theory, digits and the GII
This page points to writing about the net and conspiracy
theory, highlighting sociological studies, opinion polls
and some of the more entertaining theories.
It covers -
The global information infrastructure's been a godsend
for paranoids, both as a medium for disseminating rumours
and as an object of fear and suspicion - the Trilateral
Commission tracking your every keystroke, RFIDs
embedded in every tyre, Echelon
hearing every breath, ICANN's fleet of black helicopter
gunships (aka lbh)
hovering just across the border ....
The flipside of notions of the web as a jeffersonian democracy
- a community of articulate yeomen (and the odd cybergrrl)
in digital discourse after the death of 'old media' -
is that every kook can publish and rumour flies faster
Salon magazine aptly
commented that the net is a global vacuum cleaner and
echo chamber folded into one. There is much to be said
for the quality control used by 'old media', although
we assume Matt Drudge would disagree, and for a 'digital
literacy' that is based on the critical evaluation of
content and skeptical about conspiracy portals such as
Despite the emergence of conspiracy theory and 'sociophobics'
as fashionable areas for academic research there are few
major studies of net-related conspiracy theories.
Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American
Politics & Other Essays (New York: Knopf 1965) remains
a starting point for discussion about anxieties in the
Its comments about cultural suspicion, status anxiety
and political disaffectation are echoed by Daniel Pipes
in Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes
& Where It Comes From (New York: Free Press 1997),
George Marcus's Paranoia Within Reason: A Casebook
on Conspiracy as Explanation (Chicago: Uni of Chicago
Press 1999), The Culture Of Fear Why Americans Are
Afraid Of The Wrong Thing (New York: Perseus 2000)
by Barry Glassner, Corey Robin's Fear: The History
of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford Uni Press 2004),
Joanna Bourke's Fear: A Cultural History (London:
Virago 2005), The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory
and the Human Sciences (New York: Wiley 2001) edited
by Jane Parish & Martin Parker, foucauldian Conspiracy Panics:
Political Rationality & Popular Culture (Albany: State University of New York
Press 2008) by Jack Bratich and Enemies Within: The
Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (New Haven:
Yale Uni Press 2001) by Robert Goldberg.
Pipes enthusiastically characterises grand theory as
a quite literal form of pornography (though political
rather than sexual). The two genres became popular about
the same time, in the 1740s. Both are backstairs literatures
that often have to be semi-clandestinely distributed,
then read with the shades drawn. Elders seek to protect
youth from their depredations. Scholars studying them
try to discuss them without propagating their content;
with asterisks and dashes in the first case and short
extracts in the second. Recreational conspiracism titillates
sophisticates much as does recreational sex.
Fenster's Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy & Power
in American Culture (Minneapolis: Uni of Minnesota
Press 1999) takes a more positive view: paranoia as an
act of revisionism by a bored subculture that's fuelled
by deep cynicism abut contemporary politics and longing
for a utopian future. There are similar views in The
Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory & the Human Sciences
(Oxford: Blackwell 2001) edited by Jane Parish.
For a more extreme rendition see Mark Dery's
The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the
Brink (New York: Grove 1999), a must for X-Files
fans, or Erik Davis's
Techgnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism in the Age
of Information (New York: Harmony 1998). Fredric Jameson,
in one of his less hermetic utterances, characterised
conspiracy theory as
poor person's cognitive mapping in the postmodern age;
it is a degraded figure of the total logic of late capitalism,
a desperate attempt to represent the latter's system,
whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme
is a more nuanced analysis in Peter Knight's lucid Conspiracy
Culture: From Kennedy to the X-Files (London: Routledge
2000) and Jodi Dean's Aliens in America: Conspiracy
Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca: Cornell
Uni Press 1998). Timothy Melly's Empire of Conspiracy:
The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Ithaca:
Cornell Uni Press 2000), Terry Matheson's Alien Abductions:
Creating a Modern Phenomenon (Amherst: Prometheus
1998), Susan Clancy's Abducted: How People Come to
Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 2005) and Benson Bobrick's The Fated
Sky: Astrology in History (New York: Simon &
Schuster 2006) are also of value.
Two academic centres are the UK Centre for Conspiracy
and the US Center for Millennial Studies (CMS).
We'll be adding other pointers shortly.
Regrettably there has been little academic analysis of
fear, loathing and free-floating anxiety within the academy,
evident in the sillier conservative claims about liberal
conspiracies or uncritical reception on the left of some
of Noam Chomsky's zanier pronouncements (grand theory
with a striking disconnection to historical fact).
For Contemporary Urban Legends (email taxes, web cookies
from the NSA etc) see the site
of that name.
Connoisseurs of the bizarre and ridiculous will enjoy
Robert Anton Wilson's Everything is Under Control:
The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories (New York:
Collins 1998) or Pat Robertson's The New World Order (Dallas: Word 1991).
