Hidden In Plain Sight

Scene from the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which depicts Tom Cruise's character being questioned by the Red Cloak upon discovery that he has invaded the secret gathering

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, step forwards. May I have the password?
Dr. Bill Harford: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s right, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password… for the house?
Dr. Bill Harford: The password for the house?
Red Cloak: Yes?
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry… I seem to… have forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference… whether you have forgotten it… or if you never knew it. Kindly remove your mask.

This famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut portrays Tom Cruise as a self-assured and curious young doctor who, upon stumbling into a bacchanalian orgy attended by costumed aristocrats, very quickly realizes that he is out of his depth. It’s not Kubrick’s best film, but it’s arguably his creepiest.

For 37 million users of the online dating site Ashley Madison, the request to “remove their masks” was neither kind nor open to negotiation. The website, which allows married individuals a way to secretly cheat on their spouses, was recently the target of anonymous hackers who stole sensitive customer data and threatened to post it online. Suddenly, a number of very nervous Ashley Madison customers were at risk for having their data compromised, including 15,000 .mil or .gov email addresses.

Avid Life Media (ALM), the parent company that runs Ashley Madison (along with Cougar Life and Established Men), acknowledged the breach in a public statement. That was not enough to prevent The Impact Team, the group behind the attack, from dumping 9.7 gigabytes of account details to the dark web. Within hours, everything related to a user’s profile was available to the public: credit card transactions, email addresses, phone numbers, even full descriptions of the sexual fantasies users were looking to fulfill with their extramarital affairs.

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Digital Schadenfreude

It didn’t take long for observers on social media to express their amusement at what appeared to be poetic justice for thousands of cheating spouses. Several media pundits, in fact, mentioned the public shaming that took place at the expense of those whose data was hacked. In any event, Twitter was alive with commentary on the subject:

A number of journalists questioned the accuracy of the data exposed as a result of the breach. Computer security expert Graham Cluley wrote in a blog post that the appearance of an email address did not automatically incriminate the owner of that account as an adulterer — especially since the site administrators never bothered to verify email addresses:

For one thing, being a member of a dating site, even a somewhat seedy one like Ashley Madison, is no evidence that you have cheated on your partner. You might have joined the site years before when you were single and be shocked that they still have your details in their database, or you might have joined the site out of curiosity or for a laugh or even to find out if someone else was on the site … if your email address is in the Ashley Madison database it means nothing.

Another outcome has been the number of research firms who have used data pulled from the breach and created graphical charts depicting the cheating habits of Ashley Madison users. We can find out which cities appear to have the highest ratio of adultery, how many Australian government officials have Ashley Madison accounts, the ratio of male to female users worldwide, and how many Ashley Madison users work at IBM.

Whisper photo with caption: Yes, we all laughed it off. Turns out my gf was also cheating ... with the same girl.More importantly, though, are the effects of the breach on those whose data was exposed. The secret sharing app Whisper, for example, offers users an anonymous platform for posting lessons learned from being caught having an affair. In some ways, the Ashley Madison case study represents a perfect storm of all the ingredients necessary to bring out life ruination: casual sex, random infidelity, wanton bullying, technostress paranoia. Even in these digitally-permeant times, we continue to have an uneasy relationship with technology when it comes to our private lives.

Why We Can’t Trust Computers

Humans operate under the condition of short-term memory, also called working memory, on a daily basis. The brain tries to make sense of the sensations it receives by using what it already understands from experience, forming patterns based on previous behavior. This is the connective tissue that links key functions involving reason and comprehension.

The problem is that our brains have limited capacity. We can only process small packets of data in roughly 20-second bursts, unless the information is repeated on an endless loop. Our brains are also affected by impulses in judgment, which are influenced differently from one person to another, reflecting wide nuances in maturity and social development.

