Influencing Machines

If a paranoid delusion becomes the basis for a shared worldview, it ceases to be a delusion

In 1810, London apothecary John Haslam published Illustrations of Madness, an account of a “singular case of insanity” and arguably the first-ever psychiatric case study. The patient at the center of Haslam’s book, James Tilly Matthews, believed that a cabal of Jacobins based in a crypt beneath London was using a mesmeric mind-control machine he called an “air loom” to torment and persecute him from a distance. Matthews also asserted that this device was secretly dictating the actions of English and French politicians and sowing discord across Europe. According to historian and Matthews biographer Mike Jay, the air loom was a “watershed in the technological imagination”: “Until this point, machines were ‘dumb things’ … that we manipulated. This is the point at which our relationship to machines becomes more complicated — the point at which people begin to believe that machines can actually manipulate us.”

In his time, Matthews’s case was “singular,” as Haslam put it: Nothing quite like it had been encountered before. Soon enough, however, individuals with experiences similar to Matthews’s began to publish versions of their stories. In 1852, for instance, German merchant Friedrich Krauss published Cry of Distress by a Victim of Magnetic Poisoning, in which he recounted being hypnotized and persecuted by a wealthy Flemish family in possession of a “magnetizing device” that resembled Matthews’s air loom.

About 50 years later, the German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber published a book detailing the cosmic conspiracy directed against him, which involved his chief physician, Paul Emil Flechsig, and a lascivious bipartite God. The book accuses Flechsig of an act of “soul murder” — an unauthorized invasion of Schreber’s inner self – that has initiated a crisis in the “Order of the World” and tainted God with the corruption of human beings.

To assert that “Targeted Individuals” are simply undiagnosed schizophrenics underestimates their self-invention as a collective identity. Their explanatory system circumvents psychiatric authority altogether

On the surface, Schreber’s grand Gnostic vision of a fallen universe differs significantly from the secular technological anxieties of Matthews and Krauss. However, Schreber’s metaphysical language belies a concern with the technologies of his era. For instance, he attributes the fact that he hears voices that others do not to “a phenomenon like telephoning: the filaments of rays spun out towards my head act like telephone wires; the weak sound of the cries of help coming from an apparently vast distance is received only by me in the same way as telephonic communication can only be heard by a person who is on the telephone, but not by a third person who is somewhere between the giving and receiving.” He also imagines a universal network of disembodied nerves, capable of instantaneous communication across vast distances by way of “light-telegraphy”; an automated “writing-down-system” that registers all thought much in the manner that recently developed recording technologies – gramophone and film – registered sound and sight; and a world populated by “fleetingly-improvised men” who resemble the ghostly projections of the newly invented cinematograph. In its blend of theological fantasia and technological nightmare, Schreber’s text anticipates the novels of Philip K. Dick, many of which also envision the endpoint of technological surveillance as a quasi-Gnostic apocalypse overseen by degraded god figures.

Matthews, Krauss, and Schreber all arrived independently at parallel visions. None knew of each other, and no shared vocabulary existed that could bring together the common threads of their stories, or similar ones told by even more obscure individuals, mostly confined to asylums. That changed, however, in the decades after the publication of Schreber’s memoirs — which were read enthusiastically by Freud, Jung, and Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist who codified the diagnosis of schizophrenia. For Haslam, Matthews’s narrative had been merely bizarre, and held no lesson other than a justification of confinement. But by the early 20th century, through the new medical metalanguages of the period — psychoanalysis on one hand, and Kraepelinian psychiatry on the other — experiences like those of Matthews, Krauss, and Schreber became legible as instances of a specific symptom. In a 1919 paper, Freud’s protégé Victor Tausk coined a term that could equally describe Matthews’s air loom, Krauss’s magnetizing device, and Schreber’s cosmic system of rays and nerves: the “influencing machine.”

In the past two decades, a competing metalanguage has emerged, which also furnishes a shared language for talking about persecution anxieties, mind-control machines, and other experiences long associated with the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. However, unlike the psychiatric vocabulary that emerged around a hundred years ago, this metalanguage originates among those having the experiences — many of whom, for some time now, have been finding each other online. The members of the resulting subculture call themselves “Targeted Individuals” (TIs). Self-identified TIs believe that they are the victims of systematic harassment by organized civilian groups linked to the state; they call this “gangstalking.” Over time and through internet-mediated discussion, they have developed a standard nomenclature to refer to the influencing machines used against them. For instance, they refer to “Direct Energy Weapons” concealed in satellites and cell phone towers, and “voice-to-skull” (V2K) technology that broadcasts voices into their brains. They connect these technologies to the CIA’s MKUltra program.

