Hidden away in the heart of the ancient Barbican area of Plymouth, England are the authentic Mayflower Steps. You probably know the story. In 1620, a little ship set sail from the South Devon port and launched out across the great Atlantic Ocean, carrying a contingent of around one hundred Pilgrims - mainly Puritan
folk - and abut thirty crew. When they eventually arrived in the New World they established one of the first colonies on the East coast of what is now the United States of America. The Mayflower
was a relatively small ship, and the stone steps from which it departed are even smaller. In fact, they are so small that only a few of the locals and a handful of historians know where they really are.
For any visitors to my home town of Plymouth
(and this includes many Americans), the Mayflower Steps
are ostensibly located on a stone pier in Sutton Harbour. A portico with pillars and a balcony has been erected to celebrate this famous voyage of discovery, and it is visited by thousands every month. The engraved stone at the base of the monument simply declares 'Mayflower, 1620'. Those who visit and take photos to capture the moment are largely unaware that the steps are fake. They have been built on a part of the Barbican that simply didn't exist back in 1620. Four centuries ago, the water's edge was back at least 30 metres from its current location. You see, the truth is often much more mundane than the myth.
In reality, the true Mayflower Steps are located inside a nearby public house called the Admiral McBride
. Specifically, they are under the floor in the Ladies toilets. This can be confirmed by anyone who cares to visit the premises, simply by asking the bar staff. The Mayflower Steps portico has not been built there with the intention to deceive, merely to celebrate such a great feat of human endeavour. Most of the visitors to the site have no idea it is faux
, and if they did many would probably not care too much. But this manipulation of historical fact is useful as a metaphor for a challenge facing contemporary society around the changing nature of 'knowledge'.
Sometimes referred to egregiously as 'alternative truth', there is plenty of fake news and manufactured 'fact' available today. Knowledge is now more vulnerable to manipulation that it has ever been, due to mass media and the proliferation of the Web. It is not hard to deceive people today, because many take content they find on the Web at face value, and some have yet to learn how to question and cross reference the information they encounter. Much as a magician or illusionist will misdirect us from what is really going on, so fake news often fulfils a similar function, distracting us from what is really going on. Certain politicians have learnt to do this.
Education has a key role to play in countering this problem. Many educators work hard to teach students how to discern fact from fiction, and how to verify the truthfulness of content on the Web. The notion of 'digital literacies
' embraces a range of skills and competencies, but perhaps one of the most important is the ability to know when content is fake or real. We constantly encounter untruths, some of them subtle. The City of Plymouth markets itself as 'Britain's Ocean City', but it is actually quite a distance from the Atlantic Ocean, located on the English Channel. We will never know the true extent of all the smoke and mirrors the Web contains, but it would certainly do us no harm as a society if we possessed the skills to determine truth from fiction. However, we also need to acknowledge that people sometimes feel comfortable believing in a well-manufactured lie if it confirms their personal bias.'Useful lies are preferred to harmful truth.'
- Geoge Orwell
Smoke and mirrors by Steve Wheeler
was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
Posted by Steve Wheeler from Learning with e's