Computers, on the other hand, are the masters of long-term memory. Server farms for websites like Ashley Madison stay in business precisely because they are able to store large amounts of information for extended periods of time. Computers have no moral compass when it comes to data, whether it’s to protect a social security number or a clandestine encounter; however, we expect the same degree of discretion from our digital services as we do from humans. The efforts we take to conceal our identities in the course of scandalous behavior must be shared by everyone who participates, especially the system designed to shield us from being discovered.

The Ashley Madison hacking is more than a case study about infidelity. It’s about the inherent suspicion that no one can be trusted, either man or machine. Our fear of being unmasked is buffered solely by our faith in a reliable and discrete service provider. We expect technology to be neutral, much like a therapist who understands our reasons for having an affair and yet refuses to judge us. When a breach happens, it’s horrific because we’ve essentially enabled a computer to demonstrate the moral compass of a human, and both have let us down.

Frank Zappa

In the end, it comes down to whether we are ever truly able to be comfortable with ourselves. We play right into the hands of those who know they hold all the leverage, because what we’ve really done is come face-to-face with our own guilt. It’s not the sort of thing that can be protected with a password named after an opera. When Frank Zappa asked What’s the ugliest part of your body? in 1968, he had the right idea when he answered his own question with, “I think it’s your mind.”

In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle

“If I come back to this earth, I’m coming back as an animal,” rock musician and television celebrity Ozzy Osbourne told Spin Magazine in 1986. “People in this world do far more good for animals than they do for people. If a guy is stuck up a tree, they’ll leave him there.”

Cecil the Lion and Dr. Walter PalmerFast-forwarding nearly thirty years, an American dentist named Walter Palmer recently killed a 13-year-old protected lion for the sum of $55,000. A beloved member of the local community, Cecil was a major attraction at the Hwange National park in Matabelelland North in Zimbabwe. Prior to his demise, Cecil’s movements had been tracked by researchers from the University of Oxford as part of a larger study on animal behavior (attempts to destroy Cecil’s GPS tracking collar after decapitation were unsuccessful), and the hunters claimed his skin as a “trophy” following the hunt.

Dr. Palmer’s slaying of the cherished animal drew international media attention, sparking outrage among animal conservationists, politicians, businesses and celebrities. Late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel was moved to tears during his monologue, Piers Morgan suggested mounting Dr. Palmer’s head on a wall, and a cohort of airlines put a ban on transporting game trophies on their planes. The Zimbabwean government is seeking extradition for Dr. Palmer, as of this writing, and two other men have been prosecuted for the roles they played in planning and carrying out the hunt.

The consequences for Dr. Palmer’s actions have extended to within the borders of his home country. Recent acts of vigilantism evince a relentless urgency to condemn everything related to Dr. Palmer, his River Bluff Dental practice and his personal life. The practice’s Yelp page is swollen with negative reviews; Dr. Palmer’s credentials are the subject of online satire (“now kids are asking their dentists if they plan on murdering Bambi or the Easter Bunny”); cyber shaming threads continue to pile up on Reddit and Imgur news feeds; and persistent threats of physical violence have led to the removal of River Bluff’s Twitter and Facebook accounts (including one attempt at a temporarily renamed Facebook page).

Memorial And Protest Held At Office Of Minnesota Dentist That Killed Famed Lion In Zimbabwe
BLOOMINGTON, MN – JULY 29: Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer’s River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Today, the River Buff Dental practice is closed and Dr. Palmer remains in seclusion, his only communication taking the form of a written statement of apology issued through a Minneapolis-based public relations firm. Crisis management experts have largely minimized their involvement in the case, however, for fear that the Internet backlash would soon pulverize their own livelihoods.

Whatever our individual views on hunting in general, there’s a lot to dislike when examining the intentions of Walter Palmer. There is no lens of logic through which the slaying of Cecil can be viewed as anything but gratuitously cruel. The lion was tracked for 40 hours and purposely led away from the sanctuary before he was beheaded and skinned, his corpse left to rot on the Zimbabwean landscape. Brutality is ugly business, and it’s not difficult to see how quickly escalation can occur via social media. One day we’re using the “#WeAreCecil” hashtag to generate support; the next, we’re issuing a public call for digital mob justice.

