Friday, June 24, 2005

Rational Technology: Blink

In his bestselling book 'Blink', New Yorker columnist and author Malcolm Gladwell tackles the phenomenon of rapid cognition, the process by which we make snap judgments in the absence of complete information. Snap judgments happen within the blink of an eye (hence the book's title). They're not always right, but neither are they always wrong. What Gladwell is trying to emphasize is that snap judgments cannot be ignored: despite the admonition to not judge a book by its cover, we often do; moreover, we often act based on thiis 'gut instinct' or 'intuition.'

Gladwell's first example is that of a recently unearthed ancient Greek sculpture which a museum was planning to purchase. The museum considered the sculpture to be an important find, mainly because it was the first intact specimen ever found. A chemical expert's detailed analysis revealed that, yes, the material was indeed quite ancient, as far as his tests allowed. The museum closed the transaction based on this scientific scrutiny.

However, during the piece's unveiling, another expert, this time on Greek sculptures of the period, felt deeply disturbed. Within seconds of seeing it, he intuitively knew that something was wrong. While the statue conformed to the work of the time, it just did not feel right. His doubt prompted a more complete analysis of the sculpture. Ultimately, the museum was never able to determine the authenticity of their purchase. It still went on display, but with the open caveat that it might really just have been a clever fake.

Gladwell touches on a host of other fascinating topics surrounding the 'blink' moment: how police officers react, sometimes with disastrous consequences, because of a person's appearance; reading a person's underlying emotions based on his facial expressions; and the errors people make when presented Oh,with too much or too little information.

Gladwell's book comes to mind because the blink factor seems to be the only recourse of the ordinary Filipino citizen in this season of untruth.

Take, for instance, the raging case of the "Hello, Garci" tapes. Lawyers can quibble about the admissibility of the tapes as evidence in impeachment, spokespersons can deny any wrongdoing in the nature of such a call, but the ordinary Filipino citizen (well, me, anyway) wants to know: Is it GMA on the tapes? (Wink, wink.) And are they really talking about rigging the electionsi? (Wink, wink.)

This is a case where we have too little information and too much information at the same time. Too little information because the implicated parties who are at the heart of the controversy are keeping mum, presumably to avoid self-incrimination; and too much information because of all the alleged 'original' and 'altered' versions that are coming out of the woodwork, along with the associated gobbledygook.

Take, for example, the technical views on the authenticity. In most stories about the matter, the news programs invariably like to feature a computer with the waveform analysis of the voices on the tapes. This is the expert's approach, looking at the unique frequencies that a person's speech pattern generates, and trying to match the signatures of those recorded voices against the known signatures of GMA's own voice. Software for this type of generating the waveforms is readily available. The crux of the matter, however, is in the process of analysis.

If you can analyze a waveform, you can also alter the waveform to make it sound like somebody else's. A guest editorial of another local paper boldly suggests that voices could be faked using programs downloaded from the Internet. Quite so: in fact, you don't have to look further than the toy store to find such a gadget like the Darth Vader voice-changing mask.

However, it's not really as simple as that: if it were, George Lucas would not have had to hire James Earl Jones to do Darth Vader's voice. Changing the voice by varying the pitch or the frequency is only one part of the process. Other things to consider are the speech patterns (e.g., pronunciation of certain words, cadence in speaking), vocabulary and sentence construction (choice of words), and background noise. Background noise, in particular, can be essential in determining whether the conversation has been spliced. Taken together, the process of creating a plausible fake can be very tedious, indeed.

To create a plausible fake from scratch, one would need (1) a very talented impersonators, and (2) a very talented scriptwriter with an ear for dialogue. The only GMA impersonator that I know of is 'Ate Glow' who, though amusing, does not come close to the original; as to Garci impersonators, well.... And if we had such brilliant scriptwriters, why does our movie industry tank?

With all the information and all the possibilities and all the vested interests on hand, it's impossible to get the experts to agree. In a situation where we cannot trust the experts, we can take a cue from Gladwell and rely on the collective wisdom of our ordinary selves. Do you want to know if the tapes are authentic? Don't listen to the contradictory opinions of the so-called experts; listen to the tapes themselves.

The real marvel of modern technology today is not that we can possibly alter our voices, but that such potentially damning evidence can no longer be repressed by the establishment. And we can take advantage of technology to listen to these recordings: either from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, from the various mirror sites, or -- heck! -- even from cellphone ringtones. I say: Let's listen and trust our collective judgment.

Rapid cognition catches us at our barest, most honest moment. Before we can sway it to the conclusion that our vested interests want it to sway. The perfect illustration: Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, unveiling the tapes to the Malacanang Press Corps. There, in his 'blink moment', he confidently announces: "This is the President's voice."