Last month I wrote about how when I heard that Ellen Page had come out as a lesbian my first thought was along the lines of I knew it!
But I didn’t know it. And it wasn’t that I thought she was straight. I didn’t think she was one way or another because I didn’t think about her one way or another apart from what I thought about her performances in movies of hers I’d seen.
What I knew about her sexuality was the result of a quick edit my ego did on my memory so I could appear smart to myself.
This is a favor people are always doing for themselves.
“I knew that!”
“I was just going to say that!”
“Tell me something new.”
All of the above are usually lies or, more charitably, the after-thoughts of reflexive acts of self-deception.
My point in that post was that memories aren’t to be trusted because they’re easily revisable. It’s as easy and as much a matter of course to “remember” something that didn’t happen as it is to forget something that did.
I figured what happened is that the file clerk in my brain stuck Page’s news with all the other information about Page I had stored in my mental attic but wasn’t careful about where he put it. It was just jumbled in there so that it looked and felt like something I’d known before. When I reached in to pull it out, I didn’t double-check the date stamp because I liked thinking I was in the know, even though I don’t really care about being in the know when the subject’s gossip about celebrities’ sex lives.
At least, I thought I don’t care.
Turns out I may actually have known and that, if I don’t care, I don’t not care, at least not enough to make sure I don’t pick up on any of the gossip.
Not too long after Page’s announcement, we were talking about her my Wired Critics class, not so much about her announcement, but how it might have an effect on her career, and not her sexuality so much as any information about her audiences have in their heads when they’re watching her on screen. I was leading into talking about John Wayne and The Searchers, which we’re going to be watching soon, and how what we know about movie stars and what we remember of them from other movies can affect our perception of their performances---that Ethan Edwards is played by the good guy might make it hard for some people to see him as a bad guy while the fact he’s a bad guy, or at any rate not the kind of good guy we’re used to see John Wayne play, might give other people a new appreciation for Wayne’s talent as an actor. But the discussion got deflected when my students expressed their surprise that anyone would be bothered by Page’s news in this day and age.
Bless their sweet, idealistic Millennial hearts.
This was the week after Arizona passed its No Gays Served Here law.
One of them went on to say that not only was she surprised anyone might mind that an actor in a movie happened to be gay, she was surprised anyone didn’t already know about Page.
It’s been pretty much an open secret, my student said. The reason for the announcement was that Page’s partner wants to get married and she didn’t want the news of their engagement to be overshadowed by the “news” a movie star is gay.
Now, it’s possible that my student was editing her own memories, “remembering” she’d read articles or seen stories on the web (Honors Students apparently don’t watch television) before that she’d actually read after. I didn’t quiz her. I just accepted that she kept on these things and knew what she was talking about. What occurred to me, however, is that whatever she’d read or seen I might have read and seen too.
Could have been an article. Could have been a video clip. Could have been a photo of Page with her partner, identified as a “friend”, in which their body language gave the “secret” away. Whatever it could have been, what very likely happened is that I read it, saw it, or decoded it, filed the information away, and then forgot about where and when I’d acquired it.
It was up there in my mental attic on an out of the way shelf that I had no reason to look into until Page’s announcement made the news.
So I did know it. (Maybe.) I just don’t know how I knew it.
And not too long after that class, I was talking to a friend about I forget exactly what except that it wasn’t about Ellen Page but must have been about some celebrity because whatever or whoever it was my friend took the opportunity to observe that I sure seem to know a lot about the lives of the rich and famous.
“A lot” is relative. She meant in comparison with herself.
She was curious about where I picked this stuff up, I think so she would know what to avoid and her mental attic wouldn’t get cluttered with it.
I couldn’t tell her.
I didn’t know.
But then, not long after that conversation, I was signing onto Yahoo to check my mail and instead of going right to my inbox as I often but not usually do, I decided to scan the headlines on Yahoo’s front page to see if there was any news I needed to know and that’s when I noticed!
