’s ethics.

Ethical standards are not necessarily religious or measurable by secular group conformity. They are not contingent upon an individual’s intelligence. They are not (as is often supposed) one kind of ethics (say, in business or medicine) and another kind of ethics in some other profession. They are not contingent to extraordinary circumstances or genetic composition. Rather, they are self-evident and quietly practiced on a daily basis. They are also not predetermined. They are a matter of choice.

Who we want to be is the most important choice of our lives.

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