The Man Behind the Curtain
“A dead truth is better than a live falsehood.”
L. Frank Baum
“Step Right Up”
(Note: supplementary listening suggestions in captions below)
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953), Directed by Roy Rowland
(See the trailer here.)
The Wizard of Oz (1939), Directed by Victor Fleming
(See the trailer here.)
“How the Algorithm Works” by Adam Mosseri, CEO of Instagram
“The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok – Or How, Exactly, Platforms Die” by Corey Doctorow
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
Originally published on Instagram
July 2, 2023
The only time I watch TV is when I’m sick. This probably owes something to nostalgia. When I was a boy, my mother rarely allowed me to indulge in what she called a “luxury for lazybones.” She relaxed the rules whenever I was ill or injured, though, so I still associate colds, flus, sprained ankles and the like with old reruns and daytime broadcasts of odd movies like The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T. and The Wizard of Oz.
The first of those films is a 1953 live-action adaptation of the only full-length screenplay ever written by Dr. Seuss. The other, as nearly everyone must know, is a 1939 picture based on a bizarre novel for young readers published by L. Frank Baum in 1900. Both revolve around children who dream themselves into fantastic trouble from which they must make daring escapes. Each features a madman presiding over a surreal dreamscape in glorious Technicolor. Heady stuff for a bedridden kid suffering from the black-and-white boredom of the real world.
The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T. is set in an enormous, drab castle that’s as atmospheric and whimsically off-kilter as you’d expect from an architect as eccentric as Dr. Seuss. The titular character, Dr. Terwilliker, is a sinister piano teacher who enslaves 500 children for the purpose of performing a never-ending opus on a 480,000-key piano that coils serpent-like through the castle. If the snake simile seems a little facile, Seuss conceived the movie as a post-WWII, Cold-War-era cautionary tale for children on the topic of world domination, and I like to think he designed the instrument of oppression at the movie’s heart as a sneaky, ophidian reference to Axis and Red fascism.
A serpentine symbol runs right through The Wizard of Oz as well, this time in the form of a winding yellow brick road that leads a cast of unlikely companions along a journey into the self.
I can’t imagine there are many people out there who haven’t seen the film, but just in case…It’s about a Kansas farmgirl named Dorothy who gets blown by a cyclone into a mysterious kingdom populated by witches and little people called Munchkins. Lost in the Land of Oz, Dorothy sets out on a pilgrimage across the yellow bricks to the Emerald City, where a good witch has told her she’ll find a “great and powerful” wizard who should know how to help her return home. Along the way, she’s joined by a loopy scarecrow, a sentimental tin man and a timorous lion, each of whom hopes the Wizard will bestow on him something he lacks but desperately longs for: a brain for the Scarecrow; a heart for the Tin Man; guts for the Cowardly Lion. All the while, the four are harassed by squadrons of flying monkeys and a wicked witch who covets Dorothy’s magic ruby slippers. Despite the Wicked Witch’s best efforts to thwart their progress, Dorothy and her friends manage to make it to the Emerald City. When they get an audience with the Wizard, he appears to them as a floating green spirit-head and reluctantly agrees to grant each of their wishes — but only if they first bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch. (Spoiler alert: the Wizard is the illusory work of a charlatan — an apparition conjured by a carnival clairvoyant, sleight-of-hand artist and ventriloquist named Professor Marvel who has a vested interest in Dorothy and her friends disappearing.) What the Wizard presumes will be a fool’s errand turns into a perilous quest of personal discovery.
Like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., The Wizard of Oz is rich in allegory. Scholarly and lay analyses have come up with Jungian, proto-feminist, religious and myriad other explanations for the story’s subtext. The most famous theory, which was proposed by historian Henry Littlefield in 1964, suggests that Baum wrote Oz as a paean to the proverbial American little man — a lament for the future at a time when industrialist robber barons, unscrupulous businessmen and rapacious bankers were fashioning the nails that would soon close the coffin lids on late-19th-century populism and the Progressive Era.*
*American populism of the 19th century should not be confused with the right-leaning populism of today. The movement was a progressive one that sought to address socio-economic problems associated with whirlwind modernization by taking on the country’s avaricious new industrialists and the corrupt politicians and bankers that did their bidding. Baum’s worldview was hugely influenced by his mother-in-law, a prominent suffragist, abolitionist, Indigenous rights activist and freethinker named Matilda Joslyn Gage. Littlefield’s and other theories make for compelling (if sometimes contested) reading, as you’ll discover by following the links above.