Amid the #WeAreCecil vitriol, however, emerged a single tweet that perhaps served to embed a more reflective (if acerbic) viewpoint. Author Roxane Gay made it very clear what she meant when she announced on Twitter that “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.” In her op-ed piece for the New York Times, Ms. Gay forces us to consider an uncomfortable dichotomy, one that questions our ability to mourn the passing of human and non-human lives on equal terms:

Cecil the lion was a majestic creature and a great many people mourn his death, the brutality of it, the senselessness of it. Some people also mourn the deaths, most recently, of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose, but this mourning doesn’t seem to carry the same emotional tenor. A late-night television host did not cry on camera this week for human lives that have been lost. He certainly doesn’t have to. He did, however, cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.

The human brain has a constant need to form order from disorder, to find patterns of logic where there are none. We search for signs of premeditated instigation in one instance, because it helps us to rationalize the fear we have against our fellow humans—especially those who look different from us. In another scenario, one in which a sole human is the evil-doer, we are able to mourn the senselessness of the tragedy without any such assurances. Ms. Gay suggests that while both events are tragic, only one appears to warrant the tears of a late-night talk show host.

When we stand together against something generally agreed to be egregious (9/11 comes to mind), social media can be a conduit to emotional catharsis: an almost celebratory experience in human interaction. At its worst, however, social media is a vehicle for excessive cyber shaming; it devolves our capacity for etiquette, self-awareness and decorum when and where such reactions are appropriate. We prioritize our level of engagement according to our values at the moment of exposure, ready to erupt at the slightest impulse. It’s randomized empathy kept at a low boil.

Not many people know that Zimbabwe is currently facing a food shortage crisis, the result of a botched government intervention forcing experienced farmers to relocate to less fertile territory. Questionable land reform bills have similarly degraded the nation’s economy, leaving more than two-thirds of its population facing acute electricity and water shortages. Given the circumstances, Zimbabwe residents admit to being distracted by other problems than the unlawful killing of a wild animal. It’s not the sort of thing that generates a celebrity response on Twitter, perhaps, but to paraphrase Roxane Gay: we did at least cry for a lion and that’s worth thinking about.

Anxious Objects

According to Suzi Gablik (author of the excellent book Has Modernism Failed?), the term “anxious object” was first used by art critic Harold Rosenberg to describe modern art that forces us to question whether or not the work is genuinely intended to be art.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

The earliest example of  the anxious object is a 1917 piece by Marcel Duchamp called Fountain, which is nothing more than a signed porcelain urinal. Today the work is considered by art historians to be a landmark of the avant-garde. At the time of its exhibiting, however, the piece left audiences feeling bewildered and disturbed.

This is typically the reaction we have in the presence of anxious objects, because the uncertainty we experience demands some limit to the artist’s credibility. Duchamp himself later admitted that placing a urinal in an art gallery was something of a joke. If something is not instantly recognizable as art, then how do we reconcile the creator’s intent as anything but subversive?

Duchamp t-shirt with urinal on the frontInterestingly, the cultural estrangement sought by Duchamp resulted in an unexpected outcome: a new dialogue on how we interpret aesthetic beauty. Some critics, in fact, have favorably compared Fountain to the sculptures of Brancusi and Moore. When it comes to anxious objects, we miss the point while simultaneously (and often tragically) reinforcing it.

This comes to mind because of two stories appearing last week about Twitter, one of them involving the always provocative Kanye West. Mr. West, already known for controversial boasts proclaiming his power and intellect, declared himself “the greatest living rock star on the planet” after his set at Glastonbury. The response on Twitter was swift and judgmental, not unlike the vitriol observed when it was leaked that Mr. West had “discovered” a rising new talent named Paul McCartney.

Kanye West on stage at Glastonbury, boasting that his is the greatest living rock star on the planet

What is the social motivation that arouses people into action and gives direction to behavior? While the kudzu-like expansion of Kanye West’s limitless ego may provide wonderful fodder for the TMZ generation, the rationale dictating his behavior is not as easily explained. Our metric for evaluating social motive is often distilled to bizarre justifications. While employing such labels as narcissisticdelusional and outrageous, we openly wonder if Mr. West has a personality disorder and pick apart the structure of his upbringing to explain the inexplicable.

