The Apophenic Machine

The conspiratorial mode and the internet’s data hoard were made for each other

Think of a network graph. A simple one with just a few nodes and connecting lines spidering out. It makes intuitive sense. Even if it’s one of those brightly colored clustered network graphs with thousands of points and connections, you can still grasp what it’s trying to tell you.

Now imagine one of those conspiracy walls that turn up in TV shows or movies to depict a character’s obsessiveness: a hodge-podge of pictures, maps, clippings, and scrawled notes, stuck up with push pins and (usually) connected with red thread. These “crazy walls,” as Esquire dubbed them in 2015, are different from, say, the cops’ big board on The Wire, partly because of their flagrant chaos but also because of their amateurish exuberance. Where the big board conveys planning, restraint, and verification protocols — the idea that police are not jumping to conclusions — the “crazy wall” is all about the joy of the jump. It’s practically kinetic, a pas de deux where pattern-spotting has pulled some sad-sack loner into the rhythms of connection-making obsession. He tries to bind down reality with that red string, tying it to the wall to try to force some sense out of it, but his perspective is always too limited, too circumscribed by isolation. It’s an impressive imaginative trick, as if someone tried to draw blueprints of the house they’re living in without leaving the cupboard under the stairs. They might be interesting to look at, but almost certainly would tell you more about the artist and their hiding place than the structure of the house.

When we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet

When one of these walls appears in a show, the reveal is usually drawn out. A series of close-ups, teasing all the hyperconnectivity, and then the camera pulls back so you can get it all at once: the spider web of thread, with the specific data points fading out of focus. In that climactic, holistic moment, before the fractal elegance of the star-burst-spider-web-spiral goes to pieces in the incohesiveness of its conscripted data scraps, it’s quite beautiful. It really looks like a network graph.

A medium’s materiality affects the way we can think with it. Before there were books, the slow, sequential access afforded by scrolls insisted on long, linear narrative time., and a common pattern of engagement between authors and audiences. The rise of bound books permitted access to information in any sequence, folding time into space with the aid of indexes, numbered pages, and tables of contents. The printing press further separated the conditions under which texts were created and consumed, allowing for far wider distribution and a broader conception of reader and audience.

Now we have hyperconnectivity, networks on networks on networks. We are interpolated in continent-sprawling power grids and world-spanning logistical systems that connect sweatshops to the corner bodega and the Amazon package in the hall. And that is before we even get to the web, the social media on your phone, the endless data storage in sprawling server farms, and the interwoven state and corporate surveillance conglomerations peeking out at you from between pixels.

The modern condition is networked, and thus modern thought is networked too — or it at least tries to be. But not in the open, expansive way that techno-utopianists hoped. John Perry Barlow, in his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” perhaps the guiding document of techno-utopianism, called the nascent popular internet the “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” a world of “identities” but not “bodies,” a place to be governed only by “the Golden Rule,” “ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal.” In the new networked age, all of humanity’s thought and feeling would blend together in a “seamless whole,” “from the debasing to the angelic,” and be “reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost.” Yet we did not leave our bodies behind in the 1990s. Our basic unit of action is not a seamless joining together, as Barlow optimistically described, and we certainly have not fused into a new and greater whole. We are not in the network; we are on it.

Instead, the basic unit of action is the link. It is the leap — between pages, between ideas, between people and personas. This leaping ability across and between sites has been core to the web’s functionality and its pleasures. Legal and technical battles over “deep linking” have time and again confirmed the centrality of user-defined links, at the expense of website owners’ control over the manner in which their content is accessed. The “Wikipedia race,” a game that became popular after Wikipedia launched in 2001, epitomizes this preference for self-determined web surfing: players picked two arbitrary Wikipedia pages, a starting place and a finish line, and then jumped from link to link to link, seeing who could connect the two in the fewest ecstatic hops.

To navigate the web is to beat a path through a labyrinth of links left by others, and to thereby create associative links yourself, unspooling them like a guiding thread onto a floor already carpeted with such connections. Each thread of connection is unique, individualized: everyone draws their own map of the network as they navigate it.

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.

Though conspiracy theories are, in essence, a social side-effect of human pattern-spotting behavior, the internet’s structure has encouraged a similar obsessiveness. As Kathleen Stewart notes in “Conspiracy’s Theory Worlds,” “the internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing and no place, floating through self-dividing and transmogrifying sites until you are awash in the sheer evidence that the internet exists.”

