In the final scene of Three Days of the Condor, Joe Turner, played brilliantly by Robert Redford, confronts J. Higgins outside the offices of the New York Times, asking: “Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?” Higgins hedges a bit before ultimately replying “No. Absolutely not. We have games. That’s all. We play games. What if? How many men? What would it take? Is there a cheaper way to destabilize a regime? That’s what we’re paid to do.” He goes on to proclaim, regarding the conspiracy of military invasion that Redford has uncovered: “Fact is, there was nothing wrong with the plan. Oh, the plan was alright, the plan would’ve worked.” Turner is taken aback: “Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?”
“No,” Higgins replies, “It’s simple economics. Today it’s oil, right? In ten or fifteen years, food. Plutonium. And maybe even sooner. Now, what do you think the people are gonna want us to do then?” Turner is indignant, offering a brisk reply: “Ask them.” As viewers, we are meant to enjoy Turner’s indignation, to identify with him and his idealism.
Higgins, who acts as the film’s most explicit realist – the tension between idealism and realism is one of the key themes of the movie – dismisses the sentiment. For a brief moment, it looks like Higgins and his conspirators are on the verge of eliminating Turner’s meddling. That’s the plan, at any rate, but Turner has what he believes to be an Ace up his sleeve, and an idealist Ace at that. He’s given the whole story of the conspiracy to the New York Times: “I told ‘em a story,” he says to Higgins. “You play games. I… told ‘em a story.” Higgins looks sad, perhaps even a bit disturbed: “Oh you… you poor, dumb son of a bitch. You’ve done more damage than you know.” Turner responds, loftily, “I hope so,” and begins to walk away.
A moment of silent tension passes before Higgins offers one last rejoinder: “Hey Turner – how do you know they’ll print it? You can take a walk… but how far if they don’t print it?” Then it’s Turner’s turn to exhibit doubt, etched all over a close-up of Redford’s face, before asserting, lamely, desperately: “They’ll print it.” Higgins repeats the question: “How do you know?”
And so the film comes to a close, with “How do you know?” left hanging over the proceedings, unsettling the audience’s perceptions of Turner’s success. At least, that was likely the final lesson to be had by audiences back in the early 70s, when the film was released. Back then, the monopolies of knowledge that restricted publishing, and that could thus conspire to hide “the truth,” were real concerns for those who wanted to know what was “really” going on. Back then, conspiracies worked through a logic of informational scarcity. On the one side of the ledger were agents in the know, behind the scenes, and their information gave them powers and agency beyond the plebes they governed or reported to. On the other side were the protagonists, information seekers, who by peeling back the veil of secrecy and the decoding of secret messages gained modest glimpses into the harsh world of full information. In such a way the conspiracy was revealed, but never quite fully, since the protagonist was constantly struggling against the limits of what they could know.
There’s something quaint to this setup, something antediluvian. Joe Turner uncovers the conspiracy, we should remember, by reading a rather eccentric thriller. It’s kind of charming to think that once upon a time a novel would offer a receptive and engaged mind the opportunity to uncover the secrets of the geopolitical universe.
Today we are confronted by a vastly different epistemological structure. Instead of a paucity of information, cleverly hidden within the books and magazines that are now dying media, we have a flood of information, constituted by a functionally infinite combination of 24 hr news networks, talk radio stations, millions upon millions of blogs, tweets, status updates, check-ins, tumblrs, and more. The barriers to publishing no longer exist. We are, as Hansen aptly describes it, in a storyteller uprising. We play games, too, but we also “tell ‘em a story.” And no one anymore can seriously wonder, given the ease of publishing and distribution, “how do you know they’ll print it?”
No, from the churning seas of post Web 2.0 productivity arises a different question. If everything can be printed, covered, discussed, tweeted, and more: how do we know they’ll see it? Or more seriously, how do we know they’ll care about it if they do see it? We spend a lot of time talking about analytics, and a lot of time talking up the principles of good story-telling, and we do so because of a fairly fundamental anxiety, one that we could summarize as follows: if a story falls in the social media forest, and no one cares enough to pay attention to it, does it really fall at all?
It is in this context that I want to recall Mike Daisey’s mildly fabricated (maybe “enhanced” is more kind) dramatic divination of Apple’s manufacturing practices. On the one hand, Daisey’s theatrical story ends up diverting focus from the very topic it addresses. When a story like that has its excesses and exaggerations exposed – and with these kinds of stories, they’re always exposed eventually – it becomes the object of the story in a way that the truth-tellers among us dislike. We hear more about Daisey, about falsehood, about deceit, than we do about the story’s remaining kernel of veracity, and as a result smug PR spokespersons can nod knowingly, with the right hint of a frown, and cast the original story into the annals of journalistic disrepute. In so doing, an “enhanced” story like Daisey’s “Agony and the Ecstasy” lets its subject-matter off the hook. A shame.
And yet, on the other hand, it’s not like the subject matter was actually being addressed; it’s not as if Daisey sabotaged a groundswell of concern that would have continued, unabated, if only he hadn’t interfered. No, our illustrious mainstream media, our industry-happy tech journalists, and we, the somnambulist users, don’t really spend much time thinking about all the messy industrial capitalism that these technologies rely upon. That’s not to suggest we’re ignorant or vapid. In reality, we all know that the manufacturing of our most cherished handheld electronic goods requires an incredibly complex and toxic (in terms of the environment and human well-being) manufacturing process, but we tend to maintain our enjoyment of these devices by not worrying too much about how they arrived on the shelves. Indeed, one could make the claim (hardly scandalous) that the hallmark of good technological design today is precisely its capacity to induce a happy mix of disregard and amnesia regarding the process by which the device was constructed, as well as the eventual fate of that device once replaced by something newer. Good design lets us enjoy forgetting these material realities, or at least pretending we’ve forgotten.
Maybe, then, this is where story-telling really comes to possess a power in the post-social media age. Today, with new narratives and new media that work outside the traditionally structured constraints on presentation (word limits, equal time, verifiability, lack of bias), we can tell stories and conduct a sort of new journalism that seeks attention for topics not with the hand of truth, but with the sleight of hand of exaggeration. Perhaps truth has become, well, boring. Social media have made our information consumption increasingly hedonistic, and it seems, well, unseemly to condemn those that feed our appetites through “enhancements” if in so doing they also force us to remember, if only for a while, that there is a very complicated and often horrifying reality to the systems behind and before our favorite screens.
Which means, in many ways, that Daisey can be seen as far more a champion of the truth than those who retracted their support for his work.
This post is categorized in: Entertainment