True Nonbelievers

Seeking connection beyond truth by rejecting what everyone believes

In a recent piece for the New Yorker, Alan Burdick wrote about attending a conference of people who don’t believe the world is round. It turned out that, by Burdick’s account, they didn’t have a positive belief or theory about what shape the earth actually is; they just wanted to reserve the right to dismiss, on the flimsiest possible pretenses, what others are content to take on faith. It’s as though the weaker the cause for dismissal, the more it signified their own autonomy — a tidy transformation of reaction into independence.

The refusal to believe in globalization, so to speak, serves as a proxy for a more general radical skepticism, as if to say that the complexity of the world and its interlocking systems have become so vast and unfathomable that it makes no difference if one believes in them or not. The part one plays in them is so utterly insignificant that one’s left only with the impotent refusal to accept them. Flat-earthism extends this attitude beyond a rejection of any received wisdom or established science to the existence of facts as such. As one of the conference speakers that Burdick quotes puts it, “Facts are not true just because they’re facts, if that makes any sense.”

If we want phones that work as if by magic and markets that deliver what we want before we know we want it, then we must consent to a measure of anomie, and accept our own disoriented ignorance. Not so for flat-earthers

Burdick is there mostly to gently mock these true nonbelievers, though it seems too soft a response: The “trust nothing, but believe whatever’s psychologically expedient” ideology of flat-earthism encourages the wholesale rejection of any consensus reality in favor of ad hoc conspiracies and blind intuition. It licenses dangerous delusions that culminate in violence, like the decision to take a gun to a pizza parlor to look for sex slaves, or to threaten the survivors of a mass shooting for spreading “lies” about the incident.

The attitude of flat-earthers amounts to a total withdrawal from what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls “expert systems” — in his definition, “systems of technical accomplishment or professional expertise that organize large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today.” In modernity, he argues, we are obliged to trust in these systems without understanding them or how they came to be; they are decontextualized from our immediate experience, “disembedded” from our localized view of life, and contribute to a sense that things are out of anyone’s control. We can’t fight or even understand them but must accept as part of the bargain of modern life. If we want phones that work as if by magic and markets that deliver what we want before we seem to know we want it, then we must consent to a measure of anomie, and accept our own disoriented ignorance. Not so for flat-earthers. Flat-earthism simply rejects expert systems by fiat. “Solipsism is the new empiricism,” Burdick writes.

That doesn’t mean the flat-earthers want to be alone, though. Rather they appear to reject expert systems to re-embed themselves in a community without experts. “We’re not trying to express any degree of intellectual superiority,” Burdick quotes a presenter as saying. “I’m just trying to wake people up to the idea that they’ve been lied to. It’s what you would do with any friend.” This evokes an idealized version of friendship, in which asymmetrical claims to knowledge and status are surrendered at the door. Instead, people can come together and help each other “do their own research.”

It sounds like a model for the internet more generally, where one can seemingly confront an endless field of information and navigate it according to one’s own whim, sharing what one discovers along the way, attracting fellow travelers. It suggests that we are online not to find facts or extract pertinent information so much as to use information-seeking and theory-building as modes of building community, not uncovering or establishing truth. Facts (if they existed) would only end the journey, whereas doubt can forever continue unfolding itself, bringing people in. All believers in something are the same, but we can each disbelieve in our own special way, yet share the same orientation toward the not-round world. The interactive connectivity extended across billions of people means that sociality need not depend on consensus reality about local conditions so much as a shared commitment to trust friends and whatever they choose to believe, and reject the consensus of everyone else.

In his 1985 book No Sense of Place, sociologist Joshua Meyrowitz argued that electronic media work to negate differences between physical spaces: “Places visited for the first time now look familiar if they (or places like them) have already been seen on television. And places that were once very different are now more similar because nearly every place has a television set, radio, and telephone.” Because of this, he argues, “those aspects of group identity, socialization, and hierarchy that were once dependent on particular physical locations and the special experiences available in them have been altered.” Those locations and experiences no longer condition or limit the sense of what seems real or possible or worth aspiring for, places become less binding on our behavior as they become less distinctive. Media, at the same time, offer alternatives, different soil in which to root identity, if not shifting sands. Contemporary media — mainly phones — have only intensified this process. But this doesn’t mean that hierarchies have been flattened or that different group identities have been abolished; rather space has been demoted to just another medium.