Like Job, conspiracy theorists struggle against a system that ultimately tells them there is no explanation that’s within their capacity to understand

Conspiracy theories are a reactive interpretive mode that, according to Stewart, allows theorists to maintain a sense of personal agency while disclaiming responsibility. In positing that it all really can be traced back to the Masons or gray-skinned aliens, the conspiratorial mode asserts that individuals — including the conspiracy theorists themselves — could have traceable, observable power and influence over world events and systems that otherwise seem diffuse, uninterpretable and unguidable. “Conspiracy theorists are, I submit, some of the last believers in an ordered universe,” Brian L. Keeley writes in his essay “Of Conspiracy Theories. “By supposing that current events are under the control of nefarious agents, conspiracy theorists entail that such events are capable of being controlled.”

Though reactive, then, the conspiratorial mode is not in and of itself irrational. Consider what it now reacts to: in Stewart’s words, “the networked world of systems and power, the constant shock waves that never quite wake us from the dream world of late capitalism but replicate states of anesthesia and obsession.” As a way to comprehend one’s place within complex global networked capitalism — where actors like Maersk, Walmart, or ExxonMobil organize world-spanning feats of logistics, extraction, and finance-backed violence, or where the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal was front-page news across the globe for years — world-building in the conspiratorial, paranoid mode seems not unreasonable. It finds intentionality and a purposeful human hand where other epistemologies might see, as Keeley puts it, only the “absurdism of an irrational and essentially meaningless world.”

Like Job, conspiracy theorists are full of faith that there must be a graspable explanation for the world around them. And, like Job, they struggle against a system that ultimately tells them there is no explanation that’s within their capacity to understand.

When faced with a global catastrophe that is simultaneously the responsibility of no one and everyone, there is a human preference to replace that chaos with narrative. Climate change, like global capitalism, is too immense for specific, recognizable heroes and villains, but that doesn’t mean people won’t try to construct a narrative with the tools nearest to hand. The ClimateGate conspiracy, which unspooled initially in late 2009, posited that a small group of scientists tried to bury findings that disputed the theory of human-caused climate change. It was promoted by the Lavoisier Group, which represents itself as a “dads army” of concerned citizens, but is actually composed of retired mining engineers and others with connections to the Austrailian extraction industry. To promulgate its concerns, the group produced a nearly 200-page document analyzing a cache of scientists’ emails, exfiltrated from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The document’s slick cover depicted the UN’s Intergovernmental Governmental Panel on Climate Change as the Titanic, heading for an polar-bear-topped iceberg emblazoned with the word TRUTH. Inside, the conspiracist curators insert themselves in the material they’ve acquired, assuming the character of calm, collected protagonists amid the havoc, the only ones who really get it, peppering the scientists’ emails with asides like “You’ve got to be kidding!”; “I thought these fellows didn’t believe in blogs!”

The Lavoisier document would appear to be a cynical attempt to unsettle political debates about global warming, but the kind of power it ascribes to a handful of climate scientists also indicates a basic, desperate desire to believe that anyone at all is in charge — that a central, coordinated agenda really does exist as an alternative to the apocalyptic chaos driving carbon extraction.

If financialized capital excels at dispersing agency, blending villainy with bureaucracy and good intentions, networks (like conspiracy theories) excel at creating the illusion of the world as graspable, strung together with links even as the socially contingent markers of importance, trust, and validity are increasingly on the fritz. The Lavoisier Group’s ClimateGate document, a conspiratorial rainbow wrapped in just-folks authenticity, shows how a supporting web of cross-references can be sewn from opportunistically acquired network detritus.

There is no bycatch in the conspiratorial mode — it refuses to countenance the existence of the inadvertent, the casual, or the incidental. Everything encountered in the course of hunting for the conspiracy is important, even banal everyday minutiae. Email databases, which are loaded with such minutiae (and a wealth of metadata), thus present the conspiracy theorist with rich material. In the conspiratorial mode, sheer availability is the primary criterion for significance.

The default data hoarding inherent in much of the current internet makes it ripe for conspiracy building. All that’s needed is a flood of attention on a body of information to bring conspiratorial linkages to life. And as the public has become trained in enjoying conspiratorial thinking as a mode of entertainment — not merely watching others solve mysteries but actively participating in deepening and unfolding them — a reservoir of attention lies waiting to be tapped.

