A sideways look at economics

I’m a massive fan of the late, great David Bowie. But this isn’t a blog about his music. It’s about an interview he did with Jeremy Paxman on BBC2’s Newsnight in 1999, where he talked very convincingly about the impact that the Internet was likely to have on our lives. You can find it here.

Bowie is specifically interested in the relationship between the medium, the audience and the content, whether music or anything else. He points to the way society was already fragmenting in the ‘90s, reflected and amplified by the Internet. He talks about how traditional hierarchies were breaking down, and with them the habit of regarding certain institutions or individuals as arbiters of truth and aesthetic taste. We were moving to a world in which the audience, fragmented into many parts, became at least as important as those arbiters, or more so, he says; a world where the old hierarchy is flipped on its head, and the space between the content and the audience, the mediated ‘grey space’, becomes the thing itself.

His words do sound uncannily prescient. But not nearly as prescient as a subsequent, fake David Bowie interview, made by the comedian Michael Spicer, would have you believe. You can find the Michael Spicer spoof here.

Predictably, the spoof has been received by some as the real thing and, in an irony that would surely amuse Bowie himself, it has caused his star to shine even more brightly in the minds of those who now believe he was literally clairvoyant.

Twitter is chastising people for passing off the Spicer spoof as the real Bowie. But, in a sense, who is to say it isn’t? I mean, I have a pretty clear memory of who Bowie was and what he looked like. But memory can be fickle, can’t it? If someone else claims that this version is the real David Bowie, well, it’s my word against theirs. The so-called ‘facts’ have been obliterated. That’s what fragmentation of truth means, right?

Michael Spicer probably never intended his spoof to be taken as real. But, again, why is the matter up to him? Who appointed him as judge and jury?

After all, the ‘real’ David Bowie was always fragmentary and illusory. He was a nebulous and shifting concept made up of many different personas, fluctuating over time. For a start, that wasn’t his real name, or rather it wasn’t the name he was given at birth. As he says in the interview, he wasn’t even sure how to pronounce the name that he invented for himself. And it’s not just the personas that changed: every atom in the body of Ziggy Stardust was different from every atom in the body of the thin white duke.

The same is true for all of us: all he did was draw our attention to that. In my own case, my name Erik is spelled with a ‘k’, a fact that matters to me, although it doesn’t appear to matter to anyone else, including members of my own family. Who is to say which is the correct spelling? I mean, you would think I would know. But my knowledge is contested. And my troubles pale into insignificance compared with those of Jeanne Pouchain, declared legally dead in 2017, who claims nevertheless to be very much alive. You’d think she’d know. But her claims are contested – you can find her extraordinary story here.

And maybe Jeanne Pouchain is a deep fake? Not only can the most sophisticated AI now convince some humans in conversation that they are also human (passing the “Turing test” according to some accounts, though this remains controversial), they can also appear human, with faces into which we all-too-readily read human character and history. Examples of these can be found here (page 54).

Maybe she never existed as a human at all. How would I know, after all? I’ve never met her. And even if I had, memory is fickle.

There is no agreement about who should be the arbiter of what’s true. The Internet reflects and amplifies that kind of fracturing, and AI increasingly lends credibility to any claim of truth or falsehood. Before the Internet the media held up a mirror to the world. Now that mirror is crazed, shattered into many tiny pieces each one of which reflects a tiny portion of the world.

The mirror is not the only thing that’s crazed, it often seems; it feels like the rest of us are too. We can’t seem to decide how to decide what’s true, which leaves the field open.

Into that vacuum steps a host of charlatans: people pretending to be someone they’re not; pretending to know things they don’t know. David Bowie was among these, in his way, especially in the earlier years of his career. It was fun and refreshing to watch, and freeing also – reminding all of us that we have agency over our own identity. In Bowie’s case, by his own account he was consciously ‘pretending’ all along – but I suppose that the longer you pretend to be someone else the more you lose sight of, or maybe change, what you ‘really’ are. In econometric parlance, the identity you choose and your underlying identity probably cointegrate in the long run: though they both move, in the end they move together.

I feel reasonably confident that, eventually, such charlatanism will lose its charm for society as it did for Bowie. I suspect it goes in cycles: the accepted ways of establishing the truth, and the appointed guardians of those ways in the media and other institutions, become too rigid, too stifling, too tied to an orthodoxy that appears increasingly out of sync with society; and they are displaced, the mirror is shattered by iconoclasts like David Bowie. Then, eventually, we start to find the shattered mirror unsatisfactory, and try to rebuild it. And the process repeats.

Speaking for myself, I’m heartily sick of the current phase already. I want to get going on the rebuilding phase. And there’s nothing that dismisses the charlatans more quickly than a sharp dose of unmistakeable reality, such as the events in Ukraine. Now does not feel like a good time to wonder if the charlatans might have a point: they don’t.

The process of rebuilding starts with this thought: I can’t be sure whether Jeanne Pouchain is alive or dead, or even whether she is or ever was human, but my uncertainty does not change the facts. She is one or the other, not in some quantum state in between; and it’s not a matter of opinion, or of how strongly you feel about it, or of how you see it, or of which celebrities say what about it, or of how many likes a given opinion receives. There is a truth out there, and in the end our opinions, for the most part, cointegrate with it. To put that in non-geek: you can’t fool all the people all the time.

Russia, unprovoked, has invaded Ukraine. My name is Erik. In the end, it’s not a matter of opinion.

David Bowie and Michael Spicer as a spoof Bowie

P.S. Bowie was prescient, in lots of ways. These are some lyrics from ‘Fantastic Voyage’ from his third Berlin album, Lodger, which feel like they could have been written yesterday:

It’s a very modern world
But nobody’s perfect
It’s a moving world
But that’s no reason
To shoot some of those missiles
Think of us as fatherless scum
It won’t be forgotten

Indeed it won’t.


More from this writer:

Only in DC

The business travel blues

And this too shall pass