Like Schreber and especially Krauss, whose Cry of Distress is over 1,000 pages long, many TIs are prolific writers. Hundreds of blogs and websites, originating in dozens of countries, recount variations on the gangstalking narrative, deploying the shared language of electronic harassment, “psychotronic torture,” Direct Energy Weapons, covert electronic harassment, MKUltra, and so on. Quite a few TIs have adapted their narratives into works of fiction and memoir, many of which are for sale on Amazon.

The collective TI worldview has also spread into offline spaces, with support groups for TIs meeting in cities worldwide. In 2015, an international Covert Harassment Conference convened in Berlin. Speakers from eight countries addressed topics such as the “history and techniques of mind control,” “adverse health effects of modern electromagnetic fields,” and “Technology as False God: the Heresy of Exposing Covert Harassment.” Participants in the conference included doctors, engineers, programmers, and ex-intelligence operatives, who lent their credibility to the TI belief system.

The TI phenomenon first earned mainstream attention around 2007–08, when coverage focused on the novelty of internet-based organizing among apparently paranoid individuals, and its implications for mental health. Curiously, one early New York Times piece on gangstalking beliefs appeared in the Fashion and Style section, seemingly categorizing TIs as a lifestyle community. Early representations of the subculture resembled media treatment of other online self-diagnosis communities, ranging from those suffering from (what they believe is) Morgellons disease to those who hear the Hum.

A look at Targeted Individual literature suggests that the “consensus reality” of the mainstream and apparently delusional beliefs have never been closer to each other

More recent coverage, however, has acquired an ominous and panicked tone, in the wake of the mass shootings carried out by Myron May in Tallahassee in November 2014 and by Gavin Long in Baton Rouge in July 2016. May and Long both self-identified as TIs and victims of gangstalking, and participated in TI communities online. A New York Times article on Long is typical in its air of moral panic: It reports that the Targeted Individual phenomenon “remains virtually unresearched,” but “for the few specialists who have looked closely, these individuals represent an alarming development in the history of mental illness: thousands of sick people, banded together and demanding recognition on the basis of shared paranoias.” The underlying message here echoes Haslam’s argument about Matthews 200 years ago: Individuals with beliefs like these are dangerous and need to be kept under close medical supervision.

Media reports often focus on the resemblance between TIs’ accounts of their experiences and symptoms of what has been called, for the past century or so, paranoid schizophrenia. Many TI sources don’t deny the resemblance, arguing that gangstalkers are attempting to produce schizophrenia-like symptoms in their victims to undermine TIs’ credibility. In any case, to assert that TIs are simply undiagnosed schizophrenics underestimates the implications of their self-invention as a collective identity. By elaborating its own shared metalanguage and designating its own experts and information sources, the TI subculture has generated an explanatory system that aims to circumvent psychiatric authority altogether — and it is partly succeeding, in view of the proliferation of websites, blogs, and books that recapitulate variants of the standard gangstalking narrative. In online spaces, psychiatric interpretations of TI experiences are dispersed and hidden behind paywalls, while TIs’ narratives are accessible, numerous, and consistent in the explanations they offer.

Until recently, psychiatrists had a virtual monopoly on explanatory discourse, as well as access to prominent media and government-sponsored platforms to establish their explanations’ cultural authority. The dispersed, fragmentary, idiosyncratic narratives of individuals with apparently delusional belief systems could easily be dismissed as mere manifestations of a symptom whose content was mostly arbitrary. Under such conditions, individuals who voice a belief that they are being targeted by shadowy enemies using electronic mind-control devices will likely end up under psychiatric observation and be expected to “translate” their understanding of their experiences into the psychiatric metalanguage. In such cases, narratives of mind control can be reduced to manifestations of the standard first-rank schizophrenic symptoms of “thought insertion,” “thought broadcasting,” and “thought withdrawal.”

