I’ve recently written about conspiracy theories, which means I have been recently attacked by conspiracy theorists. I thought I’d take a moment to briefly reflect on the evolution of conspiracy theorist…
The conspiracy theorist is, of course, not a new breed of human. All the basic psychological building blocks of conspiracy thinking are inherent in the human psyche, including distrust of authority, wanting “inside information,” and real or imagined persecution-and, to be fair, often a dearth of critical thinking skills such as the ability (or desire) to separate anonymous rumor from established fact.
The conspiracy theory is at its heart a profoundly populist notion. It’s the common man demanding a peek behind the curtains of power-power in the form of information. Knowledge is power and information is the currency of conspiracists. For millennia there were no conspiracy theorists to speak of because most people had little or no access to independent information. News traveled very slowly from region to region, and anyway it didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much news anyway (“uncle Abraham’s cow died, more news as it happens”). Information and knowledge about the world came mostly from religious leaders. What went on in distant lands (or even neighboring countries) had little relevance to most people who spent their lives farming or fishing, living and dying without ever having strayed more than a few hundred miles from their birthplace.
The invention of the moveable type printing press was a boon to conspiracy theorists for the simple reason that books and knowledge was transportable. Instead of one source of knowledge there were dozens, or perhaps hundreds, and in some cases the authors had different viewpoints on the same subjects. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure. If two authors disagreed, then someone claiming to be an authority was wrong-or even perhaps intentionally deceptive and intentionally hiding a truth.
Modern technology helped give birth to the modern conspiracy theorist as well. Decades ago conspiracy theorists largely relied on short-wave radio and crude stapled-and-photocopied mailings to gain followers and spread their enlightened truths. In the 1980s personal computers allowed conspiracy writers to create much more professional publications-in appearance, if not content-as well as “underground” magazines. One fascinating exception is the curious case of the Toynbee Tiles, a series of cryptic linoleum tiles found embedded in street asphalt in two dozen cities across the United States, and a few foreign capitals in the 1980s and 1990s. The precise meaning of the tiled messages is unclear, and references include the Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C. Clarke film 2001, resurrecting the dead on Jupiter, anti-Semitism, and a media conspiracy to silence the truth. A 2011 documentary about them, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, traced the origin of the mysterious tiles to a reclusive Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conspiracy theorist who also spread his message by driving around the city broadcasting via short wave radio.
The so-called Information Age has been a boon for conspiracy theorists. At one time mass-media news and information was only available to the public from a few select mainstream sources such as daily newspapers, and in the United States, the “big three” networks: NBC, CBS, and ABC. All that radically changed decades ago with the proliferation of cable channels and the internet. Today information is easier than ever to get; restrictions on access to information are largely a thing of the past. Distrust of the government by the governed is as old as time, but the internet helped fuel that discontent and crystallize for those who promote conspiracy theories. The democratization of information has been an enormous boon to the world; reasonably reliable information on anything from the mundane (the history of female Latvian bowlers) to the important (signs of an impending heart attack) to the ridiculous (cat shaming videos) are easily available with a few clicks to anyone with internet access. But modern technology gives equal access to good and bad information. Today, information from CNN and The New York Times can be found just as easily as information about conspiracies from people like Alex Jones and David Icke.
And with both good and bad information so easily available, the conspiracy theorist has flourished.