I hesitate to mention conspiracy theories at all because while I think they can be entertaining to turn over in your mind they're ultimately not a rewarding way to spend your mental energy. What if humans didn't land on the moon?
is a neat party trick once but you can't build a movement on it because it doesn't hold up with any scrutiny. (By the way, check out the fantastic three-episode Our Fake History
podcast on this topic: Why Deny the Moon Landings
If you haven't been following the big consipracy theory of our day, I don't blame you. There's a good primer in The Atlantic: American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase
. I think it's good to be aware of it because it's starting to affect our politics and creep into our culture. You can't help but encounter these theories on social media
. And unlike moon landing denial or flat-earthers, these theories have become a dangerous world view and belief system
for many of the people who are snared.
One useful angle I've seen for thinking about these all-encompassing conspiracies is comparing them with alternate reality games. ARG designers Adrian Hon and Dan Hon both had great articles expanding on this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon
and QAnon looks like an alternate reality game
. I think looking at the history of ARGs can help us make predictions about how current conspiracy behavior will unfold. I especially liked this idea Jon Glover mentioned of corrupted play
that describes losing the frame:
Role play is contingent on navigating between real and imagined worlds, which affords opportunities for allegorical thinking, exploration of alternate identities and universes, and creative problem solving. But when this boundary collapses, we have what Joseph Laycock calls “corrupted play,” a term that helps explain dark or weaponized ARGs.
Corrupted play describes both the appeal and danger of conspiracy thinking. The appeal is all of the good pieces of play that we need but twisting it by losing the fact that it is play at all. Here's the article by Glover: This Is Not a Game
Another post that gave me a lot to think about this topic was Mike Hoye's Connections
. He saw conspiracy thinking as similar to occult thinking and summarized C. S. Lewis' view of its ultimate futility:
Lewis saw occultism as a sort of psychological snare, a set of endlessly self-referential symbols of symbols of symbols with no ultimate referent, a bottomless semiotic rathole for the overcurious inquirer designed to perpetually confuse and distract the mind.
In computer terms, this reminds me of a Honeypot
Generally, a honeypot consists of data (for example, in a network site) that appears to be a legitimate part of the site that seems to contain information or a resource of value to attackers, but actually, is isolated and monitored and, enables blocking or analyzing the attackers.
However, unlike a script that's trapped in a loop gathering bogus data, conspiracy adherents take their collected data and act in the world