Thursday, August 21, 2014

Déjà voodoo

It's stunning and horrifying footage, no doubt: A shaky camera captures a stunt plane racing straight up to the sky then diving straight down, when suddenly a wing comes off.

Frantic voices scream and caterwaul as the plane spirals down, the camera operator desperately trying to keep the terrible image in view. After frustrating moments, the plane appears again, now riding parallel to the ground, its remaining wing held aloft like a dorsal fin.

Finally the pilot somehow manages to level the plane before bringing it to a short bouncy landing on a runway. Someone runs into view toward the plane, where the pilot opens the hatch and is just about to get out before the video stops.

So miraculous.

So fake.

So last year.


It's not the fakeness that confounds me. In fact, in the year since I first saw this on facebook®™©, the German crew that made the film posted video showing how they tried to deceive viewers using model planes, computer graphics and clever editing. I'm not sure why they did it; maybe an elaborate portfolio to attract the movie industry to their talents.

What bugs me is that I saw this last year, as one habitue and then another shared it.

The first time around, I followed the myriad comments to whomever posted it, which evolved into a long string by amateur forensic videographers, pointing out how fake the film really was. I may even have contributed a comment of my own, something like, "still, it's a really good job of faking us out!" (my strong suit on facebook™®© is useless comments.)

Then the video disappeared, with the generally accepted idea that the film is fun and frightening and fake. The world moved on.

Then last week the video reappeared, posted by someone new who commented, "Have you seen this? How scary!"

And the world moved back.

The world in fact seems to be circling the same path over and over if facebook©™® is part of your life (and it is, admit it).

Once the fake stunt plane video re-emerged, I began making a list of other posts that merry-go-round on my facebook©®™ news feed, having been on the Internet for a year or more without indication they'll go away. This list is incomplete. I do not even have to link to any of them, because you will probably know them by their descriptions:
  • The cat dressed up in a shark costume and riding a robotic vacuum cleaner around a kitchen, blithely zigzagging across the floor on the machine while a woman nonchalantly works at the sink.
  • The commercial (for cheese?) of a mouse that gets caught in a trap and instead of dying turns the trap into a bench press.
  • The Miami-Dade police officer who takes pity on a hungry mother and, instead of arresting her for shoplifting, gives her $100 so she can buy groceries.
  • The Bruno Mars "Marry You" lip-dub proposal a man orchestrated two years ago by putting her fiancée in the back of a slow-moving station wagon and enlisting dozens of family and friends in an elaborate dance to the song.
  • The video from 1988 of a gymnast named Paul Hunt who performed a hilarious parody of a woman gymnast.
  • The video, also purposely deceitful, of an eagle attempting to pick up a toddler from a park.
  • The dog happily diving and emerging from a gigantic pile of leaves.
  • The elegantly dressed models photographed under water amid wrecked ships.
  • The subway staircase that someone had turned into working piano keys, inviting the public to play with the music on their way to work and shopping.
  • The flash mob in a town square in which musicians play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
  • Any flash mob, for that matter.
  • The black swans that surf ocean waves.
  • The photo of scratches cleverly placed in the sand of a beach so that from a distance the scratches look a three-dimensional seascape, complete with real people sitting in a rendered boat.
  • The rider's-eye view of a mountain biker navigating a narrow mountain ridge, inches away from precipitous death.
  • The video showing a member of Congress sneaking in a rule that disallows Democratic dissent on legislation.
  • The violists from the 18th Century suddenly breaking into an AC-DC before shocked patrons at a concert.
  • The fifth-grade boys, dressed in caps and goggles, performing a synchronized "swimming" routine using blue tarps as water and concealed mattresses, before a howlingly enthusiastic school talent show audience.
OK, I've grown tiresome, and I know I tired myself out just listing these. You can doubtless add some yourself.

Perusing swim-related pages as I do, I come across similar perennials:
  • Some visual variation of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: "Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air." Every two months or so, someone posts this.
  • An animation of a skeleton swimming. With each different stroke, muscle groups appear showing how they contribute to the swimmer's movement.
  • Variations on "save the sharks" posts, including the photo of a shark and diver with the caption, "This is the most dangerous animal in the world, responsible for millions of deaths every year. By his side we can see a shark swimming peacefully."
OK enough, I've made my point.

And it's not about the posts themselves. The lip-dub proposal is fun, gymnast Paul Hunt is funny. The others are in their own way enlightening or encouraging.

My point is they never go away. They're asteroids swirling in their own growing belt around my computer, appearing and reappearing without abatement.

Part of it is a function of facebook®©™, which by definition connects users and urges them to share, and as new users share what older users have seen, the same material gets passed around. And around and around.

In that way, facebook®™ hasn't advanced us much farther than when I was a kid and my parents and their friends — in those rare moments when they could be adult friends and not our guardians and keepers — would swap crude jokes which had been mimeographed on heavy slick oily paper. The jokes were usually typed, and simple stick figures illuminated the raunchy punchlines.

(By the way, how far has personal printing advanced, that just a generation ago personal copies of anything were largely the domain of government workers who had access to clunky machines making dim images of the original after great time and expense?! Now my parents could have printed their jokes in 3-D!)

The papers were folded many, many times, concealed in pockets and purses from prying curious children. The papers were torn on the edges, their oily lamination having come off at the folds; the jokes were barely legible when they reached new hands.

"Oh, this is a good one," an adult friend would say, carefully unfolding a joke and laughing. "Here's one," he'd say, producing a folded paper, "have you seen this one?"

facebook™®© is like that in a way.

Or is it designed that way? I've heard a critic on the radio describe facebook™®© and similar applications as "distractionware," not only filling up our free time but spilling into the time we used to use for other things.

Does some algorithm keep the same posts floating and whirling before our eyes, keep us from being interested in Ebola or the Islamic State or U.S. companies cheating us of taxes by taking their legal offices offshore … or imperiled water worldwide or impending natural disasters or the need of our attention at the neighborhood school board?

What are we doing, exactly?