This is a fictional account of how the facts began to wobble
January 19, 2024 12:14 AM   Subscribe

There was something else, too, harder to explain. I often felt as though I’d made contact with a deeper order. I would have been ashamed to describe it, this sense that—whatever any editor’s conscious agenda—we might all be making edits to a vast, intricate work whose meaning we could not perceive. from The Hofmann Wobble by Ben Lerner [Harper's; ungated]
posted by chavenet (25 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I committed my own tiny crime against humanity's best collective knowledge repository when I noticed that the Wikipedia page for feijoa mentioned eating them with a spoon and someone had added a "citation needed." I was not the only person who thought this was ridiculous: the Talk page still records a person questioning why this petty detail needed a reference.

So I created this blog post and then linked to it. This edit survived several years but at some point a spoilsport removed it, and then the passage about typically eating feijoas with a spoon too.

(Feijoas are common, popular and polarising in New Zealand where I live, hence my interest in this obscure fruit).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:02 AM on January 19 [9 favorites]

wow, that was quite a read. thanks for sharing, I think.
posted by progosk at 2:11 AM on January 19 [4 favorites]

We live in Tlön.
posted by Phanx at 3:51 AM on January 19 [9 favorites]

Jesus Christ. Thank you for sharing this; as someone who works with information for a living, I suspect this piece will haunt me forever.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:05 AM on January 19 [6 favorites]

One of the wonderful and unnerving through-lines in Lerner's work is that so much sounds so autobiographical, and yet in some of his work he has referred to the thin lines between truth and fiction, slipping between them, but the difference between them - everything he writes sounds and feels so true, yet so unreliable.
posted by entropone at 6:38 AM on January 19 [5 favorites]

I've had this on my to read list since it first appeared, so thanks for the bump. I'm a fan of Lerner's writing, glad to see it here.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:27 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

This was excellent. Heady and terrifying in equal measure. We really do live in the (dis)information age.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:13 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]

This is an interesting companion read as you contemplate the existence of "Oldavista" a couple of posts up. The Internet really changed literally everything and it's wild to have been awake and aware (and, in my case, working at an Internet Company, with a front seat to much of the drama and a clear view of how the sausage gets made) for most of that history and to know how many living, breathing, talking, voting people weren't, either because they got on the bandwagon later or because they're just too young.

Like, my kids are too young to read this story and understand it right now...but how will it even strike them if they read it? What will this mean to them, having never known a different world?
posted by potrzebie at 9:52 AM on January 19 [3 favorites]

oh my...that was *quite* a read. I'm shook.
posted by supermedusa at 9:54 AM on January 19 [3 favorites]

Goddamn, what a read.

For ultimately the New Media Fellow didn’t understand his new (now old) medium. He simply underestimated—despite his own experience, his own waning of affect and cognitive fragmentation—the degree to which everything that appeared on a screen was flattened, emptied out, rendered interchangeable. He continued—despite his own experience—to somehow believe that more information would be empowering as opposed to incapacitating, likely to numb when it didn’t inculcate despair.

That might be the closest thing I've experienced to having the wind knocked out of me by a paragraph.
posted by Mayor West at 10:08 AM on January 19 [9 favorites]

I see via Lerner's Wikipedia page that this story prompted a response in Wikipedia's in house newsletter. The hurt is real (and I do feel a bit bad about the feijoa hi-jinks I posted about above).

I think the reviewer's conclusion about the significance of the "ChatGPT" ending is wrong though. I think Lerner trusts us enough to be skeptical about the glib and superficial stylings of ChatGPT output, and trusts us to take the "a young man learns" summary of what the foregoing story is about as exactly wrong.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:49 PM on January 19 [6 favorites]

But of course, more deeply, he felt the ends justified the means

Well, let me with my left-side politics tear this ally to shreds for trying to make a difference but not being perfect.

