How the Internet Transforms the Individual into a Conspiracy of One
Whatever you do, please don't burn out from writing these blog posts. I'm learning so much in so little time, and googling things I've never heard of. Thank you from the whole community for the time you put in to do this. We know you don't have to continuously allow the public to peek into your brain, but we appreciate when we can. From one nerd to another, stay safe and keep using big words, it helps us learn. -c
So, I'm confused about this "pre-conspiracy world" you describe... Are you saying that the Phoenix Program is a figment of my imagination? Likewise COINTELPRO? That Edward Bernays didn't articulate tools of invisible mass manipulation? Or, in the current age, are you saying that the surveillance panopticon that you exposed only emerged as the unintended result of computer networking in a paranoid age, not actually related to evil, paranoid, avaricious intent by the people who built it? That there were no assholes intending retribution and conspiring against you the moment you didn't show up for work? That the Snowden-leak cover-up and your suppression and the constant attempts to destroy your reputation are not consciously coordinated, very real conspiracies? And that before the internet came about to overwhelm us with data saturation, bureaucracies, industrialists and militaries didn't always and constantly quietly coordinate projects and target goals in order to get one over on people, enemies, marks, markets, competition, or skeptics of there corruption, in order to maintain and increase their advantage? C'mon, man.
I think you discredit your position by tacitly continuing the lie that skeptical perspicuity and cynical circumspection of people and institutions with power (ie. critically analyzing the pattern so as to measure the gestalt fabric it weaves) is akin to a symptom of mental illness. Let's admit it, some people have good pattern recognition and logic on their side, and so observe the shadow of actual conspiracy, and other people are novices and unsophisticated in their critical analysis, and these poor folks contribute, as their learning curve is slow, to diminishing the reputation of the pursuit altogether, baby with bathwater.
And as far as German Soldier Case #10 goes, that dude's psychosis, if he had one, was merely in assuming as his own the cloaked psychological reality of his superiors through banal transference of martial privilege, and he over-estimated his ability to get away with what his daddy-state inherently, constantly got away with on a vast scale. It's no different than Martin Shkreli's lapse of judgement, which was not in deciding to fleece people like the rest of his VC monopolist peers in big pharma - it was in admitting that he did it intentionally in public and that he COULD fleece them, without being two-faced about it, like the rest of his VC monopolist peers in big pharma. It was in actually saying out loud: "I drink your milkshake."
So what are we to make of every power hungry sociopath who is rewarded by establishment institutions who intuitively knows that one never admits that one knows what evil one does (or is adjacent to) as a pre-requisite for getting ahead? What do we call that if not 'conspiracy' or 'inherent silent collusion,' or 'an assumption of complicity?' Because without a name for it, it automatically drinks your milkshake. And eventually, you, the victim, is forced to admit that you never had a milkshake in the first place. God save you, if you actually begin to believe it.
Perhaps a lesson in Espionage Phenomenology from an expert would be more helpful to the improve the acumen of a naive populace that is either over-eager to attribute hyperbolic blame (such as QAnon dupes) or too frightened (in the case of people who trust the NYTimes) to venture conspiracy hypotheses, let alone open their eyes, in search of a theory.
I agree with you that we need more public thinkers in the interweb, as that is the mode of travel through the individual silos? But in an era of accounts being suspended and users banned, what platform would we use to allow social thinker trade their wares unabated by the controllers?
So I subscribe to a few substacks, some of which (like yours) are striking and provocative and brilliant – and thus you might say cause for optimism. But overall, I think things are looking down, and very much so. Any person, place, thing, idea, or occurrence that is legitimate cause for optimism will leave many, many behind. I wonder sometimes if pessimism isn’t a better place to start, and then fight to end elsewhere.
I’ve created my own “feed” of substacks and newsletters that I read, as well as twitter accounts that I check, but I do worry sometimes that even in creating my own “feed,” there’s a danger of self-delusion – that maybe I chose the substacks and newsletters I did to support whatever I already thought I saw. I try to question myself often: Am I making indefensible assumptions now, or not?
Creating my own feed has also created a situation where I feel like a spy and a fake when talking to people I’ve known forever. They’re wanting to discuss, you know, why I should be more diligent about all the constant Covid rules or what do I as a poc say to white people with privilege or what do I think of Simon & Schuster buying a Mike Pence book and blah blah – all of it to my ears using a false language separated from meaning and reality.