A parallel process of translation occurs when an individual experiencing vague suspicions encounters TI sites and embraces the narrative they offer: A sensation of hostility from strangers becomes evidence of organized gangstalking, for instance, and mysterious voices in one’s head become a broadcast from a V2K device. Yet the purpose of the translation is to reinforce rather than dispel the suspicion, leaving the powerful underlying affective experience intact. That said, much TI literature serves a therapeutic as well as an explanatory function, offering an array of advice on coping with systematic harassment and blocking electronic torture. The internet, it would seem, is facilitating not only self-organizing communities but self-organizing therapeutic discourses and self-organized institutions that establish those discourses’ authority.

The consequences of this development are profound. As one of the first (and one of few) medical studies of the TI phenomenon points out, the community’s shared narrative raises fundamental difficulties for the psychiatric concept of a “delusion.” The DSM’s criteria for a delusion, the study notes, “indicate that it should not include any beliefs held by a person’s ‘culture or subculture.’” So by the current definition, if a delusion becomes the basis for a shared worldview, it ceases to be a delusion. It gains the approximate status of a belief that lies outside the mainstream consensus — like, say, the flat earth or 9/11 trutherism — but is not viewed as symptomatic of a psychiatric illness.

The study concludes, “the internet may enable complex support mechanisms without reference to a view of reality held by the authorities or even the mainstream of opinion.”

But on closer examination, the TI worldview actually draws quite heavily upon the “mainstream of opinion,” once you look past the community’s insular and obfuscating jargon. Indeed, a look at TI literature suggests that the “consensus reality” of the mainstream and apparently delusional beliefs have never been closer to each other. Many elements that ground the TI worldview, that is, also figure in non-TIs’ worldviews.

As we have seen, individuals from past centuries told similar stories to those of TIs about elaborate electronic devices being used to monitor and torture them, but each had to invent a unique vocabulary and frame of reference to describe their experiences. By contrast, TI sites frequently draw points of reference from the established historical record, and from pop culture representations of it. As the ultimate prototype of gangstalking, they cite the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, an infamous covert campaign that targeted “subversives” with surveillance, harassment, blackmail, slander, psychological warfare, and more. The CIA’s MKUltra mind control experiments, another frequent point of reference in TI online literature, are familiar to many from their representations in films like Jacob’s Ladder, The Killing Room, and American Ultra, to name a few. TI sites also mention movies from Videodrome to The Matrix to The Adjustment Bureau as semi-realistic representations of experiences similar to theirs.

Additionally, the online literature refers to a wide range of present-day realities as examples of organized targeting, surveillance, and harassment, such as the NSA spying apparatus revealed in the Snowden leaks. In a rare but not totally atypical variation on the typical TI narrative, Baton Rouge shooter Gavin Long understood systematic police abuse against African Americans as the most common instance of gangstalking. More commonly, the gangstalking narrative converges with far-right anti-government rhetoric. Dr. John Hall, a Texas anesthesiologist who is a recognized authority within some areas of the TI subculture, has appeared on Alex Jones’s show.

What’s significant, then, is not only that the internet has allowed TIs to find each other and establish a shared frame of reference. It’s also that they inhabit a social, political, and cultural world that stokes varying degrees of — in some cases reasonable — paranoia in many of us, across the political spectrum. Much of what’s on the news and what’s in the recent historical record, especially if brought together with the paranoid visions that saturate popular culture, offers ample evidence to support a belief in organized, state-sponsored harassment and surveillance, and even mind control and brainwashing.

This raises further problems for categorizing TI communities as a collective delusion. Psychiatrists and journalists worry that TIs are reinforcing each other’s paranoia by banding together online, but the world we all inhabit and the media we all consume are doing just as much to reinforce it. And in a moment when the U.S. president himself promulgates conspiracy theories aired on Alex Jones’s Infowars, and establishment liberals cite the unfounded speculations of Louise Mensch to support their belief that the Trump presidency is a real-life replay of The Manchurian Candidate, fringe beliefs have fully infiltrated the mainstream consensus. Call it the paranoization of reality.

The paranoization of reality, in turn, feeds into what we may call the “normalization of paranoia.” This phrase, used lately to describe the mainstreaming of conspiracy-driven beliefs in the Trump era, is better used to describe the uncanny familiarity of the supposedly bizarre TI worldview. Though TIs are stigmatized for their distance from the shared reality of the majority, TI narratives actually recycle prevalent cultural material, serving up a blend of recognizable genres (especially self-help) and political ideologies (especially anti-government libertarianism). Their paranoia differs from that of the larger culture they inhabit mainly in intensity and hardly at all in basic content.