I should say that’s when it dawned on me.
I don’t have my filters set so that the headlines get sorted into categories. This means that along with the news I get “news.” Stories about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke are mixed right in with stories about the Crimea, health care, earthquakes, and traffic accidents in my home town. Lots of sports in the mix too. And when I scroll through the lists, looking for stories I want to read in full, I necessarily although reflexively and almost unconsciously read the headlines and blurbs of stories I don’t want to read.
Tell myself I don’t want to read.
Doesn’t take much to get the gist.
There’s more to it.
You can’t escape this stuff.
It pops up on Twitter. It’s all over Facebook. Tumblr, Reddit, even Instagram. Never mind social media. I might think I’m paging by it when I read the newspaper, but I probably read or at least skim whole stories without thinking about it on my way to reading something else or after reading something else on the same page. Watch TV anytime but especially as it gets closer to the time for the news and you’ll see it teased during commercial breaks. It gets into articles I do want to read, reviews, interviews, making-of stories. It’s there in the sidebars of serious websites. Can’t read Pierce’s blog without learning important stuff like “Olivia Munn Gets All the Sunshine She Needs.”
So far I haven’t learned who Olivia Munn is, but it’s just a matter of time and a few absent-minded page clicks.
Turn off the TV, shut down the computer, leave the newspaper out on the porch, and still, all it takes is for my gaze to wander while I’m in the checkout line at the supermarket.
But this isn’t a rant about the way the information stream is polluted with gossip and how all the news has been reduced to entertainment and entertainment is assumed to be gossip of one kind or another with the point being to use sex and celebrity to sell us more and more useless toys and junk.
This is a long sigh about the problematic nature of memory.
I don’t look for this stuff, but I don’t filter it out. Not enough of it. I’m not Sherlock Holmes keeping a jealous guard on the door of his mental attic---“I have Mrs Hudson on semi-permanent mute.” Stuff gets up in there and stored away without my noticing and I wind up knowing stuff I didn’t know I knew and don’t really want to know or need to know.
What’s more, it’s useless, not just in its being mostly trivial and irrelevant to my life. Since I don’t know how I know it, it’s filed away undated, unlabelled, and unsourced, I know it without knowing if it is in fact fact.
I can’t verify it. I can only go by memory, and my memory is unreliable.
And this is the case with just about everything I know.
Everything you know too.
It’s the problem with how we acquire information.
We pick things up and put them away as we go along without taking note of where we picked them up or taking care where we put them away in our heads. Things get mixed up, not just the good and the useful with the trivial and the false, but the apples with the oranges, the A’s with the B’s, the B’s with the apples, the oranges with the tangerines and grapefruit and kumquats and horseradish and car batteries. Little of it labeled. Little of it dated. Little of it sourced. All of it only there to the degree we clearly remember it.
We mix up fact with opinion, speculation with observation, fiction with history, not just mistaking one for the other but accepting all of them as valid at the same time and treating them as interchangeable, even as the same things.
We reach up into the spot where we’re sure we stored the socket wrenches and take down a unicorn and then fail to notice it’s a unicorn or even convince ourselves that the unicorn is what we meant to get.
Once upon a time, human beings knew and had to remember only what they picked up from direct personal experience or what they were learned from people they knew intimately telling them stories about their personal experiences.
This is how it went for millennia and it seems to have worked out well enough, except for its getting in the way of the development of civilization as we sat around the campfire telling each other the same old stories over and over again. But then somebody went and invented writing and all hell broke loose.
Now it was possible to know things second and third and fourth hand from people we didn’t know and wouldn’t ever know because they lived too far away or were dead. This should have meant that we no longer had to rely on our own memories or the memories of the people right next to us. We could just look it up. But that’s not how we’re wired.
We’re none of us Sherlock Holmes who actively and diligently doesn’t remember things in order to have room in his attic for other things as he needs them and in order not to make the mistake of depending on his memory.
