Saturday, November 14, 2009

Another Lesson In Human Psychology

Like everyone, I occasionally get email forwards of odds and ends from friends and relatives. These are often alerts about computer viruses or impending public health menaces or the like. Some of them are cute and funny, but on balance the email forward seems to be the manna of urban mythology; a good 90% of this stuff is untrue or at least factually compromised. (Pilot rumors are very much like this; almost nothing of what gets bandied about in the cockpit or crew lounge has any factual merit. It's such a strange phenomenon that we continue to spread what we know is very likely untrue.) Unless it comes from a trusted source, my natural skepticism leads me to dismiss them out of hand.

Here's an example, albeit a harmless (and even fun) one.

I bought a DVD a few years back from a company called Animusic. The disc featured a collection of musical pieces played on computer-animated machines, Rube Goldberg collections of pipes and wires and mechanisms conjoined with quasi-traditional musical instruments, all of which appeared to play themselves. The computer animation is pretty high quality, enough so that it's not immediately obvious that what you're watching is not real (that's its appeal; it's certainly not the very banal music).

I say not immediately obvious, but after a minute or so it becomes clear that, however cool the idea, it's just not something that's plausible mechanically. The fine-tuning required to make such a machine work is simply too great--the machine is absurdly complex--and the little variables in physics mean such a machine could never operate mistake-free. When this one does, it's a give-away.

Anyway, the marketers of the DVD were not pretending it's anything other than computer animation. I sold the disc after a couple viewings, as the concept was more intriguing than the actual product.

In the past year or so, I've received a couple forwards of this email:

University of Iowa Farm Machine Music

This incredible machine was built as a collaborative effort between the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering at the University of Iowa. Amazingly, 97% of the machines [sic] components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft Iowa, yes farm equipment!

It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of setup, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming this video, but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort.

It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University at the University and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian.

Of course, this is my old Animusic video.

So someone has invented a back story--a creation myth, if you will--to explain the existence of the "machine," and that story has spread around the web like wildfire. Like an imitation of the famous Honda advertising video (showing another Rube Goldberg mechanism, but this time a real one composed entirely of Honda Accord parts), a collection of statistics and factoids have been dreamed up to give the myth some credibility. (The Honda video is justly famous for its improbability and for the herculean effort required to actually pull it off without editing the video--I forget the actual number, but I think it was in excess of 600 attempts before everything worked. It's worth noting that the chain of events in the Honda video is about a millionth the complexity of what the Animusic video portrays.)

The existence of the Animusic video itself is not mysterious to me; it seems a worthy and comprehensible exercise to take some computer music and generate some fantastic animation to accompany it, and even animation that fictitiously shows the music being generated. But you have to wonder where the follow-on myth comes from. Is it a Wikipedia-like compendium of the efforts / corrections / amendments of a series of people? (I could do some checking: are there different versions of the story? The one I was sent matches exactly the version at Snopes.) Or did some single individual dream it up as a prank? Is it an exercise in harmless internet malfeasance, like a computer virus but without the desire for damage? Maybe a skepticism-free person saw the video and believed it real and felt it MUST have an explanation.

What does it say of human psychology that the myth spreads this way, that lots of people devote effort to spreading the story and no one to checking its verity? I suppose the story is simply more fun than no story. And it IS a cool little video, wherever it comes from. But it's all too easy to imagine people being convinced the machine is real, and then making an investment in that argument; and it's a short step to sputtering anger about the "injustice" of someone else's denial of the machine's existence--we see similar steps taken all the time.

For my part (naturally) I see the seeds of every mythology in all this. We are a species that loves stories, and they are one of the key denominations of social currency. But clearly stories are not functional for the careful preservation and transmission of factual information. I remember the first time I watched a game of Chinese Telephone. Everyone's played this, a kids' game where one person is told a bit of information (the longer the better), and then instructed to pass this on verbally to the next person, usually in isolation from the others. That next person is given the same instructions, and so on through a crowd. And very quickly the story being passed on bears little or no resemblance to the original data. It's a perfect exposé of how utterly useless the human mind is in retaining facts and passing them on orally.

Anyway, I'm rambling to no particular point. This does all make me think about how huge the invention of writing is to our species and our culture. But even then it's not iron-clad, as our memories are faulty and the desire to embellish and improve is just too strong. And when we add to the mix (as was not the case in our present video) social standing or prestige or power over others, the accurate transmission of data has quite a bevy of handicaps to overcome. This is a harmless little video, but it seems to me a window into some part of the human psyche.


dbackdad said...

People are idiots. I'm baffled at how they attach such an air of credibility to e-mails forwarded to them. Things that they would approach with some incredulity were it uttered to them aloud, are accepted blindly because they are written down on the Internets. And we all know the Internets is never wrong.

Jon said...

I remember playing Chinese Telephone in a UMD class to prove a point. A picture of the metrodome was shown, and you were told to look at it for 1 minute then tell the next person what you saw in the picture. By the time it got to the end, it was about a car in the picture NOT the metrodome. Each person remembers what is interesting to them. Not unlike these emails. If it interests you , then you pass it along and assume it is true. I get your point though. I, also throw most of these things away, or send them to you!