Shell games, Ehrlich, Nakamura

Shell games

The shell game is a sort of puzzle game in which the puzzle is no maze nor riddle but an illusion.  It is perhaps closest in substance to a test of memory, similar to well-known, tile-matching games such as the long-running television game show Concentration, differing from that genre mostly along the dimension of time.  However, like Concentration and all other games, regardless of genre, the shell game references individual human physics (through recursive contextualization, though I won’t go into that here) — in this particular shell-game case, the individual human physics of perception.

brief interlude:  This characteristic of referencing the individual human interface with the natural world — what I here label human physics — is indeed more generic and telling than other supposedly defining characteristic of games, such as, for instance, pattern-matching  as proposed by Koster and (even) obstacle-overcoming as proposed by Suits.  For where is the pattern to match in the shell game (or other similar tests of skill)?  And, though obstacles certainly persist for the blind, where is the game of the shell game for them?

The shell game is an illusion in which the game explores the limits of that illusion, and, in those limits, discovers the extent to which perception — human physics — does not in all cases conform to natural world complexities.  In the examples below, most interestingly, the shell game is based not on a perceptual illusion but a conceptual one.  And it is our task, as shell game players, to note at what point we conquer that illusion and at what point, eventually, inevitably, we might succumb to it.


Here is my first example:  An astonishing editorial by Everett Ehrlich in the Huffington Post, which offers an illusionary concept of ‘net neutrality’ in which that concept is the enemy of those who would seem most to benefit from it:  the public.

Ehrlich begins with a definition: ‘”neutrality” means simply that everything on the Internet must travel at the same speed.’  Close enough, I suppose — though ‘net neutrality’ more precisely means everything has an equal opportunity — an equal right — to travel at the same speed.  (This distinction, for instance, allows for streaming video, according to server-side desire, to travel at a different (slower, gimped) speed than that same video downloaded according to client-side desire.)

Ehrlich’s argument against this proposition is two-fold.

He first claims that the telecommunications industry (which Ehrlich represents) gives us, the public, what we want.  If we want everything on the Internet traveling at the same speed, we shall get it.  If we do not want this, we shall get otherwise.

Secondly, Ehrlich claims that everything traveling on the Internet at the same speed is irrelevant.  What is more important is how everything off the Internet is ordered and structured and prepared for its traveling.  This preparation, he argues, is monopolized by the ‘Bigs’:  e. g., Google, Netflix, and (I extrapolate here) the U.S. government.  Ehrlich’s solution to this monopolization by the Bigs is to allow (force) the littles  to purchase (and thereby preserve) their bandwidth from the telecommunications industry (which Ehrlich represents).   Purchasing bandwidth in such a scheme is contrary to existing principles of net neutrality — thus Ehrlich’s opposition to it.

This latter claim is the easier illusion to discern.  It is a non sequitur.  Whatever advantage the Bigs have in structuring data is clearly not eliminated through the buying and selling of Internet bandwidth; it would in fact seem to be exacerbated by it.

The former claim has been the mantra of the telecommunications industry for decades:  that industry gives the public what it wants.  And yet, inexplicably, we, the public, continue to complain.

This illusion references so many mechanical flaws of the human interface, is so deeply illusionary, that it is difficult to address all these flaws equally well and appropriately.  One of the more telling of these flaws is the inability of human reasoning, applied usefully to individual circumstances, to scale.  Individual behavior is governed by different mechanics — different physics — than is large group behavior.   As a result, individuals wrongly project individual behavior and motivations onto the behavior and motivations of large groups.  Individuals only see, within the group behavior of which their individual behavior is some part, an illusion.

There are useful analogies.  For instance, if the Interstate highway system gave us what we wanted, there would be no potholes, no traffic jams, no accidents.  This is our expectation and our desire.  This — a safe passage from here to there — is what we want.  Yet when we drive our highways, we endure interminable delays.  We endure inconceivable rudeness.  And, sometimes, we fail to endure sudden and unforeseeable accidents.  This is not what we want at all, yet we continue to drive our highways and find them useful.  We attribute flaws in conceiving and foreseeing the realities of drivers and driving to other, third-person individuals, yet these flaws are much more fundamental to our own, first-person inabilities to conceive and foresee properly.

