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Conspiracy as a symptom of a post-literate society

by on May 5, 2021

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Why bother studying history when it is more profitable to just make it up

What if we’re approaching pervasive conspiracy culture wrong. Rather than being a symptom of a failing news system, or an acknowledgement of the fallacies of journalism, conspiracy culture is instead a symptom of a post-literate society.

Empowered with an abundance of information and an ability to express, engage, and organize, literacy is no longer a requirement, and history can be an obstacle to success. Instead there are significant financial incentives in place that encourage people to just make stuff up.

On its own this could just be entertaining. Stories are how we make sense of our world, and our entertainment is saturated with all sorts of harmless and imagined narratives.

Yet one of the primary mechanisms of authoritarianism is the fabrication of the past as a justification for the present and as part of a desired and imagined future. Harnessing nostalgia and leveraging tradition to rally support and impose order.

Sometimes the fabrication of this past resembles a past that is already familiar or shared within the culture. However what if one of the opportunities presented by our digital media landscape is the fabrication of a past that is not only absurd, but equally persuasive or alluring?

Part of the power of any conspiracy theory is the value of identity it offers the believer. This might come in the form of belonging, and membership in a community of people who have knowledge of this conspiracy. However it can also be linked to this constructed past which also holds the seeds of identity, manifest in the political movement that evokes it.

As someone who would be murdered as a Jew, I can kind of relate to this. Jewish culture is full of legitimate paranoia that conspiracies exist to eradicate and or subjugate Jewish peoples. Similarly Jews are often the subject of conspiracies which also heightens the awareness and potential impact that these stories carry with them.

This is partly why I don’t see conspiracy as an issue of literacy, ignorance, or misinformation, but rather one of identity and community. What are we doing as a society that alienates people from the identities and communities that we promote and endorse?

These are important questions to consider in a post-literate society, where who we are means more than what we know. Flip that around, who you know matters more than what you know, is not a concept that is new to most people. Especially when looking for employment and opportunity.

That may be worth exploring in a future issue, but for this one, let’s take a quick look at the Tartarian conspiracy:

The Tartaria storyline is not directly related to the adrenochrome-harvesting Satanic-pedophile cabal that lies at the heart of QAnon, the unfounded conspiracy theory that crashed into the real world in 2020. But it shares some of what Peter Ditto, a social psychologist at the University of California-Irvine who specializes in conspiracy theories, calls QAnon’s “cafeteria quality:” There’s no overarching narrative or single authorial voice interpreting events. It’s just a gusher of outlandish speculation; adherents can pick and choose which elements they want to sign on to.

The overall premise is an alternative history. A vast, technologically advanced “Tartarian” empire, emanating from north-central Asia or thereabouts, either influenced or built vast cities and infrastructure all over the world. (Tartaria, or Tartary, though never a coherent empire, was indeed a general term for north-central Asia.) Either via a sudden cataclysm or a steady antagonistic decline — and perhaps as recently as 100 years ago — Tartaria fell. Its great buildings were buried, and its history was erased. After this “great reset,” the few surviving examples of Tartarian architecture were falsely recast as the work of contemporary builders who could never have executed buildings of such grace and beauty, and subjected them to clumsy alterations.

Contemporary conspiracy cultures offer entire virtual worlds for their members to frolic and make friends. As a kind of live action role playing game it provides both an engaging way to spend your time as well as a growing community of people who develop social bunds and foster trust with each other. Even if it is the blind leading the blind.

Despite their interest in architecture, most Tartaria theorists do not appear to have backgrounds in the building trades: Many of the more easily refuted arguments spring from very basic misunderstandings of how the built environment works, as well as broader confusion about how buildings function in the economy and culture. An abundance of posters appear convinced that below-grade basement windows in older buildings, for example, are evidence that the building had been “mud flooded,” and the rest of the structure is actually buried deep underground. Sometimes this will get some skeptical pushback (“I think they didn’t have lights in the cellar so they build in windows for them?” was how one poster responded), but that’s more of an exception than the rule.

