Monday, January 30, 2012

The Internet (and) Conspiracy

It's not often that you get to experience what you research.

The Internet!
My long absence from the blog was caused exactly by research, or rather by me writing my theoretical chapter. Under this lofty name is hidden a compilation of summaries of various books and articles, bound together by the unifying medium of my thesis. A few days ago, I finished a section describing the interplay between conspiracy theory and the Internet, with the former becoming a popular, everyday practice, not an activity relegated to radical minorities. The gist was that all of us, all the time, do what a conspiracy theorist does – we look for links and connections.

This may sound preposterous, but bear with me.

So, I finish writing at about 11 PM local, and decide to browse the Internet before sleep. On one of the news pages I frequent I find this: the final announcement regarding the release of Iron Sky. The minitrailer gives me a nice rush, mostly due to the rather kickass song in the background. So, as I would like to know more, it's off to YouTube and the comments section of the video. A quick browse provides a link to the original, Laibach's “Maschina B”. As it turns out, I am not alone – the comments are spammed with “Thumb up if you came here for Irons Sky song!!!1” or suchlike. As Laibach are not famous for their melodic, easy-to-remember choruses, many posted links just to the relevant section, effectively the last 20 seconds of the song, the montage of which was quite similar to that in the trailer, by the way. Now, this is not the end of this chain of links, as some comments included a link to another song, one that was covered by Laibach...

All three seemed unconnected thematically. The trailer used the march-like feel of the song, the words like “machine” or “sky” to complement the militaristic visuals. The original Laibach song, combined with a non-official trailer, gave the feel of a slow buildup to a profound, apocalyptic event, an oncoming singularity, with mass extinction as the price. The Siddhartha version seems (as my Slovenian is a bit rusty...) to have a yet different, more down-to-earth, meaning.

And then, as midnight approached, it struck me. What I just did was exactly the supposedly conspiratorial way of mapping reality by linking seemingly unrelated events. Suddenly, through a short musical tune, the Slovak rock band, Atom bomb tests, UFOs, Nazis, and many others became linked together. And it all could well have been a part of some master plan, some posthypnotic propaganda, a sliver of the “true” reality... Boggles the mind, doesn't it?

Well, probably not, but a small explanation may seem in order. Most critics writing about conspiracy theories after the 1960s agreed that we got so many of them during the last 50 years because of two things: the Cold War and postmodernism. The first seems obvious: not only was the world divided into two opposing camps, but it was full or plots and conspiracies, real and invented, foreign and domestic.

Postmodernism may seem less obvious. In layman’s terms, this widely complex movement supposed that, to quote Wikipedia, “many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs and are therefore subject to change”. This means that there is no monolithic, governing principle, no point of reference that explains what the world is about. This realization is apparently intolerable for most; we develop, therefore, ways to “map” reality, to comprehend it, either through religion, science, or conspiracy theory.

The belief in a conspiracy became such a point of reference – everything can be traced back to it, so the world in fact makes sense, there is not randomness, every event has a purpose. The search for links and connections became a “mapping” practice, ultimately futile, but at the same time comforting.

And then, cyberculture met conspiracy.

Critics like Jodi Dean or Clare Birchall observed that the act of creating a conspiracy theory, the search for links, is an everyday practice. It is what we do while browsing the Internet, what I did with the “Iron Sky” trailer. Of course, most do not claim that all of this is connected by some higher, omnipotent agency, but it also gives an illusion that all the world’s knowledge is in some way connected, not a disjointed mass of useless information.

Jodi Dean specifically claimed that even people who believe in conspiracy theories do not go on a futile quest to get the “whole truth”. Rather, they are content that there is a possibility to do so, combined with the knowledge of “the truth”; they are like the users of the Internet who would never be able to read it all, but are content in knowing that the total sum of human invention and thoughts is out there, just a few clicks away.