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Pinocchio and the Great Echo Chamber: our appetite for the straightforward in a world of Facebook, Trump and Weinstein

17 November 2017

There are four film versions of Pinocchio currently in pre-production. Four.

I was about to say that’s more Pinocchios than there are Die Hards, but Google tells me that Die Hard Six (The Sweatiest Vest Yet) is already under way, so Bruce’s acting looks set to trounce that of a wooden puppet after all.

But what does this surprising fact tell us (the Pinocchio fact, not the Die Hard one)?

Least interestingly, perhaps, it tells us that Hollywood enjoys a good bandwagon, and it likes things that are free of charge. So the $1bn success of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 2010 will have whet appetites for more nostalgic re-imaginings of intellectual property that has now entered the public domain. The pitching will have begun straight after the first ker-ching!

On another level, it is tempting to read into this glimpsed fragment of data a story about our attitude to truth and lies: we long for Pinocchio’s polygraphed proboscis because we are sick of the commonplace and seemingly brazen acts of deception we see around us in this post-truth false news world we currently inhabit (apparently against our will).

And yes, if we look hard enough at this ink blot, we can definitely make such a shape emerge. After all, as the Edelman Barometer tells us, trust is at an all-time low – in our politicians, in our corporations, in our newspapers, in our public service broadcasters.

Apparently, we have had enough of so-called ‘experts’ who try to dope us with their so-called ‘facts’, the knowledge-equivalent of bromide in our tea (which, ironically, is also mythical). Gone too are the days of deference, so shockingly revealed by Stanley Milgram in the 1950s, where a white coat and a serious manner was enough to make us jettison reservations, even respect for human life, and comply. We’ve had enough of experts with their dodgy dossiers and sexed up diesel data, their Brexit buses, their private email servers, their complicated tax scammery.

Instead we yearn for the real voices of real people. We retreat to our private social media echo chambers where signing online petitions, sharing ill-informed non-journalism, and reposting the rants of anonymous keyboard warriors is a cipher for real action. Here at last we feel trust because we are talking to people like us. Happily, we gather the comforting cloak of Groupthink around our shoulders.

This shift has played havoc with the work of psephologists – the opinion pollsters who have predicted so very much with such little accuracy in the last 5 years. Social media has a cathartic power, and once we have happily chirped our thoughts into our online caves, it seems we have no need to share them again with a clip-board holding Gallup rep on the street. Instead we gleefully keep schtum, as impish as when we voted for Boaty McBoatface, and watch the chaos ensue – citing it as yet more evidence of the chasm between ordinary people and the liberal intelligentsia.

But even the online cacophony of mutual agreement is under threat now we know that it can be weaponised against us by vested interests and automated bots, directly influencing our perception of public events and even our voting intentions (e.g. Brexit). In other words, to our dismay, it turns out we’re not listening to the voices of real people after all; instead, we’re responding to algorithms pressed secretively into the service of bogeymen by a team of civil servants in a hangar in Omsk. Damn. And no wonder Facebook founder Sean Parker is going through some sort of public epiphany, slighting his creation as a succubus that preys on human frailty for its own nourishment.

Naturally, then, in our quest for meaning, we might think of turning to the Arts. Like Lear’s fool, the Arts have long served the function of the savant, seeing things clearly for what they are and speaking truth to power. But there too, from Weinstein to Spacey to Louis CK, we find ourselves disabused of the notion that these abusers were worth of our respect.

So where does this layer upon layer of fragile illusion finally leave us? And what does Pinocchio have to do with it all?

After the clamour, the broken trust, the emotional frenzy, we have an urge to dim the lights and enjoy the simple delights of a shared story.

Perhaps we also crave the didactic – clear moral principles, life lessons we can internalise and use as our own anchor or compass.

Let’s just hope it’s not been voiced by Kevin Spacey and funded via a web of offshore trusts controlled by Harvey Weinstein, Vladimir Putin and Steve Bannon.