The longer I do stuff of a historical nature with computers, the more this puts me, ironically, in contact with people. And the more you end up in contact with people, the more you learn about people. The problem is, what if you don’t like what you learn?
I had an absolutely horrible English class with a teacher who had nothing but contempt for students. Her tirades drove me into books to read during class, and it was by luck that I found the story “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov. It’s over here and you might recognize it, or not. The upshot is that a young lawyer spends a lot of time learning about people and the more he does the less happy he is, until he renounces the bet he is involved in just to be rid of it.
This story was striking to me because at 13 I didn’t have any idea that increased knowledge could cause unhappiness; I was surrounded by so many people who were fighting to parade their ignorance that I assumed that in learning (as opposed to rote memorization) came pleasure, and I had stuck with that. And really, I continue to stick to that.
But age brings nuance and not everything ends up staying black and white, clean or dirty, all or none. For most of my young life I knew, just knew, that in any situation involving medical condition, that if there was a way for me to be kept alive, any means necessary, I would take it because of the utter void I knew awaited extinguishing. Now, I realize that there are conditions in which, ultimately, a lot of the reason for continued existence can be counterbalanced.
So after conducting hundreds of interviews, and in some cases spending months tracking down a story, I have this rough idea about reality in my head. I call it the three levels. It’s actually four, but I’ll explain that in a moment.
The first level is the “official story”. This is the story that people who do not care about history specifically usually have. George Washington was the first American president. The earth is round. Alexander Graham Bell discovered/invented the telephone, as did Edison the light bulb. There was a cold war and the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of it. The stories on this level are generally in the ballpark. If your job is not directly affected by knowing exactly who is Queen of England or how many city-states are in Asia, then you are a content little donut with the first level.
The second level is the “actual story”. This is not the actual story per se, but the story that is told to people who care a little more than those who know the first level. Typewriters certainly jammed, but the introduction of the standard qwerty keyboard over the previous formats is not necessarily because they jammed. The great videogame crash was certainly because of a glut of games, but also because of changes in the economy and investment. It is possible to read the output of wireless keyboards and decode them but why would anyone be doing that to you right now.
The third level is the objective observation, away from the writings and the witnesses and the stories and the lore. It’s what you get if you have a camera running on the situation or record things on tape, without going inside anyone’s head. This level has come more and more into prominence as of late. Don’t tase me, bro.
The fourth level, which I said sort of doesn’t exist, is the level you would get if you actually aimed the camera in the right direction and the camera was capable of recording thoughts, motivations, and situations from the past. With this magical camera, you’d really know what was up. We don’t have one of these cameras, although sometimes people will write books as if they have them, which really tends to piss the subjects of the books off.
So many times, I’ve encountered the first level during interviews. Occasionally the second. As rare as anything is the third. I never get the fourth.
Much of the discussion in web forums rests around the second level. We, the discussion group, know just enough to feel we’re worth debating it beyond the usual rubes. We can infer and bring together facts and cite sources and generally pontificate. Sometimes this is entertaining and sometimes it’s an explosion. But rarely, really, can you ever know what’s what. It comes down to who wins the debate, the argument, seems the least like a dick, and perseveres through the alternate opinions or contrarian onslaught.
The proliferation of multi-media availability means that more and more we face our actual selves recorded, doing what we did, with no real recourse for saying we didn’t do it or this was the way it really happened. Talented people are of course always working to say “it’s not what it looks like” but it certainly looks like it.
These three layers are in conflict with each other. You can shout until you’re blue in the face that the first level opinion is wrong, but you’re often countering it with your second level opinion, and you’re wrong too, buddy. Nobody, maybe not even the people involved, know of the full levels three and four. Maybe they do and choose to ignore it over time. The mind’s an amazing thing. It changes stuff. I’ve seen myself do it, I’ve seen others do it. Mid-interview. Mid-statement.
We spend so much time arguing, making our point, saying that we know the real story. My opinion, many interviews conducted later and much observation of writing later, is we find ourselves one level further than we’d like.
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