NR Digital

Stepping in It

by Daniel Foster
Does technology make a post-bulls**t world possible — or desirable?

Toward the end of this piece, I am going to make a dry but mercifully brief argument for a corollary of technological neutralism I arrogantly (and probably unjustifiably) dub “Foster’s Corollary.” Viz., contra the optimists who think the Information Revolution is ushering in a new era of truth and transparency, notably in politics, there is no new mode of information dissemination that isn’t also a mode of information dissimulation.

But before I do that, a few fun bits of trivia:

Did you know that the only major-league catcher ever to have a 30/30 season — 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases — was Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, who did it in the early Aughts as a Detroit Tiger?

Did you know that Marilyn Monroe, perennial paragon of American pulchritude, tipped the scales at about a buck fifty and wore a size-16 dress?

Did you know that, during development, Lockheed test-mounted a 20mm cannon on the SR-71 Blackbird but had to scrap the idea after the Mach 3+ spy plane caught up to and was struck by its own rounds?

Bet you didn’t know any of those things. And neither, as it turns out, did I, because none of them is true.

More precisely, each of them is bulls**t: Pudge Rodríguez is the only catcher ever to have a 20/20 season, and he did it in his 1999 MVP campaign while still a Texas Ranger. Marilyn Monroe weighed anywhere from 118 to 140 pounds, and at her buxomest would have probably worn a size 10, had not nearly all of her clothes been custom-made. (A pause, here, of appreciation: Per the records of Marilyn’s dressmaker, she stood five-foot-five-and-a-half, and measured a Platonic 36-22-36, the kind of figure you could set your hourglass by.) The tall tale of the overtaken bullets is told not of the (unarmed) Blackbird, but of its experimental predecessor, the YF-12, which was developed as an interceptor. And because of various truths of physics having to do with parabolas, friction, and gravity, it is highly unlikely to have ever happened at all.

I was called out on my bulls**t, respectively, by a guy in my fantasy-baseball league, a girl at a party worrying over an extra pound, and a friend with whom I was marveling over the unrivaled badassery of the American war machine. Of course, none of these inquisitors embarrassed me unaided. To a one, each expressed an initial dubiousness about the proposition I’d just put forth and turned to his or her hip pocket for adjudication in the form of the dread “smartphone.” Sixty years after computer scientists and futurists started writing about “cybernetics” and the possibility of “intelligence amplification” by wedding human minds to information technology, here we were, my every anecdote questioned by a species of skeptical Borg fact-checking me with their iPhones.

When it comes to making friends at a cocktail party, the ability to remember (or misremember) trivia like this is as valuable as wearing a Purple Heart on your lapel. At least it used to be until Al Gore invented the Internet and Steve Jobs shrunk it to the size of a pack of cigarettes and issued it to every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth. Now the most casual of conversations stands in danger of derailment by any amateur sleuth with opposable thumbs. (And I don’t think I’m the only victim here: The top auto-complete for a Google search that begins “What size . . .” is “. . . was Marilyn Monroe.”)

But does the fact that my anecdotes turned out to be bulls**t mean I was lying when I relayed them? Hardly. I wouldn’t have put any of those statements into a sworn affidavit, but I wasn’t cutting them from whole cloth, either. And in any event, my intention was never to mislead. It was merely to demonstrate that I was an interesting person with something to add to the conversation.

This is the essence of the bulls**tter, and what separates him from the liar. The liar, like the truth-teller, is concerned with what is the case: Specifically, he is concerned with conveying its opposite. But the bulls**tter doesn’t care about the truth one way or the other. His intention isn’t to make you believe something about the world, it’s to make you believe something about him — that he is charming or trustworthy, worthy or wise — and his method is not deception but rather the stitching of a rich tapestry of guesstimation, rumor, embellishment, urban legend, and half-remembered factoids.

That bulls**t is intentional (that a statement qualifies as bulls**t not just by virtue of its content but also by virtue of the state of mind of its utterer), and that it falls short of full-blown lying, are features first identified by the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt in a 1986 essay entitled, simply enough, “On Bullshit.”