As it happens, I was in bed with a bad bug last month. To my delight, both movies were being broadcast on television at the time. Dr. T. elicited all of the old eerie wonder I’d felt while watching it as a child. As for Oz: I’ve seen the movie so many times that I could play it in my mind’s eye while sleeping. Watching it in the grip of a fever last May 30th, I did just that, drifting in and out of the action for whole stretches at a time. I was wide awake, however, when my finnicky antique TV suddenly went on the fritz. This happened during the scene in which Dorothy and the boys bring the Wicked Witch’s broomstick to the Wizard and discover that he’s nothing but a phantasm of Professor Marvel’s creation. The moment comes after Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls back a curtain on a hidden enclosure to reveal the Professor operating a mechanical contraption that projects a green head and his own voice into the room. When Dorothy confronts the Professor, he panics, closes the curtain on her and attempts to sustain his impersonation of the Wizard by bellowing that famous line that has since given the English language an idiom to describe a delusion that’s as plain as day: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
As the TV conked out, these words disintegrated into white noise that glittered on the screen. I was too sick to get out of bed to try to fix or turn off the set, so I lay there for a long time watching the flickering light. Later, when my head had cleared a little, I found myself wondering about the history of my TV. I’d gotten the thing cheap from a junk shop years earlier but didn’t know anything about it. I picked up my phone to see what I could learn online. This led to a couple of surprising coincidences:
It was in 1939 — the same year that The Wizard of Oz was released, remember — that the Zenith Radio Corporation got into the television broadcasting racket by establishing W9XZV, the first TV station in Chicago, Illinois. Nine years later, the company began selling television receivers to the public. These featured port-hole picture tubes just like the one you see in my Metavision model, which it turned out was made in 1953 — the year that The 5000 Fingers of Doctor T. had its big-screen première.
When I put down my phone and peered at the set again, I noticed something even more astonishing: the old idiot box looks an awful lot like the Instagram logo!
Then I drifted off and dreamed that the inside of the TV was the Instagram nerve centre — a vast industrial works floor where 500 captive Munchkins sat tapping on computer keyboards at a long, curvilinear table that went from one corner of the room to the other. Winged monkeys were everywhere and keeping the workers in line. A uniformed sentry — a grizzled gentleman with the swollen mug of a losing prize-fighter — stood watch by a green curtain hanging in a doorway at the rear of the set. I recognized the face. It belonged to Harry Wilson, a prolific bad-guy character actor who had made a name for himself as Hollywood’s self-appointed “ugliest man” back in the Golden Age of American cinema. (It was a fitting post: Wilson had played one of the Wicked Witch’s guardsmen in The Wizard of Oz movie and appeared as a castle guard in The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.) Over at the opposite wall, Professor Marvel was peering into a monitor while twiddling knobs and punching switches on a metal console that was attached by wires to the glass neck at the back of the television picture tube.
While the Munchkins and the Professor went about their work, the Wicked Witch flew through the room cackling and calling out orders. I couldn’t understand what she was saying at first, but when she commanded the Munchkins to “Move faster” and “Capture and share the world's moments” (these are the Meta and Instagram corporate slogans, for anyone who doesn’t know), I figured out what was happening: the Munchkins were processing incoming Instagram posts and sending them to the Professor to be algorithmically categorized.
I watched as a photo montage of two cranes doing a courtship dance appeared on the Professor’s monitor. The birds were in a strange symmetrical formation with their wings spread wide, their legs askew and their necks coiled together with a wild and tender twist. Thinking that the work looked something like a Rorschach test come to life, I recognized the handiwork of a friend — a gifted collage artist from France who has a talent for kaleidoscopic cut-ups. (Unfortunately, she also has an unwitting gift for running afoul of Instagram expurgators; her work is often censored for inexplicable and unexplained reasons.) The cranes were elegant and mesmerizing. To my eye, anyway.
For his part, the Professor seemed irritated. He scratched an itch on his chin and then reached out to a panel of six celluloid push buttons that looked like emojis and were labelled like so:
Then he pressed the KILL button. This caused the cranes to vanish from the monitor. Immediately afterwards, a piece of artwork that was an obvious Banksy rip-off appeared before the Professor. The post was a spray-painted scene of a businessman with a mohawk being welcomed by a couple of English policemen to the Co-opterative [sic] Bank of Slumming Yuppies.
