Saturday, January 23, 2021

The New Luddites

The rise in bizarre beliefs can be traced, in part, to the rapid rise in technology in recent years.

It seems we are in an age of unreason.  People are not only believing odd things, but stuff that is off-the-charts insane.  Sure, you might argue that the Kennedy assassination has some odd discrepancies about it.  After all, a guy who went to Russia - and was later thrown out - was the assassin.  And then he is gunned down by a guy who ran a bar with supposed mafia connections - and died of cancer not long after.  On the other hand, other people point out there are other, more mundane explanations - he was a hothead who regularly beat the customers in his own bar.  Either way, you are not going to "solve" the Kennedy Assassination, and it really makes little difference in your daily life - wasting your energy being a "conspiracy buff" is just stupid, as I noted before.

But conspiracy theories like that seem almost plausible compared to the whack-shit stuff coming out in recent months and years.  I suppose it started with 9/11 "truthers" - an oxymoron if there ever was one.  Lie through your teeth and call yourself a "truther" - hey, it worked for Hitler, and for Trump.  Project your own deficiencies onto your opponent!   The 9/11 crackpots want us to believe that "fire can't melt steel!" but of course cannot explain why steel truss buildings routinely collapse during fires, as the steel loses its temper and twists into a pretzel-like mass.  They want us to believe a missile hit the Pentagon (and a Congresswoman actually says this!) when thousands of people on I-395 saw the plane fly over head and hundreds saw it hit.  People who never lived in DC or even visited there fail to realize how close the roads are to the Pentagon.

But that's the great thing about conspiracy theories.  If someone points out facts that fly in the face of your theory, you just say (a) that person is part of the conspiracy, or (b) those facts are simply untrue and then just repeat the same old lies. To me, knowing people who actually saw the plane hit the Pentagon, such conspiracy theories are infuriating.  Similarly, the idea that the tens of thousands of people in New York City who saw not one, but two planes hit the World Trade Center all were suffering from "mass hallucinations" is just an insult - and an insult to all the people who died on those planes - whose grieving relatives are called "crises actors".

But in a way, this sort of thinking is understandable, if you understand the human brain. When the 9/11 attack happened, an initial reaction is to say, "this can't be happening!" and thus it is easy to believe that it never did.   It was an inside job - all those people weren't at work that day and no one died as a result. What a comforting thought.

It is like the school shootings.  What a horror - little kids being gunned down by a mentally ill person with an assault rifle, which was given to him by his Mom.   It can't be that our permissive gun laws and gun culture are to blame, right? So the brain is ready to embrace an alternative reality - it never happened, which again, is just a horrible thing to say to people who lost children in these events.

Of course, given how many guns there are in America, it isn't hard to conceive that such events are inevitable, when you have mentally ill people with ready access to large quantities of powerful firearms with high-capacity clips.  It's a funny thing, though, when a Muslim commits such a crime, the same people have no trouble believing it, as it fits their world view.  Muslims are terrorists - not white folks!

So it is easy to live in denial.  But how did we get from there to Flat-Earth and Q-anon?  Same shit, different day.  Technology has advanced rapidly in the last decade or so, and not in terms of landing on the moon or whatever, but in more insular terms that affect our daily lives.  The smart phone has literally changed the way we think - we can be "connected" to the Internet at all hours of the day and night, and many of us fall into that very addictive habit.  It is hard not to look at your phone, first thing in the morning, and last thing before you go to bed at night.  It has replaced the radio, the television, the newspaper, and the daily mail.

As I noted before, whenever a new form of media is created, it disrupts society.  Before Gutenberg printed Bibles, they were copied by hand - and the Word of God was in Latin and limited to a few acolytes of the church.  Others merely had to hear it secondhand.   But once the Bible was printed and moreover printed in English, well, all hell broke loose, and hundreds of years of religious wars ensued. Only 50 years after Gutenberg, we have Martin Luther, which lead to Protestantism, and so forth.