Sometimes I can hardly stand how hard my heart is breaking for young people, including my son, who are growing up in a world that seems to have gone insane. My longtime boyfriend’s strategy is to try to stay cheerful. I’m more inclined to be pessimistic at this time, and see where that takes me…
Ill start this off by saying that I can't for the life of me figure out what you are trying to say with this. My interpretation of it seems to suggest that you would not have listened to pre-2013 Snowden.
I feel obligated to point out that before you leaked classified documents to the press, global mass surveillance was also an unfalsifiable conspiracy theory building on supportability because everyone involved were displaying a clear pattern of "I can neither confirm nor deny this, but if it were to hypothetically exist then it would be legal" I don't agree that the observation of this pattern is not scientific because forming a hypothesis based on patterns is a part of science. Of course as you mention it should also be falsifiable and you should adapt to new information. but how would you form a falsifiable hypothesis on the existence of PRISM?
There are two possible options:
A) It exists
B) It doesn't exist
So you go to ask a high ranking government official and they refuse to say anything concrete or they say it doesn't exist. If you assume they are being truthful then nothing to see here, move along citizen. But if you assume they are lying or concealing information then, what you appear to me to be saying in this article, is that this is somehow a product of you being paranoid or delusional. In the realm of pure logic it is pretty much impossible to prove something doesn't exist, however proving definitively that something does exist without being a sysadmin for the NSA will occasionally force you to rely on supporting evidence rather than the purely scientific method of focusing on falsifiability. It is already quite hard to create models of human behavior, but it becomes even harder once you are dealing with describing someone who is listening to you. "If hypothesis A is true then X will do Y at Z", but if X is listening as you formulate said hypothesis and actively trying to avoid you from believing A to be true then X is not going to do Y at Z. (Try putting money on the line against that drunk guy standing at the pool table at the bar and missing all his shots and you will see what I mean)
You put words and language to thoughts I have been entertaining along the way. Appreciate your having brought Popper into your public thinking. Thank you, once again!
I am reading the second in a selection of Popper's books. The first was 'The Myth of the Framework' and now 'The Open Society and Its Enemies'. Popper is the antidote to wishful thinking. Most importantly, I think, is his ability to correct various misinterpretations of the value and meaning of liberalism and by extension, the proper heritage of Western Civilization. His critiques of Plato and Hegel in the latter book are stunning and deeply revelatory. I cannot recommend him enough. If we are not to be overcome by postmodern silicon snake oil, Popper draws the clear path.
While it is true that people can err by seeing patterns where there is none and by not accounting for the emergence of unintended consequences that underlie many observed patterns, those are scarcely the only aspects of pattern recognition that are relevant here.
Positivists like Popper are mistaken in affirming that empirical testing of perceived patterns is the only method for validating generalizations applicable to the real world. One's preconceptual process of classifying objects by their perceptual discriminants attaches meaning to subsequent experiences; giving one a path to formulating analytic truths that don't require further empirical testing. Likewise, introspection of the very process of cognition and volition yields self-evident truths whose contradiction is unintelligible , and therefore are never liable to subsequent falsification. While analytic and self-evident truths are still grounded in one's prior experience, they nonetheless rise to the level of being necessary general truths that are not open to doubt and don't require further testing.
The implication of this for political discourse is that the intentions of bad actors can be shrouded by a conceptual fog where meaning, logic, and intention are stifled. George Orwell described how this works in his essay "Politics and the English Language," explaining that the brutality of a given act can be camouflaged by substitute terminology that paralyzes an audience's capacity to conceive of what happened (Orwell notes the preference of contemporary propagandists for Latinate terms over plain Anglo-Saxon words in aiding this process). Orwell developed this theme in _1984_ where his totalitarian state is busy creating a reformed language designed to cut down on the range of thought possible. Dissent becomes impossible if you can't even come up with the ideas needed for conceiving of deviancy. Even when evil happens right before your very eyes, you can't process the data in a meaningful way if you are stuck with the wrong set of patterns.
The possibility of hiding evil behind a conceptual fog puts the charge of "conspiracy theory" in a somewhat different light. While human actions can indeed give rise to unintended consequences in a social context, they always have intended consequences. The purposeful character of individual actions is in fact a self-evident truth. While a given social pattern might be a spontaneous, emergent consequence of the interaction of different people pursuing different goals, it might also be a consciously intended outcome sought by a particular individual or group, and that intent is likely to be hidden or at least kept out of widespread public discourse if it involves harm to others or significantly detracts from their well-being.