Trust that we’ll remember it’s there, remember it completely, and remember it exactly.
All conversation that isn’t about what’s in our hands at the moment is a memory dump.
We think we’re stating the facts but it’s the facts as we remember them and while some people are by training, habit, and temperament better at remembering than others, most of us remember very badly. We end up telling each other stories based on what we remember we remembered.
This is just the nature of things, and I’m not sure how much it matters since most of the time what we’re saying to each other is just talk.
We need to be careful when the talk occurs on the job or in the classroom, but most of the talking we do we do to keep ourselves and each other amused, diverted, consoled, comforted, or from getting lonely. It doesn’t matter what we say as much as how we say it. It doesn’t matter what we think but what we feel. It’s the sound more than the sense we need. We talk to hear ourselves talk. We talk so that we know someone’s there to listen. We talk for the pleasure of each other’s company.
But what’s been true offlline for centuries has been true online for the past two decades, at least.
Here we are in the Information Age exchanging not information but opinions and just-so stories.
We sit at our computers or stare at our mobile devices and tell each other stories over and over again, depending mainly on our memory and assuming our memories match with everyone else’s because, well, that’s the way it happened, I remember it plain as day!
This is mainly a concern when the subject is work or learning, not so much when it’s cake recipes and cats. Most of us are mostly online for the company. But it causes trouble in the political precincts of Blogtopia (TM Skippy) where the virtual talk is intended to have consequences in the analog world.
It’s hardly worth mentioning the Right Wing Blogosphere here. It’s always been a department of the Republican Party’s Ministry of Propaganda. It’s a fact free zone devoted not to passing along information but to sharing outrage. Truth is decided by the degree of anger against THEM a story or a post incites an email incites. The object is to shout down opposition, especially the opposition that occurs inside one’s own head.
So forget them.
But it presents a problem for us on the western side of the bandwidth, precisely because we pride ourselves on having the facts. We are the reality-based community and we make a point of testing what we “know” against what’s really going on in the world.
We think we do, at any rate.
We’re constantly and voraciously gobbling up information, diligently and obsessively storing away facts. We visit all the important websites, read newspapers and magazines, check in with the A-list bloggers. We follow the links. We promise to Google it and sometimes actually follow through. We bookmark and like and favorite, reblog, retweet, and embed. The hopelessly optimistic among us g+. We watch Maddow, and Matthews, and Moyers, and Colbert. We live-tweet Presidential addresses and Cosmos. Some of us still even read books.
If we don’t have the facts at hand ourselves, we trust that Ezra, or Digby, or Silver, or Pierce, Coates, Krugman, Greenwald, or name your favorite do. We rely on the professional journalists to have gone to the source, forgetting that not only do the journalists have depend on their memories of what their sources told them but what those sources are telling them is mostly what they remember.
It all goes up there, uncatalogued, undated, unsourced, and unverified, stored haphazardly in the mental attic where it gets mixed up, recombined, revised, while it degrades and decays.
The result is that we spend a lot of time telling each other stories and arguing for our beliefs and our opinions as though they are facts.
We can’t be sure if what we know is drawn from something we read or it’s something we concluded or even made up based on something we read. And what was that something? Did our favorite writer or wonk or pundit or journalist really say it and if she did was it something she knows for herself or something somebody told her. Was she stating her opinion or quoting somebody quoting somebody quoting somebody. It’s almost impossible to know if we know something’s because it is true or because we failed to follow a link.
We don’t keep in mind that the very act of remembering can alter the memory.
We don’t keep in mind how easily our vanity can edit our memories so that socket wrenches come out as unicorns.
We’re engaged in a World Wide Web-wide exercise in editing each other’s memories.
This isn’t a criticism or a complaint. It’s just an observation. I don’t know if anything can be done about it. It’s the way things are. It’s the way we are.
All we can do is watch out for it.
So, did I know about Ellen Page?
Sure. Why not?
How did I know?
Same way I know most everything I know.
I read it…