The telegraph, the daily newspaper, and widespread publication of books such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, no doubt helped spread the discontent in the North that lead to the Civil War.  The radio - and broad-casting - lead to the rise of Dictators in the 1930's.  Television, the rise of the protest generation.   And Facebook - gave us Trump and a host of right-wing nationalists worldwide.

But it isn't just the Internet or smart phones.  I noted before how lightbulbs and toilets and decking screws have changed in the last decade.   You go to the store to buy a 99-cent lightbulb and find they all cost several dollars - and have a funny color and no longer work with your dimmer.  The galvanized decking screws you saved in your workshop now corrode in half, in a year, when screwed into this newfangled "yellow wood".  The water-saving pressurized toilet explodes in your bathroom - and it is mystifying how it actually works and how to fix it.   Front-loading washing machines cost more than cars you've owned, and are nearly impossible to service, except by a skilled technician.  It all seems like a con-job, to the average consumer, who sees his world spinning out of control.

Trump seized upon this discontent, which mystified the left-leaning newspapers on the coasts, who saw LED technology as an advance, and not a threat.   Smart phones, wind power, solar power, electric cars - the world is changing, and changing for the better.  But change makes people uneasy.

Part of this change, of course, was "People of Color" asserting their rights and moving up in the world. Not only that, you have gays and lesbians holding hands and getting married, but people changing their gender! (OK, that freaks me out, too).  And political correctness - in general.  It is unsettling when change occurs rapidly - perhaps too rapidly.

Some say that was what caused Brexit.  Many in the working classes were uneasy at the waves of new immigrants, who had different values and spoke different languages.  Worse yet, they all worked hard and made the "native" people on the dole look bad.  We have the same thing here.   The right likes to talk about "illegal immigrants" collecting welfare, but the reality is, they are more likely to be working three jobs, while the red-hatted Trump supporter is on disability.  Projection again rears its ugly head.

So we end up with these bizarre conspiracy theories which are more or less related to technology.  Qanon has its pizza-gate aspects, but it also embraces anti-vaxxers and 5G conspiracies.   Medical science is amazing - and mystifying to lay people.   Why not just allege it doesn't exist and that postings on Facebook are just as valid as decades of medical research?   Cell phones are mysterious to the lay person as to how they actually work, so why not allege they are up to no good?  Elon Musk is going to fly rockets to Mars, and Mars rovers are sending back photos of the surface.  It's a lot easier to believe it was all faked, the moon landing was faked, and the earth is flat.

Accompanying these stupid conspiracy theories is often an expressed desire to return to "simpler times" when a man had his black-powder musket and could "kill him a bar" or two.   No wonder more than one Capitol rioter was wearing frontier furs.   Still others are into "survivalist" chic and "prepping" for the end times by building a rustic cabin in the woods, and loading it up with pallets of "prepper" food.  This urge to be self-reliant in an increasingly technological world is almost understandable.

It is like the old timers and rednecks who blather on about how the oil-burning pieces of shit we used to call automobile engines back in the 1960's are "better" than cars today.  Back then, a 350 cubic-inch engine might make 300 horsepower, or maybe the vaunted "one horsepower per cubic inch".   Today, you can get 300 horsepower from 3 liters or less and you can buy a car off the showroom floor with 400, 500, 600, or even 700 horsepower - absurd numbers that were never dreamed of in "the good old days".

But that's not the point. They understood carburetors.  Hell, you can see the gas flowing right down the throat of one.  They might have sucked in terms of efficiency, longevity, and emissions, but they were a known quantity.  You have to understand computers to work on today's cars - it isn't hard, really, but it requires a different skill set.  You have to learn the new lingo and get new tools, and no one wants to invest in that.  That, and if you make a mistake, well, it gets expensive, really quickly.

People feel they are losing control over their lives.  A farmer can no longer turn a wrench on his John Deere tractor without having the master computer disable it for "unauthorized service" - and today's cars are not much different.