I figure his methods are that's how you get Bot Factories, do you want Bot Factories?
posted by k3ninho at 2:59 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it's how you get bot factories, but it is how you get hronir

Edit: "tax relief" is absolutely hilarious as a subject for a NMF
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 6:50 PM on January 19 [2 favorites]

This was fantastic, thanks. I actually just bought a copy of Lerner's latest book, The Lights, though I haven't cracked it open yet.

I think the reviewer's conclusion about the significance of the "ChatGPT" ending is wrong though.

I agree, it seems pretty obvious (to me) that Lerner is taking a dig at ChatGPT here and we aren't meant to take this section at face value. When ChatGPT (or rather, Lerner writing as ChatGPT) tells him "the fundamental nature of information ... was not about dominating or manipulating, but about empowering and illuminating," that directly contradicts what he was just saying in the section Mayor West quoted above.
posted by whir at 6:54 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

So I created this blog post and then linked to it

That page almost belongs in the Old a'Vista thread.
posted by tigrrrlily at 7:39 PM on January 19 [1 favorite]

That page almost belongs in the Old a'Vista thread.

Thank you, that is very kind of you to say so.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:58 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

chavenet, you are killing it with these posts. I only irregularly comment on them bc I don't have much of value to add, but I've read every one of them. Great work. :)
posted by Literaryhero at 10:05 PM on January 19 [3 favorites]

Incredible piece of writing.
posted by subdee at 10:10 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

The Wikipedia newsletter is incredible also, I had no idea editors could interject themselves into the newsletter posts just like they can edits Wikipedia articles.
posted by subdee at 10:27 AM on January 20

And final note... ChatGPT is so much worse than Wikipedia because it is much easier for a few big corporate entities to control, if not the exact output, then what goes into the output and what sources get what weight. Which they will do as soon as it's a useful enough tool that enough people (students, again) uncritically use it as a substutute for human writing.

In other words I think Learner lets chatGPT off way, way too easily by giving it "the last word" and then ghost-wriying, or ghost-editing, that superficially well-written and cogent (it DOES ascribe meaning to the short story, even if that meaning is glib and self-serving) epilogue. Giving way too much credit to chatGPT there, chatGPT is not that good yet.

Putting that section at the end does show a troll's instinct for generating a reaction though.
posted by subdee at 10:30 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]

I read this some time ago but my memory is shit, therefore I've chosen to remember it in whatever way I need it to be, ha.

Okay but seriously I'd like to remind all of us that it's not categorized as "fiction" or a "report from..." or anything like that. It's categorized as "[Experiment]," and it tells the reader how made up it is right in the middle of it. Nothing about it should be taken as factual, that's not where its meaning lies.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:54 AM on January 20

There's a Wikipedia editor pointing that out in the newsletter, ha. But in a derisive "I was just conducting a social experiment" way which I think is totally fair.
posted by subdee at 11:54 AM on January 20

The institute in the story existed; it was called the Rockridge Institute, founded and run by George Lakoff. He was (still is?) a famous linguist at U. C. Berkeley. When I took his very popular class on Metaphors, he was working on the book Moral Politics, the basis for the political "framing" work described in the story. I always wondered why you never heard about the Rockridge Institute accomplishing anything. It looks like -- assuming Ben Lerner really did work there -- it was a pretty small-potatoes operation, Wikipedia hacking or not. I'm tempted to believe it's true because the description of "Anderson" reminds me of the GSI who taught my discussion section.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 4:55 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]

This letter to the editor provides some useful balance.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:57 PM on January 26

Wikipedia is an amazing achievement by all those contributors acting in "achingly good faith".

They're also the same people responsible for the fact that I just can't google the names of any women I think might be trans anymore. The search engine will excerpt the WP intro, which will then helpfully deadname those women in the name of "historical accuracy".

I really want to love Wikipedia and all it claims to stand for. I'm just the wrong kind of human.
posted by tigrrrlily at 9:49 AM on January 28

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