Minding Your Words

I feel bad for Sir Alec Guinness.  There’s the dead thing to start with, but that isn’t necessarily all that bad a deal (he and his wife became Catholics in the 1950’s).  It isn’t just that despite an impressive body of work and a lengthy and highly successful film career, he’s remembered these days primarily for a role he detested – Obi-wan Kenobi.  Well, it is sort of that – and more specifically the fact that he continues to be dragged into the franchise even though he’s dead.

Guinness’ voice appears in one of the scenes of the new Star Wars installment, The Force Awakens.  He isn’t credited for it on IMDB, but fans certainly recognized his voice uttering the protagonist’s name, Rey.  This was accomplished – considerably post mortem – by taking Guinness’ line from the first film, A New Hope, “Don’t be afraid”, and cutting the af and the d off the beginning and end of afraid.  Impressive, and of course it sets the hard-core Star Wars fans all a-twitter, and I’ll admit that there’s an element of coolness to it.  If Guinness hadn’t convinced George Lucas to kill off Obi-wan in the first movie specifically to avoid being in further installments, it would be even cooler.  He ended up being in the next two films despite being dead, so I suppose the precedent for this most recent vocal appearance is well-established.

Beyond the personal indignities, though, I’ve often thought how our ability to manipulate recorded data, whether audio or video, leads us into a murky and potentially dangerous time.  Someone with some relatively simple equipment and enough patience and, of course, a healthy compilation of recorded work, could literally make someone else say literally anything.  Snip, clip, paste, rearrange, and something that I never, ever, ever said is suddenly there in an audio clip for the world to marvel- or recoil – at.

Call me paranoid, but what can be done for entertainment purposes could certainly be done towards less noble ends.  Want to convict someone of threatening to kill somebody?  Want to damage the credibility of someone who holds a counter-cultural point of view?  Want to embroil someone in a legal fiasco that could ruin them financially?  All the potential is there in what we’ve already said.

My congregational leadership has asked for years if we can post my sermons online, and for years I’ve refused.  Firstly, we don’t have the ability to provide quality material – both in terms of what I’ve said and the recording mechanisms.  We don’t have anyone with a gift for sound or video (thank God!) editing.  Putting up poor quality audio clips of a poor sermon to begin with blesses nobody, I argue.  I’m not opposed to the idea, but part of me does worry for precisely this reason.  When I provide someone with a recording of my voice saying one thing, I have no control over what someone else might use that recording – along with other recordings of me – to make me say.

Food for thought in our digital age of data manipulation.  Fortunately Sir Alec isn’t around now to lament this manipulation of his legacy, and I trust he’s too busy where he is to care.  But for the rest of us, it might be wise to remember that we can’t necessarily trust everything that we see and hear anymore.  The skills to create a massive battle in space and to reconstruct the voices of the dead to speak again are among us, not terribly complex, and require frighteningly little equipment.

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