So conspiracy theories are attractive, particularly for people who are - how do I say this nicely? - not all that smart.  It is funny, but you scratch a Q-anon believer and you find an MLM believer selling "essential oils".  Again, the idea of taking back control of your life, in terms of "being your own boss" and also controlling your health through snake-oil holistic medicines.  Never mind that neither idea has any merit - no conspiracy theory does.  It is the feeling of control that is the key.  Their world is spinning out of control, and Qanon suddenly makes it all seem to make sense.

Now, throw in BLM protests - and Antifa riots - as well as a mysterious virus, and you have the perfect storm.   Again, as with 9/11 or school shootings, why confront difficult truths when you can just say they don't exist.  Hey, if you don't know anyone personally who died from Covid, it is easy to say it is all a hoax.  And even if someone you know does die - you can say it is a hoax and they died of other causes and the medical industry is "in on the scam."  Suddenly, a scary and mysterious virus seems not so scary anymore - because you just denied its existence.

With that in mind, the rise of bizarre conspiracy theories doesn't seem so unusual.  It would be weird if they didn't naturally arise in response to the changes in the world.   And I suspect, if we look back through history, the rise of conspiracy theories accompanies rapid change in the world.   After World War II, once the Russians had "the bomb" we lived in fear of nuclear annihilation.  Nuclear energy and radiation - it seemed so unreal.  This invisible ray could kill you, and you'd never see it or feel it.  Perhaps it is not coincidental that UFO sightings date from the same period.   Believing in some greater power, or greater scheme allows our brains to process horrible things that are going on right in front of us - hence religion.

Maybe that explains why religion was so much more popular in more primitive times and cultures, where life was short, brutish, and nasty.   People up and died for no apparent reason. Natural disasters would occur.  It is comforting to think that these are actions of the Gods, who can be appeased in one way or another.  Today, in more prosperous countries, religion seems to have less of an impact - and the more well-off a person is, the less religious they are likely to be.  Maybe religion is the ultimate conspiracy theory.  Indeed, some are arguing that Qanon may morph into a religion of sorts.

OK, so maybe this explains the move toward irrational thinking.  How does this help us to dampen conspiracy theories and stop their spread?   I am not sure I have the answer to that, but if what I have said above has any merit, I think that the wealthier and more secure a person is, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories.  If you are well-off and secure in your life, chances are, you have "bought in" to the system and don't want it to change.   On the other hand, if you lost your job and your job skills are obsolete in this modern age - and these newfangled lightbulbs confuse you - maybe conspiracy theories, with their simplistic world-view, are more comforting.   Comforting, that is, until they eventually collide with reality.

Perhaps one way to fight conspiracy theories is through education.  And by that, I don't mean confronting someone about their Qanon beliefs and then trying to systematically debunk them.  As I noted before, that simply won't work. When you attack someone's belief system, you attack them.  You have to let them figure that out on their own, whether it is religion, a cult, or a conspiracy theory.

On the other hand, perhaps if people didn't feel their life was spinning out of control, they would be less likely to "invest" in a conspiracy theory.   If they become comfortable with LED technology, learn how to read the P-codes on the OBD-II computer on their car (and learn how to fix it when it breaks) and understand how low-flush toilets work - and why these are good things, in the end - maybe they will stop thinking the world is out of control.

It may just take time - to get used to seeing people of different colors and different cultures, on the television and at their place of work. What seems novel one day is passe the next.  When the New York Subway system first opened, New Yorkers marveled at the technological accomplishment.  By that afternoon, they were acting blase - as if they had been strap-hangers their whole lives.  This suggests that perhaps these conspiracy theories could collapse quickly, if left to their own devices.  And there is some evidence that some of the Qanon faithful are leaving that sinking ship, as one prediction after another fails too come true, and Mr. Q himself seems to be AWOL.

Maybe it will just take time.  And yes, there will always be conspiracy theorists with us - that is a given.  People will always succumb to weak thinking - convenient thinking, which is all conspiracy theories are - externalization.  And maybe it will just take time for people from a previous era (such as me) to shuffle off this mortal coil and rightfully leave the world to the next generation, to do as they see fit.