Similarly, their grasp of historic labor and material costs is shaky. Before the Industrial Revolution, labor was cheap, so paying artisans to sculpt elaborate masonry — even for relatively humble structures — wasn’t the great expense it seems today, when labor prices are higher and factory-made steel, concrete and glass is cheap; that’s why we see so much of these materials in buildings today, and so much less filigreed terra cotta. One of the most adamant denials in Tartarian circles is that public buildings like schools and post offices were ever built with monumental proportions and elegant aesthetics. They sneer at the wedding-cake-topper Second Empire buildings designed by Alfred Mullett after the Civil War, for example. “How many stamps did you sell to build yourself a post office like this?,” says popular Tartarian YouTuber JonLevi in one of his videos. “Absolutely ridiculous. The post office has always struggled.” (He has more than 100,000 subscribers.)

Some of this confusion is unfamiliarity: Mullett’s U.S. Customs House and Post Office in St. Louis, for example, was a huge federal project, built to process the mail of 10 states and four U.S. territories, not a neighborhood letter depot. But beyond that, there’s a broader refusal to believe that public architecture could ever have been built in an atmosphere of generosity and abundance. This is echoed by their astonishment at the double-height grand lobbies and arched doorways of old buildings, which they see as artifacts not meant for us. (Some theorists surmise that ancient Tartarians were giants.) The Tartarian community seems to have internalized the current era’s predilection for public sector austerity and the resulting aesthetics, which they abhor, more than they realize.

Our relationship to time always appears from the perspective of the present, and the nature of our subjective experience means that whatever the conditions of the present are influences our perception of the past (and the future).

In our post-literate present, certain contradictions and our contemporary political context makes it difficult for people to imagine grand projects or even competent bureaucracies. Which doesn’t mean they were ever competent, but at least there was a time when people perceived them as such? Or is that my own nostalgia?

That may provide insight as to why this current infodemic is so potent and viral. A side effect of conspiracy culture is to either reinforce beliefs that are misplaced, or cause well placed beliefs to be challenged.

This is the power of metaphor, and why we can neither control narratives, nor how people to choose to interpret them.

In one sense, the Tartaria theory is right: With modern architecture, a revolutionary new consensus on how the built environment should look and work did take hold in a very short period of time, conveniently overlapping with the world wars that these theorists see as the tail end of Tartaria’s influence. The world of 1960 indeed looked radically different from the world of 1920. Led by obscure and poorly understood forces (architects), architecture schools truly did throw out the history books to build a new world. But instead of making this excision the work of a colossal global mega-conspiracy worthy of a pulpy airport mystery novel, they wouldn’t shut upabout it.

There are now tropes that seem to recycle through our culture regularly. The “nobody is talking about this” or the “media is lying to us” or the “this is the knowledge nobody wants you to know” tropes. None of which is true, yet that’s not the purpose, which is instead to valorize or weaponize the story in question.

Meaning may be in the mind of the beholder, but meaning is also a collaborative process, that conspiracy culture is particularly adept at harnessing. It says a lot that these communities are outperforming and outpacing contemporary education and journalism, which remain shockingly opposed to and incapable of collaboration.

The internet has made it easier to disseminate misinformation while eroding faith in the media hierarchies that once filtered it out. Polarization and a lack of trust in government and institutions creates a feedback loop, where leaders can’t solve problems because their political bases are too narrow, and the resulting failures engender more distrust. It’s not a new cycle — despite a spike in media attention, there’s not much evidence that conspiratorial thinking is more common now than in years past — but technology can make these currents of collective delusion more powerful, and harder to ignore.

As a society I suspect we can all agree that it is harder to ignore. Yet what we may not have spent necessary time and effort on is the power that these collective delusions wield, and why.

Countering them will not be successful. The only option is to create or employ something that is even more powerful. And therein lies the peril.

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