The opinion here is that Kanye West, and his accomplishment as an artist, is simply a manifestation of the persona he intentionally cultivates. In today’s Buzzfeed fueled media landscape, the public life he chooses to expose takes the form of an anxious object. The same motivations that drive all elements of fantasy—magnificent achievements, sexual striving, recognition of power by others—are fundamental to the uneasiness we feel as his story unfolds. The ambiguous and unstructured nature of his outbursts contributes to a growing suspicion that deliberate, cultural resistance is what the calculated art of Kanye West represents.

Subversive tendencies run both ways; if one can maximize higher meaning from something that is not actually a work of art, then it must be possible to reduce artistry from the intention to create. This appears to be the case with a series of Twitter posts reportedly tweeted by the CEO of Frito Lay this week.

According to a story on Medium, the CEO meant to type his tweets into the Google search bar of his browser. Apparently, he didn’t realize that he was actually releasing his search queries in a public forum. The result was an amusing (yet unconfirmed) snapshot into the mind of one of the food industry’s top executives.

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What is a Frito?

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: How to be a chips company CEO

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: What's the lowest you can pay a potato farmer

Frito Lay tweet intended to be a Google search: buy chips on iPhone

It’s possible that the story isn’t true (and it’s difficult to confirm, given that the tweets have either been deleted from the Frito Lay Twitter account or never existed in the first place). If true, however, it can be viewed as a brilliantly self-referential example of an anxious object. Although the tweets are uncomfortably close to being a parody, our archetype of the technophobic, egocentric business leader permeates the suspicion that this story just might be authentic. It might even be good marketing for the Frito Lay brand, given the otherwise stale environment of corporate social media.

All forms of art have the same inherent challenge: determining how much effort is required on the part of the artist to be taken seriously, and to what degree we as an audience are rewarded for pursuing the journey. A culture’s durability often rests upon the interpretive balance between the two, and blurring the lines has never been easier or more immediate.

Artists throughout history have played our tendencies as a social agent, thus promoting their conceptual output in order to suit the demands of the era in which we live. The caricature of celebrity is a textbook example of the indistinguishable demarcation between creator and concept. “We have always had the historical choice of either lying through or living through our contradictions,” said sculptor Carl Andre. “My ideal sculpture is a road.”

Update: according to Boing Boing, the Frito Lay CEO tweets have been generally confirmed to be satire. When the above post was written, the word “satire” did not appear on either of the two articles reporting the story. One might argue that shrouding the line between satire and reality is, in execution, an anxious object depicting another anxious object. Modern art goes meta.

Murder in Soft Words

Participating in a spelling bee is an academic rite of passage that just about every child undergoes at some point. Those who are able to master the gentle art of spelling such words as necessary, occasion and hemorrhoid have the opportunity to advance their skills against more rigorous competition.

Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. | REUTERS
Children compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday. Top left: Sophia Han of Tiajian, China. Top right: Marcus Behling of Chandler, Arizona. Bottom left: Sean Fogerty of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. Bottom right: Olivia Hajicek of Goshen, Indiana. Reuters photo for The Japan Times.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship took place last week at National Harbor, MD just outside of Washington DC. For 11 of the past 15 years, the $30,000 prize has been won by American youngsters of Indian heritage, who make up one out of five competitors from all 50 states.

In 2014, the Spelling Bee ended in a tie between Sriran Hathwar of upstate New York and Ansun Sujoe, who lives in Texas. Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia, while Sujoe’s word was feuilleton. Stichomythia is a form of dramatic dialog in Greek theatre, characterized by brief exchanges during a scene of strong emotional intensity. A feuilleton is the part of a European newspaper containing material intended to entertain the general reader. In the US, we might refer to a feuilleton as a “fluff piece.”