Frankfurt also captured that which makes bulls**t distinct from proffered synonyms such as “balderdash,” “claptrap,” “hokum,” “drivel,” “imposture,” and “quackery.” “Balderdash” suggests incoherence, “claptrap” and “hokum” the dust of ancient superstitions. “Drivel” implies triviality, and “imposture” and “quackery” are hallmarks of the confidence man. Ordinary bulls**t is both more innocuous than all that and far more pervasive.

By way of example, Frankfurt serves up the concept of the bull session: a group — usually male, usually sequestered — engaged in noncommittal talk, often about sensitive subjects such as politics, religion, and sex. Think lager-toting dads of indeterminate politics gathered around a charcoal grill to diagnose the country’s problems. The point of thus “shooting the bull” is not, on Frankfurt’s analysis, to offer sincere avowals or considered beliefs, but to test-drive various thoughts and attitudes without committing to them, to feel out social boundaries and identify potential commonalities and differences, and above all to make conversation.

Bulls**t at its best is creative, engaging, a means of enlivening and, as it were, fertilizing human interaction — as harmless as telling a joke in the first person. And in everything from small talk and first-date banter to diplomacy and the parenting of a young child, we see the manifold ways in which bulls**t can soften a reality with a lot of sharp edges. In all these respects the reign of bulls**t has been a happy one, and its rude interruption by the know-it-alls with the 4G connections is a mixed bag at best.

But while our “intelligence amplification” may be firming up the rule of brute facts — the sorts of things you can look up in indexes and almanacs — at cocktail parties, there remains another, more pernicious species of bulls**t, which proves even more resistant to technological mitigation. You won’t be surprised to hear that we find it in public affairs, and especially under the heading of “identity politics.”

Exhibit A is Elizabeth Warren, who has been able to withstand a barrage of documentary evidence casting doubt on her claim to be part American Indian by anchoring that claim not in genealogical fact but in family lore — in other words, by answering the charge that her Cherokee identification is probably false with the tacit admission that it is definitely bulls**t. Exhibit B is President Obama, who did us the favor of admitting up front that his 1995 autobiography is, at least in part, bulls**t, but who has managed to escape focused interrogation on this point eight years into his public life and three-plus years into his tenure as leader of the free world.

That identity politics is as festooned with bulls**t as a cow pasture in the full ardor of spring wouldn’t be so bad if identity politics weren’t also a powerful currency. I’m not referring just to the material benefits, in the form of professional distinction and book sales, respectively, that the successful marketing of Warren’s and Obama’s self-conceptions has accrued. Rather I have in mind things like the classic bulls**t move of calling a piece of legislation primarily about tort law the “Paycheck Fairness Act” and implying that it would somehow make it more illegal than it currently is for employers to discriminate against women in the workplace. Or the tortured bulls**ttery of what was billed as the president’s “reversal” on gay marriage. (Any statement that begins with “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think . . .” probably isn’t oriented toward truth.)

Politics as a whole is lousy with bulls**t, but what makes these avowals of identity politics the merde de la merde is that they are so blatantly intended to affect an audience’s beliefs not about the world but about the speaker — to demonstrate that the speaker is worldly or subaltern, that he cares deeply about women or gays, etc. — which, you will recall, is the primary motive of the bulls**tter. At the same time, there is nothing especially notable about these examples save their recentness. And though I write this, as it were, from right to left, there are undoubtedly countless examples of similar phenomena among conservatives. Everybody poops.

None of this is going to be sorted out with an iPhone, or a Wikipedia entry, or the gimmicky “Truth-o-Meter” of some fact-checking website. That’s because there is no new mode of information dissemination that isn’t also a mode of information dissimulation. There is nothing, in the relevant aspects, about the Internet that makes it any different from Gutenberg’s printing press, which was after all every bit as useful to propagandists as it was to truth-seekers. Technology is bulls**t-neutral. Lo, so many paragraphs ago I tentatively dubbed this thesis “Foster’s Corollary,” a name I’ll continue to use until some nerd with a BlackBerry points to an earlier elucidation of the same concept.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go edit the Wikipedia entry on Iván Rodríguez.