Clement Valla created a fascinating test of human cooperation in a video project called — A Sequence of Lines Traced by Five Hundred Individuals — that proves how impossible it is to get one, let alone a set, of people to do a single thing in unison.  The idea of the video is genius in its simplicity:  Start with a straight line and then have 500 people draw that “straight line” as accurately as possible based only on the last drawn line.  As you can see below, the FIRST ATTEMPT to “follow a straight line” is already off-the-scale horrible that will inevitably lead to the entire breakdown of the line, and humanity, at the end of 500 swipes.

This is the official PR blurp for the project:

A Sequence of Lines Consecutively Traced by Five Hundred Individuals is an online drawing tool that lets users do just one thing – trace a line. Each new user only sees the latest line drawn, and can therefore only trace this latest imperfect copy. As the line is reproduced over and over, it changes and evolves – kinks, trembling motions and errors are exaggerated through the process.

A Sequence of Lines Consecutively Traced by Five Hundred Individuals was first created as a tool to be used in conjunction with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk – an online labor market. Mechanical Turk workers were paid 2 cents to trace a line.

Here are some screenshots from the video.  It boggles the brain as each line is worse than the one that came before, and you start realize there’s absolutely no hope for ever getting the line straight again after such a terrible start.

Here is the final drawn line.  It looks suspiciously like a duck or, if you prefer, a stand up bass fiddle ready for the plucking:

Here’s actual the Vimeo video for the project:

What this “I Can’t Draw a Straight Line” lesson teaches us is that information is only as sacred as its verifiable authenticity — and we must question the quantification of the truth at every single step of the processing, or we end up with a bass fiddle for an end truth instead of a straight line.

If you’ve ever played the Telephone Game/Chinese Whispers, you’ve seen this degradation of fact in action.  It only takes one person to mess up the message and the entire meaning is lost in the ensuing cascade as new truths are plastered over the old veracity.  Sure, we laugh at the end result, but we should be frightened by how quickly and simply one truth can be exchanged, and ultimately believed, for another.

These manglings of the truth don’t need to be secret or even parsed through a chain of people.  In the video, we saw the first iteration of the “straight line” was kinked beyond repair, and that happens directly in our lives as well.

“You can’t get an ‘A’ in this class.”

“I can get an ‘A’ if I work hard and do extra credit.”

“There’s no extra credit.”

“Yes, I will use that credit to make sure I get an ‘A’ grade.”

“No.”

“I know, and thank you for thinking about it, because I really need an ‘A’ to keep my scholarship — even though this is the last day of class.”

“Time has run out.”

“I have to run now, too, and thanks for the ‘A’ because my GPA really needs it!”

The truth is hard and facts sting, and so we often bend reality to check our own self worth, and if the facts of the truth outweigh the bowed reality, we will wiggle and squiggle our being into an imaginary line so our traced expectations meet our transparent, imagined, reality — even if none of it is based on an authentic context for quantification beyond the self.

We will always prefer the imperfect lie to the beauty of the plain truth of a straight line because we crave conflict and we are coded for drama and chaos.

6 Comments

  1. There’s a game we played in high school similar to telephone in which one person would say to the other, “this is a banana” (or a different object) and the person would reply, “A what?” “A banana.” “A what?” “A banana.” “Oh, a banana.” The trick was that it would involve a group of people and so each would have to keep track of their standing with both the person on their right and left.

    Made for an interesting game!

    1. That sounds like a fun game for an ASL class or a theatre class, Gordon. When you say “group,” do you mean “sides” like in a competition? Or is everyone in a single line and they then say those lines with each person in the line saying the next line in sequence?