Trends in popular culture reflect audiences’ growing comfort with conspiratorial thinking. TV shows like Lost, True Detective, Orphan Black, Westworld, and The OA are constructed like conspiracies themselves, with with webs of interconnection, opaque symbolism, and internal and external reference that reward intense engagement. This is often bolstered by other materials on the web — official websites for in-universe corporations or characters, (sometimes further seeded with easter eggs) and active online fan communities. Alternate-reality games, like I LOVE BEES, Why So Serious, or Frog Fractions, have also grown in popularity. These blend digital and analog elements and require active engagement and cooperation among a large diverse player base. These types of hermeneutic media become cultural primers in how we can find conspiracies wherever we look, how these conspiracies can constitute a community of solvers, and how the web is ideally structured to build and disseminate conspiratorial storytelling experiences.

That is, they encourage the “paranoid-critical mode,” a Surrealist method developed by Salvador Dalí. In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas described it as the “synthetic reproduction of the paranoiac’s way of seeing the world in a new light — with its rich harvest of unexpected correspondences, analogies, and patterns.” It involves the “fabrication of objectifying ‘souvenirs’ of the paranoid tourism, of concrete evidence that brings the ‘discoveries’ of those excursions back to the rest of mankind.” The paranoid-critical mode pushes linkages and connectivity while also centering a romantic individualist mythos of the ordinary person who uncovers a world-bending conspiracy or, better yet, discovers that they are (and have always been) at the center of it all. This may be grandiose, but it stands in satisfying contrast with the dry nihilism of a conspiracy-less world.

#Pizzagate is a manifestation of this kind of “paranoid tourism.” It suggests what happens when the act of linking and the conspiratorial mode of thinking become mainstream interpretive tools to force sense out of a world that seems otherwise uninterested in making any.

Sometime in the spring of 2016, the personal email of John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was hacked, and the contents passed to Wikileaks. Wikileaks then released the contents in a series of dramatic, social-media-spun drops over the course of several weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election. As each new cache dropped, people converged to comb through the emails, comparing notes and hunches on several different subreddits and chan message boards. On Reply All, the moderator of the Reddit board the_donald, one of the central hives of this analytic engagement, explained, “When Wikileaks was coming out, the_donald kind of spearheaded that effort where we crowdsourced the investigation. We said, ‘OK, listen, they’re dumping thousands of pages a day, no single person can go through this,’ so we essentially would post the Wikileaks article on the top and say, ‘OK, go through this, and everyone post what you find.’”

Michael Fortun, in his examination of conspiracy theorists and quantum physics, notes that “paranoiacs do not look, they find.” As they search for the narrative-based, human-readable networks undergirding their reality, conspiracy theorists, like quantum physicists, “do not simply weigh and measure it, but they create it with their instruments.”

A sense of ubiquitous relevance has been reinforced by the broader acceleration of filter bubbles, which are becoming a kind of bespoke reality. Events can be presumed relevant because they were encountered at all

Drawing from strategies of apophenia, pareidolia, and hermeneutic symbolist analysis, #Pizzagate tells a familiar conspiratorial narrative about the immoral and corrupt nature of power. It echoes ancient preoccupations with the sexual deviances of the powerful, something that can also be seen in the anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories that, as Richard Hofstadter has pointed out, flourished in early days of America. It also adds the modern obsessions with sex trafficking, child pornography, and Satanism, invoking the day-care Satanic abuse panics of the 1980s and 1990s.

Throwing out their net for evidence, #Pizzagaters assigned deep significance to T-shirt slogans and references to the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop holding “all ages shows.” They took pictures of signs of neighboring businesses and compared them with a leaked FBI document of pedophilic icons and images, claiming to find multiple echoes and references. Everything was held to be significant.

That sense of ubiquitous relevance has been reinforced by the broader acceleration of filter bubbles, which are becoming a kind of bespoke reality, delivered through a handful of networked screens. These screens are both displays you see the world through and sorting sieves, filtering it according to your networked identity (who you were, who you are, who the network will shape you to be as it presents you with new material). So events or data points can be presumed relevant because they were encountered at all, as they are derived from your personal string of encounters and linkages. When our personal bubbles are cross-referenced with algorithmic assessments of our cohort — when our bubbles are shaped not only by our behavior but by that of those whose data patterns resemble ours — incidental shared qualities among dispersed groups can become defining characteristics of shared world views, shared realities. The potential of a recommendation converting into a click, a like, a link, a viral moment, means it will be pushed into the path of hundreds or thousands of people, creating a shared link in their networked reality chain. In the conspiratorial mode, we know there is some reason we are being shown the reality we are seeing; we just need to make more connections to figure it out. We reverse-engineer our personal apophenic link-chain for the narrative we want to already be there.