“I Fought the Law” — the Clash’s punk rock cover version of the 1966 Bobby Fuller Four hit — played in the background. I couldn’t figure out if it was all a tribute or a spoof. Was the post an attack on ivory-tower movers and shakers who had co-opted Banksy and turned him/her/them into a commodity? Was it a jab at art tourists who take smiling selfies in front of Banksy’s most provocative and disturbing work? Or was it a rebuke of Banksy (who I love and admire, by the way) for becoming a co-opted pop-art superstar in the first place? And what did the song mean? It could be interpreted any number of ways. It wasn’t lost on me that the Clash (who I also love and admire) had been accused in their day of being limousine revolutionaries. As all this was going through my head, I saw the Professor’s finger reach toward the PAID AD button. That’s when it dawned on me that the Bank of Slumming Yuppies might be an actual financial institution. And why not? One of the OG counter-culture traitors, Jerry Rubin, had proven a long time ago how thin the line is between radical Yippie and right-wing Yuppie. Suddenly, anything seemed possible in this age of dying irony…when bankers, businessmen and tech billionaires are as likely to look like beatniks as they are members of the John Birch Society…when presidents can wear their worst human failings as badges of pride…when it’s difficult to distinguish tattooed and bearded cops from bikers…when we all invite Big Brother to look us right in the eye every time we open our phones. These were dizzying thoughts, and I found myself wishing that L. Frank Baum were around to help me make sense of them. Then the Professor hit the ad emoji and the bank post was transmitted to the picture tube and broadcast into the room outside where my body lay dozing. There, Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion were all sitting glaze-eyed at the foot of my bed and gazing into my TV.
After that, a video of a surprisingly snake-like black cat came onto the monitor. The cat’s mouth had been manipulated to make it look as if it was lip-syncing Lana del Rey’s version of the old Donovan song, “Season of the Witch.” Karaoke subtitles went from white to yellow at the bottom of the screen as Lana’s feline voice came lilting out of the cat’s throat.
The Professor grinned, hummed along for a few seconds and then hit the MEME button.
Next up for the Professor’s inspection was a typewritten poem — the same one, in fact, that appeared in a post of mine a few months previously: “Home,” by Warsan Shire. Many of you will know it. For those who don’t, it’s a heart-rending piece of writing about the plight of migrant children fleeing war. The Professor glanced at the poem without much visible interest and hit MINIMUM REACH. I looked at the picture tube, but the poem didn’t appear there. What showed up instead was something I guess the Professor found more worthy: a TikTok video of a couple of teenagers taking the “Coronavirus Challenge” in a high-school lavatory. (Anyone who hasn’t heard of the challenge might consider skipping the rest of this paragraph! Although it came to me in a dream, the challenge is absolutely real — and it’s pretty repulsive. It was started by a young TikToker named Ava Louise who hoped it would lead to viral fame and “a record deal and a reality show about my messy life.” The record deal and the reality show haven’t materialized as yet, but Ava did go viral. Figuratively and literally after the stunt led to a dose of coronavirus and a case of Covid. The challenge requires participants — last chance to stop reading — to lick toilet seats, and that’s just what the kids on the TV were doing.)
I looked away from the tube and back at the monitor where a garish work of AI art had emerged. It was a picture of a wedding kiss between what looked like a couple of airbrushed romance-novel cover models. The bride and groom, standing among clouds and dressed in white, with long platinum hair billowing in a breeze, were near mirror images of each other. A heart-shaped hollow of negative space between them added to the extravagant kitsch.
The whole thing struck me as a sort of sad, soulless analogue of the dancing cranes. I could hardly believe it when the Professor hit the MAXIMUM REACH button and the lovebirds lit up the back of the picture tube.
Images raced across the monitor as the Professor went on hitting this button or that. The kills went into the ether, while the ads, the memes and the maximum-reach posts all appeared on the TV tube as soon as they’d been ranked. A few posts that were earmarked for medium reach came onto the TV after long delays. So did one with minimum reach. But for the most part, the low-ranking content was gone for good once it was no longer visible on the Professor’s monitor.
At one point, the Professor directed a monkey to take over so he could go answer the call of nature. The monkey stood transfixed by the images on the monitor and pounded the emoji buttons willy-nilly without even looking down at his hands.