The paranoization of reality feeds into what we may call the “normalization of paranoia.” This phrase is better used to describe the uncanny familiarity of the supposedly bizarre TI worldview

Here the real significance of the TI phenomenon comes into view. If the normalization of paranoia in TI subculture tends to rely on modes of paranoia absorbed from the larger culture, along with the fixation on longstanding cultural commonplaces like COINTELPRO and MKUltra comes a general lack of attunement to the complex modalities of electronic surveillance in the digital spaces where our lives occur.

Self-designated TIs have used technology to build a subculture around a shared fear of technology — an irony that I am by no means the first to point out. TIs worry, as we have seen, about being tracked through cell-phone towers and satellites, but don’t worry so much about the consequences of sharing that anxiety with the world on social media, even though any such activity exposes them to a more systematic tracking than anything they imagine. But if TIs themselves usually don’t recognize this irony, that’s because there is a broader cultural disconnect between the dimensions of technology they view as dangerous and the technologies they use to connect and organize.

As Nathan Ferguson argued recently, we all need to “update our nightmares.” Popular ideas of surveillance remain trapped in an outdated paradigm, and as a result we “fail to account for surveillance’s surreptitious commercial tracking, as it manifests in grocery rewards programs and across websites and within our phones” and likewise “don’t look at how entire populations are tracked, rather than specific individual suspects.” Siva Vaidhyanathan has similarly noted that most of us fall back onto the paradigm of the panopticon, a form of surveillance that relies on the subject’s awareness of the gaze of authority to enforce control. Hence, our fears revolve around “the precisely targeted surveillance of specific individuals” — like TIs, as their self-designation reveals.

If the collective imagination has not caught up with the evolving and increasingly complex modes of targeting, surveillance, and control, TIs are no exception. They, like most of us, have not yet adjusted their anxieties to a reality in which, as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has put it, “we no longer experience the visible yet unverifiable gaze but a network of nonvisualizable digital control.” Or to quote Vaidhyanathan again: “Surveillance is so pervasive that it is almost impossible for the object of surveillance to assess how he or she is manipulated or threatened by powerful institutions gathering and using the record of surveillance … The threat is that subjects will become so inured to and comfortable with the networked status quo that they will gladly sort themselves into ‘niches’ that will enable more effective profiling and behavioral prediction.”

That TIs have self-sorted into a global, public online network illustrates this risk. Given the panic created by a few TIs’ involvement in highly publicized acts of violence, it’s likely that many people who self-identify as TIs online are being profiled and tracked precisely because of their participation in online TI support networks.

Perhaps, for TIs and for the rest of us, there is a solace in the old model of surveillance. It also seems reasonable to speculate that TIs find a paradoxical agency in believing they are singled out. In any case, individualizing the very real but increasingly unimaginable phenomena of tracking and control can offer a way to cope with problems that are not really addressable at the level of individual behavior. But the attendant risk is a failure to perceive the real workings of influencing machines all around us — ones that do not look like anything out of MKUltra. Instead, they function through the apps, social media platforms, search engines, and news sites we spend much of our lives toggling between, whose programmers, as Tamsin Shaw recently pointed out, are using the insights of behavioral economics to “determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part.” The limited reach of MKUltra looks quaint in comparison.

Reflecting on the continued relevance of Matthews’s air loom, Mike Jay writes that “in the 21st century, the influencing machine has escaped from the shuttered wards of the mental hospital to become a distinctive myth for our times.” The manipulative, invasive power of technology has shifted from an obscure fear into a cultural commonplace — and at the same time, a reality that pervades our lives yet remains difficult to conceptualize and imagine. Those who, like Matthews, Krauss, and Schreber in their time, feel that power today most acutely and oppressively now have access to ready-made references and theories and no longer need to develop idiosyncratic visions from whole cloth. Yet this pushes them to the same imaginative impasses that stymie the larger culture. They are paranoid, but not precisely sure what to be paranoid about. Just like the rest of us.

Geoff Shullenberger teaches at NYU and has written for Dissent, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the New Inquiry, among others.