The decoy object

In a trackable culture, where every interaction with commerce is effectively catalogued somewhere, by someone, the potential for false trails and deliberate confusions is enormous. Gone is the trust that made the grand deceipts of the past such a success and the crisply delineated paranoia of wars, hot and cold, has given way to a permanent fuzzy feeling of uncertainty.


Those grand deceits were essential long cons, such as the story of Operation Mincemeat (‘Intelligence officers Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu had painstakingly transformed the corpse [of tramp Glyndwr Michael] into a soldier – the fictitious Major William Martin – for whom they had spent months creating a plausible backstory.’), inflatable tanks or the work of Jasper Maskelyne (‘His largest illusion was to conceal Alexandria and the Suez Canal to misdirect German bombers. He built a mockup of the night-lights of Alexandria in a bay three miles away with fake buildings, lighthouse, and anti-aircraft batteries’). Blowing things up in a literal sense is still a common strategy – the BBC reported on inflatable Russian tanks last year, more images here). There’s also the perenially popular Lockheed Burbank Aircraft Plant, turned into a faux suburb during WWII.


We also think of trap streets, honeytokens and mountweazels, little tokens of falsehood inserted to ensnare the unwary (and something we’ve posted about before). Wikipedia mountweazels have become particularly popular in recent years, with mischevious editors inserting plausible falsehoods in pages about suddenly newsworthy people, events or dates, then sitting back to watch how many times these traps snap shut on those looking for a fast fact. Cabinet issue 33, ‘Deception‘, is another excellent source.


Whereas the imaginary landscapes and cityscapes we regularly post about are attractive because they portray an alternate, yet entirely fake, strand of history, the murky geography of the trap street and the realm of the mountweazel have outlived their original roles as copyright traps and instead play into the modern insecurity about facts, truth and disinformation. The story of Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, the ‘fountain designer and mailbox photographer’ who haunted the pages of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, preempts our collective distrust of online sources. From the New Yorker story linked above: ‘So when word leaked out that the recently published second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary contains a made-up word that starts with the letter “e,” an independent investigator set himself the task of sifting through NOAD’s thirty-one hundred and twenty-eight “e” entries in search of the phony.’ The eventual culprit? Esquivalience, ‘the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities’.

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One Response to The decoy object

  1. says:

    Maskelyne’s story is awesome, but it’s also as fake as the blow-up tanks. Military historian/magician Richard Stokes debunked his claims several years ago. Which kind of makes his tricks even better.

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