Second Layer Editing

Second layer editing

“What did you do last night?”, asked my unsuspecting colleague. Faithfully I return the favour by providing a brief glimpse into the moments that played out yesterday. A brief glimpse, since telling him every piece of information that I have actually experienced would result in an outright awkward social situation, and the risk of never being asked such a question again. So then, what does someone supply you with when confronted with such a dilemma?

“I went to do X with Y and Z and after that we went to A together and meet up with B”.

Within a split second, you have reduced an entire evening of experiences, into a single sentence. You exposed just enough information as to keep the door open for further inquiries, without harassing someone with unwanted details. On top of that, you have just created a story line, that does not necessarily resemble that what actually occurred, but nevertheless became an entity on its own and is now living on inside the mind of the other, functioning as the only available piece of information about what happened to you on that particular evening.

So, in a sense, we are all living our subjective lives as if they are screenplays.




the script of a film, including acting instructions and scene directions.

Like real screenplays, our narratives are unstable, and very much open to reinterpretation. We ourselves of course, are the editors. We engage in this act every single time we tell a story, whether this story is directed to yourself, or others. In fact, we engage in this act every single time we experience something out there. Every piece of incoming sensory information needs to be conceptualised and categorised into meaningful representations that we can later recall as memories. Not surprisingly, people differ in their editing skills, which leaves some narratives blank and hollow, while others are filled to the brim with depth and life. The fact that people also differ in their conceptualisations, categories and representations, based on their unique life experiences makes it even even more complex.

Just as the answer I gave my colleague could have been constructed of entirely bogus information (I could have just as much stayed at home to binge-watch a new TV-series instead of going out with friends – my colleague doesn’t have to know), even though I told the truth with conscious deliberation, so can the edited stories of your personal experiences that you tell yourself consist of completely misinterpreted bogus information. Firstly, we are not perfect observers of our own environments , situations, feelings and states of consciousness we find ourselves in. As a human, we are always unconsciously biased as to which information gets stored, marked, enhanced or inhibited. As long as you, the grand-editor of your narrative, are able to provide seemingly coherent and logical after-edited stories, there is actually no way of telling whether you are factually lying to yourself, and therefore to others.

Our narratives also contain acting instructions and scene directions. These acting instructions tell us behaviours. When to speak out, hold back, engage, walk away or simply put – any acceptable way of presenting yourself for a given environment. The scene directions tell us which environments we are familiar with and are comfortable in to execute such instructions. So, imagine that one would have infinite accurate knowledge on someone’s actions and perceived environments and infinite amounts of paper to write on, you could in theory write out an entire life as a screenplay which could resemble the truth. Yet, we would still run into a major problem. How do we know if our interpretation of these observed life events are factually true? Even if the person in question promises to speak the truth and nothing else but the truth, how do we make sure that the person in question was not lying to himself throughout this entire duration? It seems, that we can conclude, that our screenplays, our narratives, are nothing more than just that. An at times (very) accurate approximation of what truly happened, booby-trapped with occasional (deliberate) lies.

It therefore seems, that one of the most important currencies in human interactions is trust. The colleague that trusts his other colleague to be presenting the truth of what played out that particular evening.

So what happens, when this process of conveying supposedly trustworthy information, plays out on a screen, instead of the boundaries of physical contact? What happens when people have another layer of editing, much more calculated than the quick and forced answer I was guilty of providing my colleague with?

Look around you. We’re already living in a world that is dominated by screens. Screens that show us information that has carefully been selected and edited as to present a certain viewpoint, just as the scene directions within a film’s screenplay. A world wherein screens come in all sizes and formats, but coincide on only one matter. The information that you view on these screens, has been edited, not once, as is usually the case in normal social interaction, but twice, thrice or more.

Most people are already aware of such a reality. Newspapers, radio and storytelling are based on the same principles and have been around for a long time. However, currently our own personal lives are starting to become more like newspapers, a mere selection of all that that could in theory be shown as news.

Opposed to our offline narratives, our online narratives are even more remote from that what is actually happening. We have created a world in which it is easily possible to only show a tiny glimpse of your heavily edited persona, or in some cases, throw it all out there. This world of screens makes it even more difficult to know if someone or something is factually close to the truth or not.

Although one could readily fail to accurately  assess a strangers personality or traits based on a inquisitive conversation, it is far more difficult to distil an accurate understanding of someone based on their online social media presence. On the same level, it is far more exhausting to know if someone is speaking the truth or is being genuine in a WhatsApp conversation (even at the age of 12, I would often send a message that I was going to take a  shower when I simply felt that the conversation was boring), than it would be in a face to face talk.

This second layer editing that we can (un)consciously employ to alter our screenplay and narrative enables us to do things we couldn’t before, and become things we couldn’t possibly dream of, often at the dispense of perceived honesty and brings with it increased personal complexity. Although many people might deny it as means to protect their personal righteous screenplay narrative, all people lie on a daily basis. Already, it takes quite some effort to remember and keep track of who knows what and who doesn’t. With an online, double edited alter ego, one might be able to control some of these information flows, along the way risking to lose oneself in the double edited narrative. Losing that what is really there when you solemnly close your eyes at night. 

We use screens, because it puts another safe layer between our inner world and the outside world. A layer in which we are free to select and promote that what we like and neglect or hide that what we don’t want (people) to find out. Through normal human interaction, most of us are already experts at this. However, the fact that we are scarily good at editing our own life narratives, does not mean we shouldn’t be seeking  truth within ourselves and others instead.


Author: Ruben Boyd

My name is Ruben Boyd, an aspiring science journalist and a graduate of the Cognitive Science Research track of the Artificial Intelligence Master at the VU - William James Graduate School. My roots lie in Psychology, and in 2014 I proudly obtained my Bachelor of Science at the VU Amsterdam.

3 thoughts on “Second Layer Editing”

  1. The question is perhaps why we would want absolute truth. As long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking we have access to absolute truth, surely these edited scripts are a valuable pragmatic solution to the fact that it is practically unattainable?

  2. Of course, there is no such thing as the absolute truth. However, there is something as truthfulness, which is hard to obtain whenever we have the tools to alter and edit so much of our online persona’s So yeah, you are correct in stating that we shouldn’t want absolute truth, as it is inherently unattainable as every one of us is inherently biased, while observing ourselves and others. However, we should be wary what such second layer editing tools can do to the way we interact, communicate and especially the way we view and see ourselves through the eyes a beholder, as there is already plenty room for error and misinterpretation in regular face to face contact.

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