Puppies, Lies, and Digital Traces: Chicago Humanities Festival, Day One

Cross-posted to the Chicago Humanities Festival blog.

Two weeks ago, my husband, Al, and I brought home a puppy. Important background information: three weeks ago, Al and I did not want anything to do with a puppy. After putting our sweet, old, one-eyed pug/corgi cross, Solomon, to sleep, we planned to adopt another adult mutt. But someone didn’t filter his search to exclude younger dogs, so we soon learned that there were 11-week-old pug/corgi puppies available at a suburban shelter—including one who looked like, as Al put it when he shoved the picture in my face, “Baby Solly! BABY SOLLY!”

That is the kind of information you can’t just will yourself to unknow. And so I am writing this blog post to the sounds of a 14-week-old pug/corgi puppy (Murray) chomping on a squeaky plush duck with murderous persistence. And I had to skip seeing William Gibson on Sunday, because our obedience class ran from 12-1, which was the whole point of that tangent, apart from indulging my current obsession with the wee beastie.

Fortunately, Murray’s class is in Evanston, so I was still able to make it to The Truth Machine: American Justice and Our Obsession with Lie Detection at 1:30. (Al and Murray will have to go to class without me next week while I head down to Hyde Park.) As I said on Twitter immediately afterwards, I enjoyed Ken Alder’s talk so much, I bought his book, The Lie Detectors, for my Kindle before I even left the auditorium.

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the Law & Order television franchise (and I have waaaaay more than that) has long been aware that lie detector technology is too unreliable to be admissible in court. Still, I didn’t realize that, in the 100 years that we’ve been using some iteration of that technology, we’ve pretty much always known it was unreliable. The need for human interpretation of a polygraph’s data creates acres of room for error, and psychologists have been pointing that out since the very beginning.

Why, then, do we remain so enamored of a piece of hardware that, as Alder put it, “promises objectivity but thrives on its opposite”? Essentially, because we want so badly to believe there could be such a thing as a machine that tells us, scientifically and conclusively, when someone is lying. That desire is then fueled by the use of polygraph evidence on TV and in crime novels, in comic books—”Dick Tracy” popularized it in the ’30s—and films and the theater of politics: Alder notes that the 20th century was full of “lie detector moments,” from the Watergate scandal to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. These entertainments and performances, he says, are the “natural habitat” of the lie detector—not science or justice.

Much as I wanted to go start reading Alder’s book right after that, I stuck around for Noshir Contractor’s Traces in a Tangled Web talk, and I am so glad I did. I wasn’t entirely sure what the subject was from the description—I saw the phrase “digital traces,” and my mind immediately leapt to worst-case privacy invasion scenarios, the kind of thing I simultaneously wish to learn about and never want to hear about, la la la la. So I was quite torn between that and Shedding Artificial Light on Art History but ultimately let laziness—I was already in the building where Contractor’s talk would take place—decide for me.

Contractor acknowledged that the potential for baddies to exploit our online data footprints (basically, everything we ever do on the web leaves a record) is “frankly, incredibly frightening,” but he was primarily focused on how all that information is also “incredibly useful.” Researchers like himself can now access enormous, previously unimaginable data sets that offer new insights into human social behavior—one of which is that technology may have changed how we communicate, but not so much with whom. The web was supposed to eliminate geographical barriers—and as someone who has “internet friends” (i.e., people I correspond with but have never met) in Europe and Australia, I can certainly attest that it’s made a difference in my life—but the research shows that overall, 75 percent of online communications are between people who live in fairly close proximity. We apparently aren’t looking to the internet to find new people nearly as much as we are to chat with our existing friends.

After that, my brain was too full of new thoughts for me to sit still any longer. I can’t wait for the Hyde Park program next Sunday, though—especially since I’m now a part of it! After my last blog post, Encyclopedia Show co-founder Robbie Q. Telfer e-mailed to ask if I wanted to be among the “stellar hodgepodge of writers, artists, poets, and performers” assembled for this one. I said yes before I could talk myself out of it. Eep! Wish me luck