One of my happiest discoveries in graduate school was an article called "the limits of Elizabethan credulity," from which I learned that Elizabethans believed in ghosts, magic, alchemy and unicorns.  (The last were, they believed, merely scarce.) 

This article got me wondering about the line between credible and incredible in the present day, and in the last couple of days I have started to wonder whether "American credulity" is not shifting. 

Borat pretends to being a documentary.  Most of us are hip to the joke.  We "get" that this is parodic, that Sasha Baron Cohen, the creator and star, is "just kidding." 

But the anthropologist is a bore.  He insists on asking:

1) what are the signals that tell us something is parodic?

2) who gets them?

3) do some people not get them?

4) how many people need to fail to get them before we may (or must) cry "hoax"?

Now, I know what you are thinking.  You would actually have to be from Kazakhstan not to understand that Borat is a parody.

But what about these other examples?  Sega did a campaign that pretended to be the diary of someone trying to "blow the whistle" on the dangerous properties of Sega game.

Mini USA released "actual footage" of a giant robot.  The animation is really good, but what sold me on this hoax was the opening interview with a British engineer pottering about in his cardigan and his garden shed.  Note perfect. 

Alright, so I am from Kazakhstan.  I only wish that MIT colleagues, Sam Ford and Ivan Askwith, had not been there to see me fall for it.  (Very politely, they pretended not to notice the shocking elasticity of my credulity.)

The world is now filled with what we hope are note perfect confabulations. And the odd thing: we don’t much care.  This used to be the job of the chattering classes: to police the difference between appearance and reality, between veritas and verisimilitude.  Indeed, the 1990s seemed preoccupied with conspiracy with the Kennedy assassination and Roswell that were all about the possibility that some things were just appearances.  If someone were to restage War of the Worlds, would there be the outcry, the indignation that greeted Orson Wells?  I don’t think so.

What happened to the cry: Hoax!


Mini ads.  These have disappeared from the internet without a trace.  Anyone who can find them is urged to let me know. 

The Sega ads here

Post bonus: A Citroen ad that might have been a hoax except that we are way too canny.  Or perhaps I am missing something.  Thoughts here.

6 thoughts on “Hoax!

  1. dilys

    The Al Durah trials in France — libel charges for defendants pointing out media “fauxtography” — summary at http://tinyurl.com/ykej46 — are the other side of “what is/isn’t a hoax?” Where/in what context, according to the social contract, may hoaxes be generated? Which hoaxes may not be pierced? What is the risk in calling something a hoax which may not be, or no more than is customary? Which is more devastating to personal prestige, not to recognize a hoax, or to openly believe something actual to be a hoax?

    Playfulness-and-lies is an interesting terrain.

  2. Sandra Argenius

    If a hoax is ‘temporary lie’ whose purpose is to invoke a reaction we can laugh at, and lies are smoke screens to temporarily, or permanently screen one’s agenda from view, then the difference is in the words temporary and permanent. However, they also differ in their purpose. The one is used to evoke emotion; the other is used to manoeuvre socially.

    It is not surprising that hoaxes appeal to people in our culture and there may be a link to virtual reality. Though the term has faded, that, which it depicts has an increasing role in our lives. As virtual reality gives us a ‘rush’ experienced when not bound to the limitations of one’s own race, gender, economic stand, physic etc, so gives the Hoax a rush by way of invoking real emotions through illusion. Is this not just an advanced form of theatre. What lies behind the need for this rush or the niche in our present culture which beds for its grasp on us is probably a weave of many factors. Even the increasing tolerance of violence in society can be interpreted as an increased desire for the ‘emotional rush’. The popularity of special effects in the film industry has taught us how to go about this. It has been popular this year in Stockholm for young men to meet somewhere in town, mark the clock and then set off with their mobile phone cameras to club down, rape and antagonize other citizens whilst filming. After the conquests, they meet and agree on a winner. It is just for fun the suburban lads say when asked.

  3. Peter

    Grant —

    Your 4 questions are very interesting to some of us in computer science at present. Developing artificial languages for autonomous machines to communicate with one another, the whole notion of insincere utterances is deeply difficult. How can computers, which are so far only very literal-minded, understand irony, parody, sarcasm, hoaxes, feints, tactical agreement, etc? If they cannot perceive these features in a conversation, does that mean they will be at a disadvantage interacting with machines or people able to speak insincerely?

    Before we can answer these questions for computers, it will certainly be useful to know how humans successfully perceive these features of conversation. So, not for the first time, I think your research agenda is very important for people outside anthropology or marketing. Perhaps you could persuade IBM, HP or one of the big European telcos (all doing advanced research into automated negotiation) to fund you.

Comments are closed.