The conspiratorial mode is defined by such an overabundance of meaning-making. Apophenic instincts run rampant, absorbing all data into the system of explanation. As Keeley notes, “Conspiracy theories always explain more than competing theories, because by invoking a conspiracy, they can explain both the data of the received account and the errant data that the received theory fails to explain.” That is, conspiracy theories take the apparent virtues of unified explanation and explanatory reach and pervert them. Absence of evidence becomes in itself evidence to be mined.

This ingrained attitude makes a conspiratorial approach well-suited to WikiLeaks-style data dumps or email caches like the one that spawned Climategate. Unlike mainstream news sources, which have to consider the chain of custody and the likelihood that the database had been tampered with, a conspiracist moves without restriction and might even see the mainstream reluctance as proof that there are devastating secrets in the material.

Because the conspiratorial mode in part aims to re-center people as the evil geniuses of global systems — and as potential heroic saviors — powerful people never do anything that’s strictly personal. Because they are meant to serve as avatars of agency, everything they do must have broader relevance, and is available ultimately to be mixed and matched in our filter-bubble realities. Everything they do must refer back to their conspiratorial roles, so their lives are understood as Machiavellian at all levels, always concerned with concealment and secret keeping. In denying these perceived power players their private lives, the conspiratorial mode also denies them human, emotional responses to the events around them.

As #Pizzagate went on, the circle of those implicated by the conspiracists widened, eventually including bands that had performed at the event space along with staff and patrons. As conspiracists targeted them, sending harassing messages on social media or email, some locked down their online presences or left the internet entirely. #Pizzagaters interpreted these reasonable reactions to harassment as further evidence of guilt, concealment, or something. The conspiratorial mode does not admit of privacy, only secrecy, because power has no private life. Power is precisely defined as the ability of these avatars of states, corporations, and cabals to keep secrets.

Both ClimateGate and #PizzaGate, like nearly all conspiracy theories, are attempts to wrestle the complexities of the modern world down to a level of simplicity that can be grasped by an individual. They are both manifestations of the same reactive attempt to reassert local or individual control over systemic forms of power that defy narrative. The conspiratorial mode and its co-morbid reactionary political stance are responses to a world that is too complex to be known but which cannot be ignored or avoided. It is a direct response to our feeling as though we have been left behind by our own world.

As the complexities of the hyper-networked world exponentially compound beyond the ability of anyone to fully grasp, it’s unsurprising that the broader political culture should tumble backward into familiar moral narratives, familiar villains, all bolstered by the mediated opportunity to link, link, link, link. As networks and capital burrow through the borders between states, perforating the demarcations between power structures and between people, tales of conspiracies pop up, pulling back against that diffusion like a contracting fist.

The type of systems complexity that is emerging — where financialized markets support automated production, shipping, delivery, and disposal; where entire landmasses are hollowed out or drowned to fulfill fiduciary duties to distant shareholders — doesn’t necessarily need human or democratic engagement to persist. Unfortunately, the paranoid reactionary response does nothing to confront these global, complex systems.

It’s increasingly possible that we will have two separate reality streams: the human politics stream, full of reactive paranoia intent on creating graspable narratives for human consumption; and the overarching networks of networks, the financialized global capital streams and automated algorithmic diktats that operate and adhere without being wholly grasped, without anyone understanding them in their entirety.

Conspiracies are not in themselves an irrational response to the current complex networked environment. One only has to look at the fracking industry, the pharmaceutical industry’s R&D policies, or the Catholic Church scandals to see that our world weeps conspiracies. They come out of the walls. And the networked environment materially encourages both the manifestation of conspiracies and that perception of them, link by link by link. But the conspiratorial tales people tell, the ones that aim to comfort through narrative reassurances of the centrality of humans in our own world, will always be more compelling than the reality of a complex world running away without us.

M.R. Sauter is the author of The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. They’re a professor of information studies in Maryland. They are working on a book about the history of venture capital.