Back on the other side of the TV, Dorothy and her friends would occasionally come out of their daze. This happened when a photograph of a snake charmer coaxing a cyclone from a basket flashed on the screen, causing Toto to yelp and Dorothy to gasp.
The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion all sat up straight when a picture titled “The Anatomy of L. Frank Baum” scrolled past. In this post, Baum was half-he-man, half-anatomical model, with his heart, brain and guts on display.
None of the four friends or the dog stirred, though, when a couple of pithy quotes by Rumi popped up on the screen:
Sit, be still and listen…
The universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you already are.
After Rumi, a striking folk-art painting captioned “The Sleepwalker” appeared on the TV. In it, four somnambulant figures in white nightwear surrounded a coven of witches at a bonfire.
I could hear the crackling flames in my sleep. And then I woke up.
Later, I related the dream to a friend who responded by suggesting that I check out an article written by a science fiction author, tech activist and journalist named Corey Doctorow. “The ‘Enshittification’ of TikTok – Or How, Exactly, Platforms Die” (Wired.com, January 23, 2023) is a gripping, in-depth examination of how online networks — not just TikTok — operate. In the piece, Doctorow posits that the people behind these networks — people like Mark Zuckerberg and Instagramn’s CEO, Adam Mosseri – are akin to old-time carnival grifters, and that their whole business model is based on algorithmic trickery. While reading the article, it was hard not to think of Professor Marvel. Or PT Barnum, who famously coined the old carney adage, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
I tried to imagine what Zuckerberg or Mosseri might think about what Doctorow had written. For months before the piece was published, Instagram had been facing growing blowback from users complaining that the platform was becoming too miserly in giving reach to posts that people actually want to see…too censorious…too quick to impose action blocks on innocent activity…too soft on spammers and hackers…too focussed on schlock…and much, much too TikTok-y. The Make Instagram Instagram Again campaign was in full swing when, in an attempt to quell the criticism, Mosseri issued a videotaped New Year’s resolution conceding that Instagram had made some mistakes in 2022 and that it would strive to do better in 2023.
Then, one day after I had my dream, Mosseri posted a new video on his personal Instagram page. This one was called “How the Algorithm Works” (@mosseri May 31, 2023). The CEO, wearing his trademark beatnik spectacles and speaking with all the folksy charm of a circus barker in front of a fortune teller’s tent, does his best to bedazzle. As he explains how the poor Instagram algorithms are misunderstood, the words he says begin to sound a lot like, “Come one, come all! Step right up! The Greatest Show on Earth!” But judging by the scores of negative comments on the post, the would-be suckers aren’t having it.
I didn’t comment on the post myself. I was too distracted by another crazy coincidence. While watching the video, I’d realized that Adam Mosseri is the spitting image of a young Frank Morgan. For anyone who doesn’t know the name, Morgan was the actor who played Professor Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz.
(The resemblance really is remarkable. Go check out Mosseri’s video and then compare his face to Morgan’s.)
I can hear Morgan’s voice in my head now. Professor Marvel is whispering Rumi into my left ear while the Wizard is whispering an entreaty into my right:
“Sit, be still and listen!”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
It's a funny way to say it I suppose, but after four months of not posting anything other than an illustrated preface to this story, I’m finally making my return to Instagram. I’m back. At least for the foreseeable future. How long that will be, only a fortune teller could say for certain. In the meantime, it’ll be nice to see you again. I’ve missed you. After all, there’s no place like
This post was a long time in the making. I couldn’t have put it all together without the help of @cedarhilljackie (who made a comment in a conversation that I’m certain guided my subconscious in the dream sequence, and whose beautiful artwork appears on the second-to-last slide) and @cavedurry (who helped solve an audio problem in the video). Special thanks also to @lek_belv, @lepgiu22 and @fearofrevolt, who are constant inspirations. With the exception of Jackie’s artwork just mentioned, all of the images in the dream sequence were made by me. (Including the lavatory scene and the AI art, I’m ashamed to admit, ha ha.) That said, when I dreamed them, I believed that three of the works were created by these exceptional artists and spirits. One more person deserves thanks, but since I’m not sure you’d want me to mention your name, I’ll just say you know who you are. 💪❤️✊ Thanks all! Much appreciation and more.
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