Picnic08 – Genevieve Bell on secrets and lies.

Genevieve Bell is probably lying to us.

That’s okay. We lie all the time.

And, as Genevieve says, she’s trying to provoke us.

Lies are everywhere, in everything, and they’re incredibly complicated. Lies are central to movies and advertising, and there’s a complicated construction of truth and lies in all the world’s religions. Catholicism distinguishes between sins of ommission and commission in lying. In Judaism, there’s the idea of a permissable lie – a lie that might end a war or save a life. In Islam, the Prophet allows that telling your wife that you love her to preserve your happy marriage is a permissable one. “For two thousand years, women have been asking, ‘Do I look good in these jeans?’ and men have been lying in response, with religious permission.” In some countries, like the US, it’s legal to lie to avoid prosecution, or at least to refuse not to tell the truth.

The average human lies 6 to 8 times a day, but in outside circumstances, one might lie 200 times a day. We probably need to loosen our value judgements about this. Certain social conventions basically demand a lie – “How are you?” As an Australian living in the US, it took Genevieve some time to learn that there are only two permissable answers to these questions and both are likely lies. There are lies of social convention – “It’s great to see you again”.

Men and women lie differently. Men lie more, and we’re not as good at it. Men lie about their jobs and cars. Women lie about their weight, age and what they’ve purchased.

Why does this happen? We probably need to understand that lies aren’t always opposed to truth. They are often a form of self deception, a way of coping with the world. “Lies are not always opposed to truth – they are opposed to reality.” Children lie to test boundaries, to discover what is and isn’t an appropriate response in conversation. Is it okay to say that you’re seven when you’re actually three?

Secrets are different than lies. Genevieve grew up in indigenous communities in Australia, and there secrets are a big part of life. Not everyone gets to know everything – there’s knowledge held only by women, only by men, only by the old or the initiated. She tells a story about indigenous women wondering at white women’s honesty with their husbands. “The white men asks, ‘What did you do today, dear?’ And the women answer! And the women I spent time with were howling with laughter over this.”

There’s this democratizing notion on the Internet that everyone gets to know everthing – this is a very different idea than is traditional in many culutres. We have a cultural tendency to lie, and we’re now taking this lying online. We need to think about secrets and lies as a strategy for engaging the world and each other, not as a moral failing. “We have this cultural ideal – lying is bad. But we’ve got this cultural practice – we lie constantly. How do we resolve this?”

Online, we lie about where we are, who we are, wo we’re with. We lie about our height, weight, age and predispositions. No one knows you’re a dog, and in virtual spaces, our identity is almost certainly a lie of some sort.

Genevieve owns up to getting locked out of Flickr because she lied about her age to Yahoo… not out of embarrasment but out of the idea that Yahoo didn’t need to know. If you’re not consistent in your lies, it comes back and bites you. And some communities seem to default towards lying – danah boyd has documented the large number of people on MySpace who say they’re over 100. It turns out to be as easy to lie on MySpace as to tell the truth.

Everyone on dating sites lies. Men add 3-5 inches to their height, while women shave pounds. (One is easier to detect than the other, which suggests that men aren’t quite as smart about lying as women.) 50% of brits cop to lying in text messages, which suggests we all do it. She cites James Katz, who refers to this as “the arms race of digital deception.”

Cellphones allow us to tell anyone what we are anywhere. And we susect them. There’s a service in South Korea that allows you to track people across celltowers and determine their location. She’s interviewed students about how they feel about being surveilled this way – students say they feel sorry for students whose parents don’t love them enough to track them. Some Korean men know that their wives track their phones, and that’s the phone that gets left at work when they go out.

There’s guilt and shame about lying offline, but we seem to have a certain amount of joy and glee about lying online. There are whole sites – like PostSecret – dedicated to the celebration of the secret. Twitter is likely one of the world’s greatest distributed confabulation systems – she observes that there’s very little content about either masturbation or menstruation, suggesting that we’re either lying or filtering, when we talk about what we’re doing right now.

Our devices don’t know how to lie – they want to announce the truth. If you’ve got a GPS system in your car and you’re arrested while picking up marijuana from the fields where you’ve grown it, the device doesn’t know to lie and protect you. Your cellphone can tell us whether it was oriented east or west, what it was near, what other devices it encountered – if you don’t tell it not to share this information.

We’re increasingly interested in this idea of online reputation, which involves announcing our social preferences. We lie here too – we tell people that we read the right kinds of books and blogs, and protect the information about what we’re really up to. We may be building these incredibly complex spaces built on lies.

When we talk about privacy and security, Genevieve concludes, maybe we should talk about secrets and lies – it’s a more natural language for us, the world in which we’re actually grounded.


I missed Clay Shirky’s talk this morning, and am looking forward to reading Lucy Hooberman’s account of what he had to say. Too many commitments, too little time. I’m speaking on “Surprising Africa” later today, so probably won’t be online much as I prepare. But I was enjoying Xeni Jardin’s recent video on sustainable agriculture in Benin – very much the sort of innovation I hope to feature in today’s talk.

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One Response to Picnic08 – Genevieve Bell on secrets and lies.

  1. karl says:

    Repeated in long discussions with Boris (yes that boris) many years ago in Montreal. Lies are a social feature. They are part of the glue of human relationships. The same way that trust is a shortcut mechanism for life. We trust because we don’t want to check everything every time. We lie because we want to smooth our life. It is about polishing to avoid to have sharp wood in our fingers.

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