The term online troll once referred to users who disrupted Internet chat rooms, often with the deliberate intent of provoking an emotional response. An example might be someone who makes an inflammatory comment about religion or politics, solely to minimize another person’s viewpoint and garner a reaction.

More recently, trolling has been closely associated with other aspects of online harassment, such as cyberbullying and public shaming. A troll might deface an online tribute site commemorating a loved one who passed away, for example, with no purpose other than to cause unnecessary stress to the grieving families. Or in the case of trolls’ response to last week’s National Spelling Bee, it’s to spread xenophobic commentary about the ethnic backgrounds of a group of kids aged 9 to 15:

“One year I wish an American kid could win.”

“Not to be offensive .. but how do kids from India dominate the American spelling bee?!?”

“The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN.”

Perhaps the most volatile example of troll behavior is in the social crucible of online dating, where women risk inadvertently provoking dismissive and hostile remarks made by rejected males. Except in many cases, the behavior instigating the trolling might be something as innocuous as failing to respond to a text message. Alexandra Tweten created an Instagram account called Bye Felipe to catalog the creepy (and often scary) results that happen when women deign to say “no thanks” to a male suitor.

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a bitch for telling him she's not interested in dating

screenshot of online chat where female says "no means no," and male responds with "to me, no means yes"

screenshot of online chat where male calls female a "stuck up cunt" and advises her to "learn to take a compliment" before recommending she kill herself

It’s not difficult to detect the social influences that compel this sort of behavior. The relative anonymity of online postings often precipitate an increased disinhibition among Internet users. Tom Postmes, professor of organizational psychology and author of the book Individuality and the Group, suggests that trolls are inspired by “the level of trouble they can cause in an environment. They want to promote antipathetic emotions of disgust and outrage, which morbidly gives them a sense of pleasure.”

However, this doesn’t completely explain the level of psychopathic narcissism exhibited in the Bye Felipe examples above. While most forms of trolling can be categorized within an uneasy miasma where free speech and personal accountability overlap, there is something more darkly sadistic in telling someone to commit suicide because she won’t respond to puerile vulgarity. The Machiavellianism at display here is arguably more alarming, implying that the perpetrators might actually feel entitled to the motives behind their actions. The more beautiful and self-assured their target, the more deserving it is of corruption.

Whenever Orson Welles was interviewed about his epic radio broadcast War of the Worlds, he often dismissed suggestions that perhaps he should have toned down his approach in order to spare the widespread panic that ensued: “No, you don’t play murder in soft words.”

In some ways, trolling is really about the power of language. It’s an experiment to verify the schoolyard comparison between “sticks & stones” and “names that never hurt.” It’s a game of identity deception played without the consent of its players, a public exhibition of antisocial tendencies, a form of bullying in which the villains never actually show up to demand their lunch money.

Rex Morgan MD comic on Facebook trolls

Researchers who study the effects of video games often cite the interdependence of experience, in which feelings of arousal can apply beyond a single activity. Playing a game transfers excitement from the digital space to real life, though not always consciously, which generates a level of emotional coactivation. Learned concepts are retained more effectively into the part of the brain known as the effective domain, where long-term memory takes place, and the body produces endorphins accordingly. It is here where we form the basis of our activities involving judgment, consequences, actions and ethics.

It could be that there is a cognitive bias taking place in the minds of today’s trolls. In order to accentuate a moment in their lives in which they derived pleasure, it’s necessary for them to recreate the circumstances in which that moment took place. During childhood, we’re taught that kids pick on other kids in order to bolster their sense of self-worth. We’re expected to mature past that point, ideally, but evidence demonstrates the assumptive path to enlightenment is turbulent at best.

What we do know is that there is an inherent unity to the online body, comprised of many “selves” in which the depiction of information is a commodity. We set standards for what we deem to be acceptable, then adjust our level of resentment or appreciate accordingly. It could be that trolls simply have no filters that prevent unwanted behaviors from intensifying, their physical relevance marked solely by how effectively they’re able to denigrate those who fall below their standards.