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The Snopes childhood

The other day I was telling my son about the Loch Ness Monster. He’s fifteen and had perhaps heard of the thing somewhere, but it’s hardly a fixture in his childhood as it was in mine. Of course, there are various reasons for this: what is interesting to kids and popular culture changes over time so perhaps Nessie will come around again.

But the biggest reason, I think, is how childhood has changed in this time of the (Dis)Information Super Highway.

Loch Ness Monster

Nessie was a fixture in my 70s childhood.

The Loch Ness Monster was big for kids of my generation not just because it was a funny hoax and funny hoaxes are fun. (If you don’t agree with that, just visit Youtube and start watching.)

Nessie was also big because in the 70s, you had to be seriously dedicated to perpetuate a worldwide hoax. Even crop circles weren’t popularized until the late 70s, and I remember hearing about them in the Midwest only in the early 80s. The people who perpetuated the Loch Ness Monster hoax had to put in real energy and do it with purpose. They had to take photographs at the real site, then physically alter those photos to show the monster. Then they had to show those photos to many, many people, not just their drinking buddies at the local pub. They had to dupe people who were professional skeptics—newspaper editors most of all.

These days, the hoax is a part of our daily lives. Whenever someone posts something fishy on Facebook or forwards it to me in email, I hardly have to think before typing SNOPES.COM into my browser. If the Snopes people ever decide to get a sense of humor (and ditch their sense of ethics) I’m in big trouble!

Hoax me!

Today I fell for a hoax without hesitation. I saw this headline on Facebook:

Computer simulating 13-year-old boy 
becomes first to pass Turing test

To the wife and mother of computer dudes, this is big news (google “turing test” if you don’t know what that is). I clicked, skimmed, and forwarded.

Too bad it was a hoax perpetuated by a known hoaxster who is well-known in the technical world, but apparently not by the very well-educated and (I hope) sufficiently skeptical editors of The New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, Yahoo, ZDNet, Ars Technica… the list is so depressing I won’t go on. Sheesh, even the Santa Cruz Sentinel, our local bastion of fine journalism, didn’t fall for it. But the New York Times? Well, OK, they’re not always the most technically savvy publication, but well-known technology blogs?

So here’s my question:

Are our children growing up in a world in which the line between reality and fiction is no longer clear, in which, in fact, there may be no line?

Are they growing up a world in which reality can be manufactured—-google “truthiness“—-and dismissed just as easily? If so, how will this affect them as they grow older and need to make more and more serious decisions in their lives?

I just finished the last Hunger Games book, which, I agree with others who have said so, didn’t quite live up to the promise that the series had made. However, I really appreciate one of the themes in the series, one that I think really resonates with young readers growing up in this confusing world. Over and over, Katniss sees that what seems real turns out to be manufactured, and what she assumes is manufactured turns out to be real. She lives in a world where the earth under her feet shifts at the will of the government, and her distrust of reality and everyone in it is the most unsettling and meaningful part of the series.

We’re not that far gone yet, and in fact I doubt it’s “the government” that we should fear here. But we are slipping into that world. It’s so easy to be pulled into online hoaxes… how long until they slip into our real world?

For my part, a bit worried, I queried my son by email as to whether he thought that his parents were just an Internet hoax. His answer was somewhat comforting:

"I'm pretty sure you're real..."

…but what’s up with that final ellipsis? Perhaps he has his doubts… And if he does, what’s to say that the question can ever be answered conclusively?

So I have to admit, I’m not planning on asking my 11-year-old the same question anytime soon. I fear what her answer might be…

Posted in Culture, Parenting.

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