Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Is it real? It doesn't seem to matter much any more

A friend sent me a link to a video featuring something called the Incredible Music Machine. If you haven't seen it, you absolutely must check it out.

Like a gazillion other viewers, I was mesmerized by a fantastic room full of strings and gears and cogs and drumheads, brass pipes and xylophone pads. Oh, and thousands of bouncing balls, all spewing out of horns and hitting the strings and pads in such a way that it made some of the sweetest music I've heard in a long while.

All so wonderful, except for one thing: it was a fake. But what a fake.

Like so many internet hoaxes, the text accompanying the email and video helped me "fall" for it. The text had such a feeling of authenticity. A university connection fed the reality. Supposedly, the machine had been built in a stunning collaborative effort at the University of Iowa. It was the work of the Robert M. Trammell Music Conservatory and the Sharon Wick School of Engineering. "Amazingly, 97% of the machines components came from John Deere Industries and Irrigation Equipment of Bancroft , Iowa ..Yes, farm equipment!"

"It took the team a combined 13,029 hours of set-up, alignment, calibration, and tuning before filming this video but as you can see it was WELL worth the effort. It is now on display in the Matthew Gerhard Alumni Hall at the University and is already slated to be donated to the Smithsonian."

Lovely idea. And an incredible feat. But it's a feat of cyberspace and computer-generated animation. As it turns out, the video is the work of a fantastic company called Animusic, based in Ithaca, New York, and San Diego, California. Animusic is also something you should be aware of, because honestly, that company's enterprise looks to me like the future. Founder Wayne Lytle -- a musician and computer whiz -- has figured out how to combine sophisticated animation with wonderful music, and CD sales are booming. Why wouldn't they be? The music is incredible, and the animation is completely captivating.

In the end, when it comes to music and entertainment, it seems to make little or no difference whether something is real or not. Generations of television watching and the flourishing of the internet have accustomed us to taking fake for truth. (it gets sticky of course when we get into the political realm but that's another story.)

I am reminded of my students' reaction to reading the infamous "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. Supposedly a memoir, the book was faked at least in part. Somehow, though, when you ask students whether they care that the book was a "hoax," most will say no. There is authenticity to the story. Frey captured emotional truth, and whether the book is called fiction or literary non-fiction, it makes no difference. It's a great read and a good story. And most importantly, it feels real (read the scene where the narrator is in a dentist chair for hours worth of root canal and no anesthetic. It rips you apart, and it feels all too real.)

I am also reminded of research that shows that our brain waves are the same whether we are experiencing a particular event, OR whether we are just thinking about that same event.

In other words, we are hard-wired to react mentally to "real" experiences in the very same way we react to "faked" experience. Which is why fiction and movies and TV and internet videos hook us so completely. Because they feel so real.

All very cool. And more than a little bit scary. Because we are so vulnerable to being fooled. It would be awfully easy, it seems, to fall prey to politicians -- or despots -- who portray themselves to be one thing, but are, in "reality," something altogether different.

Wait a minute. Isn't that already happening?

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