Picture me alone in a silent office. It’s so quiet that I can hear the distant and muffled sound of water moving through pipes throughout the building. At times like this, it’s easy to imagine strange things happening in far away places.
Deep in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a rough and lonely ride south of Pemberton, was a tiny little town called Ong’s Hat. Established at the turn of the 18th century by a farmer named Jacob Ong, it eventually grew to a small collection of homes and at least one tavern by the mid 19th century. But by the 1930s, boom and bust had left it gutted and empty — a perfect place for a group of renegade Princeton physicists to meet in secret with a strange commune of ancient tantric sex magic and astral travel practitioners. The group conducted all kinds of fringe consciousness experiments and created a device — known as “the egg” — that acted as a sort of talisman, triggering their ability to travel to other dimensions. They explored many parallel worlds, and finally established a settlement in an alternate reality in which the surrounding Pine Barrens — perhaps the entire world, even — were uninhabited. Eventually, whispers of the commune spread, and sometime in the mid-1970s, several black ops helicopters were dispatched to shut it down. In the midst of the conflict, seven members of the commune were shot and killed and their outpost was burned down. The rest of the survivors were either apprehended (and “disappeared”) or managed to escape to the parallel world where their other encampment remained. Eventually, some of the surviving our-Earthbound members agreed to an interview with a very persistent author, who documented their story in a catalog of documents called The Incunabula and, eventually, a book titled Ong’s Hat: The Beginning.
None of that, of course, is true. Did it even sound true? I suppose bits and pieces of it might have a slight air of maybe, just maybe, and that’s what a group of four “culture jammers” bet on when they gave birth to this phenomenon in the form of strange bulletin board postings and xeroxed zines embedded with just the right mixture of fringe, paranoia, and pop to be the perfect seed for the fertile soil they saw in the earliest days of the internet. And thanks to Google, who purchased the entire contents of the old Usenet archive, you can read the original BBS posting for yourself. Marvel at its wackery and that, somehow, it was believable enough to take on a life of its own in an ever-widening and deepening channel of legend. Try your best to follow every thread. I don’t think it can be done. Here’s an interview with Joseph Matheny, the only one of the four “jammers” identifiable by his real name. He doesn’t exactly clear things up completely. He’s the magician who knows that veiling the mechanics of a trick preserves the experience of magic, and that most of us want to believe in magic, even against our better brains. You can go to Ong’s Hat — it’s a real place, sort of — but that won’t help you sort out the mythology. You’ll need Wikipedia for that.
What’s interesting in all of this is the relationship between media and truth. Every medium has its own ideal deception window, I think. It’s the time during which the reader or listener or watcher or whateverer is not quite equipped to make sense of what they’re experiencing, and in the absence of that clarity is a sort of submission, a bending of the will toward naïvety. It’s the time before the pattern and form language of the medium enters the vernacular. It’s the time when 50-seconds of silent film could trick the brain into believing one must step out of the way of an oncoming train. It’s the time when a new sound of music doesn’t sound like music and incites a riot. It’s the time when truth and fiction blur, giving birth to new genres, like found footage, mockumentary, and reality TV. Even a clearly fictional show like The X-Files probably owes a portion of its popularity to the so-called deception window — to the degree of believability many of its stories had, and the lack of quick and easy internet Snopesing possible at the time that could have quickly cleared up any question of true or false. Now, a hoax can barely last an hour. George Zimmerman, of clearly-guilty-and-outrageous-failure-of-justice fame, appeared to have been granted a PR miracle after coming to the rescue of a family of four trapped inside of their crashed and burning car on the side of a highway. Turns out things didn’t actually happen that way. Instead, a police officer dispatched to the scene after witnesses called 911 first called Zimmerman, tipping him off to show up and pretend to be Superman. Meanwhile, other witnesses actually helped the family out. The truth of all of this came out quite quickly, thanks to the breadcrumbs of social media, call records, and dash cams.
