The world as we know it is a fictionalized version.
Today’s papers carry the obituary of Hubert Van Es. Apparently, after shooting the famous photo of the last helicopter out of Saigon, this van-dyke wearing Dutch photojournalist was a fixture in the Hong Kong press-club bar for the next 30 years, complete with Hawaiian shirt and floppy press-corp hat, cursing away in accented English. It seems the most clichéd of what we consider fiction really does capture something true. But what of the things we consider fact? The photo of the throngs lined up to board the helicopter is remembered as being on the roof of the US embassy. According to the Washington Post obituary, an editor mis-captioned what was actually an apartment building. But dig some more and it is said that the building was the home of the CIA station chief and his officers, and that the people turned away were employed by the US. So reality is close to the truth. Maybe close enough, maybe correct in a way but not precisely accurate.
There are always errors and the record is always incomplete. Sometimes we even create errors that may not be there. I notice that the obituary says that Van Es started as photo-journalist in 1959 after college. Since it also says he was born in 1941, there must be either an error or more to the story, no? I remember (but have not bothered to look up the details!), that Joseph Campbell speculated that future historians examining an incomplete record will assume that World War II was a myth. Hitler and Himmler must be alternate spellings of the same character. Surely the victorious “hewer of iron” general was made up by the Germans to explain their loss (Eisen-Hauer), and that “sword smiths” wouldn’t make flying screaming things (Messer-Schmidt, although I think it was Junker Stukas that had air-sirens attached to make scary screaming noises as they attacked). Skulls on black uniforms? Facial scars and eye patches? Come on. And yet the movies and even a lot of the propaganda is no stranger, more fanciful or more horrible than reality.
Heisenberg showed that we could not know the perfect truth, and there is great mystery about his own actions concerning the Nazis. How perfect is that?
If we don’t make or invent mistakes, there are always cranks, politicians, or corporations ready to make stuff up. Here’s a tragic one that I care about very much. There are a few wealthy engineers here in sunny California who claim to already meet all their personal home energy needs – including transportation – from modern, expensive but available solar generation. Yet the conventional wisdom from the press and even Al Gore’s organization is that local generation can never be efficient enough, and that we must instead pay large corporations hundreds of billions of dollars to expand the electric grid using a technology that looses 80% of it’s power to heat, and which is already a far more tempting vehicle to terrorists than are the shoes of air-travelers. The subtle truth may be that solar might never be efficient enough to make large profits with it using the current model of corporate-owned generation and consumer-dependency. Sometimes the subtleties matter.
Inventing the Future indeed. It is amazing how much of the past and present is invented – or is mostly spot on and assumed to be fiction. We’ve all grown up thinking of a person as being “on” the telephone, and carrying “their voice” rather than a digital simulation of it. My children sometimes refer to live-actor movies as being “real” because they are mostly not drawn or generated. Under these circumstances, to what extent is virtual reality “not real”?