You don’t need special access or exotic resources to feel like you have special information. Secret “truths” can now be hidden anywhere, like Pokemon, and a community can be convened around them at any time

The internet, like television before it, gives access to more information. But TV had a limited number of channels watched by millions, which seemed to undermine the idea of exclusive knowledge. The internet — with its personalized newsfeeds, algorithmic discovery mechanisms, and open-ended search prompts — reawakens the possibility of exclusivity, now delocalized and democratized. You don’t need special access or exotic resources to feel like you have special information. Secret “truths” can now be hidden anywhere, like Pokemon, and a community can be convened around them at any time, in comment threads on YouTube streams or on Reddit boards and Facebook groups.

Content-selecting algorithms (particularly on YouTube, as Zeynep Tufekci has noted) tend to serve users increasingly extreme content as they try to winnow in on what makes viewing compulsive. This approach, however, is ultimately indifferent to the nature of the content itself. It capitalizes instead on the tension between personalization and social participation, harmonizing the seemingly divergent poles in the experience of consuming one video after another. The algorithms become a proxy for an implied community, an in-group that rewards your curiosity by showing you more and more. They substantiate the idea that you can furrow into yourself by surrendering to personalized content yet still open an entire universe that’s filled with people like you, on the same journey.

As the furor over fake news, filter bubbles, and alternative sets of facts suggest, these new possibilities for experiencing pockets of inclusive exclusivity can support actual communities, organized around preferred interpretations. Their “truth” lies in how they make us feel, not in their accuracy. Algorithms alone don’t radicalize users; it’s rather the imagined community behind them, the structured sociality that seems to promise to organize our insular desires, to make our consumption meaningful and socially relevant somehow even as it testifies to our power to get information about anything we want, anything at all.

Online discourse, which grants users a seemingly supernatural sense of their own information independence, favors content made in its image. Often what we like about the internet is not the access it seems to provide to a “real world” that exceeds it, but rather its paranormal qualities, reflected in paranormal content that captures how readily the restrictions of place-bound normality can be transcended. Slender Man, a crowd-sourced ghost that emerged from a Something Awful forum in 2009, exemplifies how the uncanny collaborative power of networks can become refracted as a recursive spiral of seemingly supernatural energy. In an essay for the VQR, Alex Mar writes that “the monster was deliberately vague, his story almost completely open-ended — and so the internet rushed in to make of him what it wanted.” Crowd-sourcing became a kind of self-referential procedure of haunting, taking every proof of its efficacy as an intensification of the otherworldliness inherent in it, capable of obscuring any story’s origins and producing a fog of possibility, a sense of unguided but ever increasing agency.

Online discourse, which grants users a seemingly supernatural sense of their own information independence, favors content made in its image

As Slender Man spread — a flexible, easily adaptable meme-metaphor for networked curses — his story evolved. As Mar notes, it took on qualities of demonic possession: “Anyone who learned about Slender was in danger of becoming obsessed with him through a kind of mind control; increasingly, he killed through others — humans known as his ‘proxies,’ his ‘husks,’ his ‘agents.’ He took possession of them, and they did his bidding.” This, as Mar demonstrates, culminated in the case of two preteen girls attempting to kill a classmate in Slender Man’s name.

Not every participatory meme ends in attempted murder. But the occult energy of participation for its own sake animates social media, which are staked on that premise. Media aren’t for representing reality, whether it be the objective territory “out there” or the oversimplified “truth” of our experience, but for multiplying realities, creating new possibilities that different configurations of people can build and dismantle. Communities are built on esoteric rather than factual knowledge, on uncanny synchronicities; therefore increased media access doesn’t lead to homogenization of places and our understandings of them but instead an explosion of divisive truths, an insistence on a world that is neither flat nor round nor any other shape we can agree on. Grievances, conspiracies, crowd-sourced terrors proliferate, without a clear origin or logic but with undimmed intensity, putting some people in the know and outsiders in the dark. Like any kind of ghost, they are effective to the degree that they are insubstantial, beyond substantiation.

Information that costs something to believe builds a bond; social media impose that cost, providing a forum of accountability. As the flat-earthers told Burdick, it is hard for them to admit their beliefs to a general public, but that is all the more reason to seize upon technology that multiplies many different publics operating in overlapping simultaneity. This sets our expectations of what we might hope to find when we open our apps: curses, rabbit holes, feuds, loyalty tests, life itself as we want to see it, as inexplicable and unavoidable as the sky.

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.