Which seems like a good thing, right? The internet, bringing truth to the top, and burying fiction. In some cases it is. In others, not so much. Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of search engine optimization savvy and dogged persistence to keep junk at the top (or, the first ten Google search results). And then there are the Internet godfathers who gave us our truth-engines. Believe it or not, they have a much more extreme perspective on the intersection of truth and truths on the internet. Like Eric Schmidt of Google, for example, who has gone on the record with gems like, “There’s been spying for years, there’s been surveillance for years, and so forth, I’m not going to pass judgement on that, it’s the nature of our society.” And, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” And, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” (Which works out great if you’re the one defining where the creepy line is.) Or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who has said, “The age of privacy is over.” Everyone is entitled to an opinion on privacy, I suppose. But, gee, it’d really be useful if there was some sort of agreed-upon definition of what, exactly, privacy is. Because a lot has changed since the Ong’s Hat days, where it might have been useful to just Google a few of the names thrown about in that story and see if they were actually real people. If the late 70s had been anything like now, of course, we’d have plenty of tweets and tantric portal selfies or whatever to sift through. Today, it’s not just that things are easier to figure out. It’s that things are much more complicated. On the one hand, you can debunk a liar like George Zimmerman because other people told the truth first (for that, we thank you, Twitter and Facebook). But on the other hand, you can hardly avoid the Street View camera putting you — literally — on the map. If you die on the street, there are probably pictures of you on the internet that even your family can’t get taken down, let alone convince Google to un-index. It’s grim. And it seems we owe one another a whole lot more forethought about these things, and for when no amount of forethought can prevent being caught off guard by our own creations, the humility to do what needs to be done to course correct and make things right. To think this line of thought began with a harmless fiction… One wonders if there is such a thing.
The other day, I used the word “ditto” twice. Which was unintentionally self-referential. But shortly after the second time, I thought, “when did ditto become shorthand for me, too?” So I did a little digging, and apparently, it was a long time ago. The Latin word dictum — “having been said” — became the Italian word detto, which, in the Tuscan dialect, became ditto, which first made its way into print in 1625. Ditto entered the English language as a shorthand for repeating months and years in lists of dates. So, “this email will go out on the 9th of October and 16th ditto.” From there, its usefulness grew beyond dates, and now you can just say “ditto” when someone tells you they realized that Bon Iver isn’t really that good. The kids today ditto, but they say “same,” as in, “Really? More falsetto, Bon Iver?” wherein the proper response is “Ugh. Same.” With a nice, big eye-roll. If you’d like a little more etymological detail, here you go:
Ditto, which at first glance seems a handy and insignificant sort of word, actually has a Roman past, for it comes from dictus, “having been said,” the past participle of the verb dcere, “to say.” In Italian dcere became dire and dictusbecame detto, or in the Tuscan dialect ditto. Italian detto or ditto meant what said does in English, as in the locution “the said story.” Thus the word could be used in certain constructions to mean “the same as what has been said”; for example, having given the date December 22, one could use 26 detto or ditto for 26 December. The first recorded use of ditto in English occurs in such a construction in 1625. The sense “copy” is an English development, first recorded in 1818. Ditto has even become a trademark for a duplicating machine.
Ahh, the “now.” Where answers are just a Google away…
Heavy Rotation: I’m digging the new Zola Jesus album, Taiga, the new Flying Lotus, You’re Dead, and the half of J Mascis’s new record, Tied to a Star, where he doesn’t sound like Bon Iver (particularly, “Wide Awake,” which is a great song). And I’m re-digging some old stuff. The other day, I gave a pretty decent impromptu speech on the cultural import and musical glories of Pink Floyd’s Animals to an audience of one man who had never listened to it IN ALL HIS 35 YEARS which troubled me deeply. So if you, too, are unlistened in the ways of Animals, I encourage you to take a musical journey back to the dark days of 1977.
Post-Its Within Walking Distance of My Desk:
Recent Tabs: The U.S. box office was down 15% this summer… and other signs that we are losing interest in the blockbuster. “I hope it makes you happy, as you have made me happy for this five minutes of my life, which will last until I get to the edge of this stage and it hits me that this was all just a bunch of nonsense.” — Seinfeld knows how to accept an award from a group of advertising executives. By telling the truth, even if it hurts. The Last Medium will probably come with its own deception window, most likely of an involuntary physiological nature. Like, “I knew I wasn’t actually spinning but I puked anyway.” The Top 100 Star Trek Episodes of All Time! Wherein Cause and Effect and The Measure of a Man aren’t ranked high enough and the mere presence of The Trouble with Tribbles must surely be a clerical error.