The Conspiracy Theory Research List site
seems to be for those who want to pull it all together
- the truth is out there and if only you can join the
dots (or is it dot coms) you will understand the interrelationship
between Elvis, Skull & Bones, the Masons, the Vatican
Bank, alien abductions ...
An example of dot-joining - everyone seems to be within
nine clicks of separation - is the PIR
site. If you are an lbh fan there is web-paranoia de jour
with some debunking in The World Wide Web & Contemporary
Cultural Theory: Magic, Metaphor, Power (London: Routledge
2000) edited by Andrew Herman & Thomas Swiss and in Michael
Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions
in Contemporary America (Berkeley: Uni of California
If you are tired of existing theories you can generate
your own using the engine on the Make Your Own Conspiracy
Debunking sites unfortunately have not kept pace with
the zealots: examples are here,
We'll be pointing to particular surveys in the near future.
In the interim two useful benchmarks are Ted Goertzel's
Belief in Conspiracy Theories study
and the 2001 Gallup study
(which among other delights suggests that over a third
of US citizens believe in ghosts)
Hofstadter differentiated between clinical paranoia -
an individual convinced of the existence of a hostile
and conspiratorial world "directed specifically against
him" - and the paranoid style, characterised by belief
in a conspiracy "directed against a nation, a culture,
a way of life".
That style was less tied to a specific political goals
than to a way of seeing the world, a way of understanding
how things work by invoking the forces of conspiracy (corporate
interests, for example, pulling the strings of a compliant
paranoid spokesperson sees the fate of this conspiracy
in apocalyptic terms ... He is always manning the barricades
of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point:
it is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy.
Time is forever just running out .... The apocalypticism
of the paranoid style runs dangerously near to hopeless
pessimism, but usually stops just short of it.
apocalypticism is eerily present in some of the rants
about ICANN, ECHELON or the DCMA.
Jaron Lanier's alarmist article
in defense of Napster for example asserts that copyright
is "a massive government-sponsored protection racket"
and "if we make Napster-like free file sharing illegal,
we'll have to rid ourselves of either computers or democracy".
EFF luminary John Gilmore frets
about photocopiers including invisible identifiers in
routine copying "... under a long-standing private
arrangement" with the US Treasury Department"
and decries anti-spam legislation as "absolutely
evil". Many of the postings on Australia's LINK
list, the auDA
echo claims about auDA or ICANN that have little credibility.
And among the lunatic fringe you can, as we suggested
above, find examples of almost everything - including
claims that the net is run by tall green lizards as part
of the great alien invasion.
Such fears about 'new media' have a long history, explored
in works such as Jeffrey Sconce's Haunted Media: Electronic
Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham: Duke
Uni Press 2000), John Durham Peters' Speaking Into
the Air (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2000) and Carolyn
Marvin's exemplary When Old Technologies Were New:
Thinking About Electric Communications in the Late 19th
Century (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1990). Other works
are highlighted here.
These days - as one correspondent warned us (by email,
of course) - the solution seems to be to wrap your head
and personal computer in aluminium foil and thus ward
off the dangerous web rays.
The role of digital technologies as a focus of apocalyptic
thinking and mechanism for the expression of chiliasm
is discussed in more detail here.
hoaxes and rumours
We'll be adding information about web-based hoaxes, of
interest as an illustration of how people perceive the
net and the extent to which they critically evaluate information.
For the moment one recurrent hoax - the email tax - is
We suggest that readers make their own assessments about
the literature. As points of reference for C-theory online
we note that the following have been published by mainstream
publishing houses -
Rule by Secrecy: The Hidden History That Connects
the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, and the Great
Pyramids (New York: Harper 2001) by Jim Marrs -
"the real movers and shakers covertly collude to
start and stop wars, manipulate stock markets and interest
rates, maintain class distinctions, and even censor
the six o'clock news. And they do all this under the
mindful auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations,
the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderbergers, the CIA,
and even the Vatican". Presumably they are also
responsible for toast falling butter side down
Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell 1983)
by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln & Richard Leigh
- "the story of the Knights Templar, and a behind-the-scenes
society called the Prieure de Sion, and its involvement
in reinstating descendants of the Merovingian bloodline
into political power ... Jesus may not have died on
the cross, but lived to marry and father children whose
bloodline continues today."
Haggar's The Syndicate: The Story of the Coming World
Government (Loughton: O Books 2004) and The
Secret History of the West: The Influence of Secret Organizations
on Western History from the Renaissance to the 20th century
(Ropley: O Books 2005) similarly collect the usual suspects:
"the Rockefellers and Rothschilds, their occult and
esoteric connections", Kabbalists, Freemasons, the
Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission ...
If you are into that sort of 'non-fiction' you might instead
graze Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (New York:
Doubleday 2003), nicely debunked in works such as Bart
Ehrman's Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code
(New York: Oxford Uni Press 2004) and sites exposing Pierre
Plantard's Priory of Sion forgery.
(the surveillance agency zoo)