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The Real and Surreal Merge in Cyberspace

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 25, 2013

For James Gleick, the massive interconnectivity that kept Americans informed and misinformed on the Boston bombings, shootings, manhunt and capture of a suspect represents a "watershed for Total Noise" in a strange and unstable information ecosystem where reality and fiction intermingle.

In a New York magazine essay, Gleick describes the condition that late novelist David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: "the tsunami of available fact, context and perspective." Gleick is the author of Chaos: Making a New Science, which came out in 1987 and first made the principles and early development of chaos theory understandable to the general public. He is a prolific writer, whose 1999 book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (review), tells how we had even then undergone an informational and social phase change through the massive interconnections of people by way of modern technology. In his New York piece, he writes that with Twitter feeds burgeoning, microblogging, Instagram, "Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI's staggeringly complex" forensic video analysis, and crowdsourcing by social media users, the dividing line between cyberspace and the real world has vanished.

In her New York Times column, Maureen Dowd recalls when Gleick was her editor, and reports on a recent interview in which she asked him to reflect on how we can make sense of relentless waves of unorganized contradictory and changeable data. Gleick told her he followed Twitter on his iPhone during the Boston crisis, and added, "The Internet is messy, pointillist, noisy, often wrong. But if you had a visceral need for instantaneity, TV couldn't compete."

Gleick writes about the gaffs of TV news reporters and anchors who traded accuracy for speed, the blizzard of banal verbiage from commentators who had to fill time with no new information, and misleading bits bandied about when everyone is monitoring everyone else and "no one can bear to be left out." Reddit users named innocent people as suspects. Gleick says the best understanding of events was produced in newspaper stories written by reporters on the scene.

Dowd asked him about an incident in which the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the AP Twitter account and falsely reported that President Obama had been injured in White House explosions, causing a three minute $136 billion stock plunge. He notes hacking happens; and bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not the only one who has had real and fake Twitter accounts.

"There is no perfect trust in Cyberspace," Gleick told Dowd. "We have all these new channels and tools to understand the world as it happens, but there is no reliable algorithm for sorting through the morass. ...we have to invent a new personal methodology every day. And if we're waiting for things to settle down and become simple, that's never going to happen."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  networks  systems 

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