A major objective of manipulating public opinion and engineering consent in a modern setting is to delegitimize any inquiry into the private motives of the powerful and to circumvent any use of language that casts their actions and goals in a negative light. The accusation of "conspiracy theory" is a handy way to cut off discussion about the powerful as intentional actors and to assault the credibility anyone who presents hard evidence that elites are in fact engaged in nefarious activities. Only by seeking out and holding fast to analytic and self-evident truths can one cut through the fog and begin to properly distinguish between intentional and unintentional patterns in society.
I share your optimism. If we can each discipline ourselves to take and respond to others’ views charitably, we can begin to rebuild that shared conception of the world by challenging shared assumptions and discussing the assumptions we don’t share with open minds. The mere act of engaging with the digital in this way will begin to reshape the digital environment to one that cultivates a true consensus reality with which we can then begin to engage and adapt.
One argument against a conspiratorial world view goes something like this. The conspiracy narrative is strangely comforting, though the thinker would not agree, it provides a sense of order and stability in what is a demonstrably unjust and unstable world. If there is some central force controlling things to any sinister ends, then at least it illustrates that we are not completely without agency in this crazy world. To accept the alternative views of simplistic surface narratives is impossible when we have lost faith through often justifiable reasons. The alternative view that lies beyond the conspiracy seems to be even more terrifying, the acceptance of a truly unpredictable chaos where nobody is in control.
As much as I'd like to I'm not going to spend a bunch of time knocking down the above straw-man. I will even posit that there is something to it. I will however raise this observation that I never hear voiced. It is positively obvious that the above dynamic, a critique of a conspiratorial mind, applies equally to our non-conspiracy views of an equally ordered reality. A world that works, one where the NSA spies on enemies not everyone all the time with no oversight, one where government is responsive to the citizenry and swift justice is served in court even to the l little guy, these ideas are the veneer of reality we are trained to assume. This default version of reality is also a psychological comfort blanket. When one is shown, by the likes of a whistleblower how unreal that worldview is, well it feels like we've outgrown our comfort blankets and we start wondering what else have I taken for granted that just is not so?
Eye the true rub is when we are all past that stage, and have recognized the dynamic you so eloquently illustrate, and we seek to regain some kind of agency to fight the good fight, to do so in public, to seek and promote the truth and by way of it, justice. We will be fashioning a new reality but it will be moored to what? Skipping past getting everyone on the same page, what force will impose a corrective measure say on the likes of a corrupted government, and judiciary, on the likes of an all powerful intelligence apparatus such as the NSA. Are we go back to having faith in some political leader that says the right things, even if they are sincere will they be able to drain the swamp and steer us in the right direction? At what point does it make sense to say you know what this is not a problem which may have possible solutions, it's a predicament, and all we have are outcomes.
Unfortunately this is the greatest limit, a real single point of failure, of human beings. The worst part is that the social networks were designed exactly to exploit this human bug. Sometimes it seems to me that this is the worst crime against humanity ever invented
Great article, thank you Ed. Made me a subscriber. Two things come to mind, one biological - humans are pattern (meaning) seeking organisms, much like moths seeking light; second, social theorists since Durkheim have distinguished between social movements and their morphing into institutions. “Collective effervescence “ or the fire in the belly of the cause driven revolutionary , cools and becomes institutionised through the rule of law or the simple acceptance of a new reality by the society. But society has to be ready to accept the new normal, or we have chaos and confusion. Looks like now we are in a transition phase where new reality is emerging.
Conspiracies are only a conspiracy to those who fear the information being told.
The MSM narrative is insane, and truth really is stranger than fiction. The wars were/are real, as is the man made division. For a reason. You know....
FYI, I was wondering when you were going to follow up on your Ellsberg interview. So I searched your name in gmail and found that even though I've told google that your emails are important, but your news letter still doesn't appear in my gmail inbox... lol. So that's interesting.
Enter the Dragon. This article has set of a fascinating chain of commentary. I am an avid reader of my substack subscriptions comment pages and this has opened up a can of magic. I think I’m reading a comment from a genius but it could be a madman. It’s titillating stuff ES. Personally, I am constantly trying to check myself when I am 100% certain in my conspiracy. Most of the time i weigh it as long as possible and then think, fuck it, I’m totally right. It’s maddening that people i love so dearly see it in 180 degree difference. I will learn how to live with that as the insanity gap widens.
Thank you for the mind bender…I needed that at 11:53PM..Fuck