11 September 2011

10th anniversary thoughts

Seeing Patterns That Aren't There: A Lesson from 9/11

The hours just after the attacks on New York and Washington saw an impressive gearing-up of the machinery of collective delusion. I don’t mean to discuss the “Truthers,” – they came later — though I frankly hope to do them some harm by indirection in what follows. The delusions that sprouted first, though, were those of people who simply sought some meaning in the rubble, and who found it in the (imaginary) quatrains of Nostradamus, or for that matter in the wingdings font.

Indeed, one of my own memories from that awful day was that soon after hearing the news I received an email telling me that the call letters of one of the hijacked planes was Q33 NY. My correspondent attached great significance to this, saying that I should type Q33 NY in the “wingdings” font and see what resulted. He didn’t want to leave it up to me, though. He told me what I’d see: a picture of an airplane, two scissors, a death’s head, and finally the Star of David.

Q## NY

 Whoa (or, in Wingdings, Whoa).

I was far from the only recipient. Almost immediately the wingdings code “went viral” (did we have that expression yet in September 2001?).

That must have seemed to many recipients like a bizarre summary of what had happened, anti-Zionists dealing death by using scissors — presumably itself a wingding substitute for box cutters — to take over airplanes. Or maybe the cosmos was trying to tell us through the presence of the six-pointed star in the form of the letter “Y” that the whole thing was a Zionist plot.

Ah, the mind staggers.

But after it staggers it has a duty to recover equilibrium. To think, as William James wrote, “is the only moral act.” First, wingding doesn’t use scissors for the number “3”. That scary pictograph only comes about if you hold down the “shift” button while typing the “33”. And you’d only do that if you thought the airplane was a Q## NY! If you use wingding for “Q33 NY” you get two rectangles where the scissors had been. They aren’t as scary as scissors. “Oooo, but they could stand for skyscrapers!”
(PL) Q33 NY - prawie MS :-) (EN) Q33 NY - almo...
you say. Yes, I suppose, though they look more like filing cabinets, or pieces of lined notepaper, or rectangular plots of farmland. And if you type in “Q33 NY” using Webding font, you’ll get a tree, two arrowheads, an eye and a heart. Riddle me the significance of that!

The only reasonable supposition here is that somebody surveyed the wackier fonts to see what combination of letters and numbers would create the scariest and most 9/11 specific ‘code,’ then wrote an email asserting that particular combination to have been the number of one of the airplanes. It wasn’t. Q33 NY is and was without aeronautical significance.

So … why do I bring it up? Because the people who circulated this meme wern’t themselves weirdos or professional conspiracy theorists. They were normal people, sometimes quite intelligent, who along with the rest of us had been smacked on the side of the head in a way defying settled categories and expectations. The mind can do funny things at such a moment, as it is stretching to include the new horrific datumn as part of its view of the world. The mind can even swallow, if only briefly, the notion that wingnuts (sorry, wingdings) are trying to tell it something.

This is one of the lessons we might take from 9/11, now that we have the perspective of a decade. The mind is a pattern-making machine. Yet sometimes it makes patterns that are arbitrary and dysfunctional. We make our own traps, and sometimes the results are a good deal more serious than a little time wasted playing with fonts and sending or deleting a lot of silly emails.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.