Reality is more complex than we are, and large group behavior is a complexity of that reality that lies beyond the limited capacities of our individual human physics.  Dogs do not understand spaceships.  Humans do not understand large systems.

When we play games — shell games of a sort — we better realize our misunderstandings.  We can then use this knowledge to understand ourselves better or, as Ehrlich uses it, to befuddle ourselves further.


Here‘s a second shell game:  An equally astonishing essay by Lisa Nakamura, in which she deftly argues that pretense (generically, I believe)  is a prerogative of the privileged and, simultaneously, tainted in its use by privileged status.

The topic in this instance is not net neutrality but the story of Amina, the narrative of a young, gay, Arabian girl wholly constructed by a old(er), white, American male.  Amina’s blogging was a rallying point for those supporting young, gay, and Arabian rights, and, as Nakamura details, her blogging was widely referenced and attended to by the news and pseudo-news media — right up to the point where Amina’s true identity was revealed to be Tom McMaster, narrativist and graduate student.  At this point, the news and pseudo-news media were chagrined.  Tom McMaster was denounced; Tom McMaster apologized; and multiple explanations ensued concerning how, why, and for what greater cause Amina had been rallied around.

Roughly, that’s the narrative as it now stands.  Nakamura has her own version.

Nakamura, like most of the more prominent Amina supporters, has a difficult rope to walk.  On one hand, it was the content of Amina’s blogging — pro-young, pro-gay, pro-Arabian-rights — that attracted.  And not one word of that content has been altered by the McMaster revelation.  However, the appeal and persuasiveness of that content was gained rhetorically through its attribution, its authenticy, which was suddenly, without recourse, removed.  What to do?

Nakamura does this:   She rightfully labels McMaster’s a work of fiction.  The construction of fictions of this sort has already been championed by other Amina afficionados (e. g., Ethan Zuckerman), who promote narratives of various sorts as an appropriate and useful means of drawing first-world attentions to third-world problems.  Indeed, Nakamura has coined “identity tourism” to describe a version of this very phenomenon and cannot easily jettison it on principle alone.  Wedded to the tale, she must jettison the teller.

Nakamura argues that McMaster’s pretense, his particular narrative of Amina, is different from those other narratives that more rightfully pretend.  It is a subtle difference, depending wholly on McMaster’s status as a privileged white male.  McMaster’s narrative allowed him “to penetrate… this community without having to endure the humiliations and inconvenience that real lesbians must face,” says Nakamura.  Thus, rather than identifying McMaster as “‘sick’ or pathological” (or, put less pejoratively, a consequence of individual human physics), Nakamura identifies McMaster according to his social identity.  And it is this particular social identity — non-young, non-gay, non-Arabian — that prevents him, even for a cause he shares with Nakamura, from pretending to be young, gay, and Arabian.

There is great deal of a Machiavellian irony to discuss here, but, since “identity tourism” is essentially a literary term, we can restrict ourselves to Nakamura’s role as a literary critic.

Nakamura’s shell game references a well-known illusion:  the intentional fallacy.  Briefly put, this is the tendency of the human individual to believe (and/or desire) that what she says should be judged on the basis of what she means to say rather than what she actually says.  Extended to narratives, this is the tendency of the literary critic to believe (and/or desire) that what a narrative means is judged on the basis of what the narrativist meant it to mean rather than on the narrative itself.

This has been a particularly useful fallacy to adopt for those literary critics who believe (and/or desire) to have narratives mean whatever they wish them to mean, since it is much easier to attribute a variety of meanings to a narrativist (even meanings about which the narrativist is unaware and/or persistently denies) than it is to, after the fact, change the narrative itself.

The blogging of Amina (aka McMaster) is the narrative itself.

The other is a shell game.