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The Current Thing, Part 2
Conspiracy theories as Bizarro Current Things
The first post in this series described how The Current Thing works. In this second post, we’ll outline how The Bizarro Current Thing works. The third and final post discusses why both Current Things and Bizarro Current Things are impervious to rational conversations and nuanced debate. I also discussed this series on The Narrative Monopoly podcast
In my last piece we introduced The Current Thing, the idea that mainstream institutions converge on similar beliefs at the same time.
We also discussed how there is a barbell — on the one hand, an increasing monoculture, and on the other hand, culture fragmenting to a thousand shards. We unpacked that sharding in Reality is up for Grabs, and in this piece we’ll describe how conspiracy theories have emerged as Bizarro Current Things.
First, some context: Joe Rogan is the most watched person in America, dwarfing Current Thing channels such as CNN and Fox. Rogan questions nearly every Current Thing, which makes him one of the most hated and beloved people in the media. He features conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones on his show. Rogan’s popularity would have been unimaginable a couple decades ago. It can only make sense in a world where conspiracy theories have become popular.
How did conspiracy theories get more popular?
As Martin Gurri chronicled in The Revolt of The Public, after social media suddenly global conversation became two-way instead of one-way. This was a radical shift. If you were living in 1965 and you thought that something was weird with the JFK assassination in 1965, what were you going to do, call somebody and complain? Write a letter to the editor? Good luck getting any attention on that — even if millions of people agreed with you. Whereas today you can instantly spin up a sub-reddit or facebook group or make something go viral on Twitter if it resonates widely. The internet enabled people to research the details of any conspiracy, and share their findings with other people also obsessed with the same experience.
What also happened was that suddenly everyone’s life became public and we saw how flawed everyone was. In the 1960s, JFK used to hide his sex addiction without the public knowing. That could never happen today. Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor of a Global Village means we’re all in each other’s business, which means far more scandals get uncovered. This increased transparency showed us that our elites are actually doing some crazy shit. What were once conspiracy theories — hedge fund billionaires like Jeffrey Epstein and former presidents like Bill Clinton cavorting with younger girls — actually became true! And apparently lots of other important people were involved too, but the the government and media seem to be avoiding digging into his crimes. Episodes like these helped elevate conspiracy theories from fringe to mainstream.
In this new world and with the rise of people like Alex Jones, conspiracies have become entertainment. Well, everything has become entertainment, and conspiracies are as entertaining as it gets. Are they true? Who cares! They’re fascinating.
Conspiracies also become memes. There’s the famous Sam Hyde conspiracy meme that every mass shooter is Sam Hyde, pointing fun at…I’m not sure what exactly. As “Amusing Ourselves To Death” predicted, well, we’re amusing ourselves to death. Lulz are social currency on the internet, and conspiracies for whatever reason are funny.
Trump was a big accelerant of conspiracy thinking. His whole policy was The Opposite of The Current Thing and all Current Thing generating institutions. He positioned The Current Thing to always be out to get him.
COVID was another big accelerant of conspiracy thinking. No one knew who to trust. Was the virus legit? Did it come from a Chinese lab? Did masks work? Were there going to be lockdowns? At first the CDC recommended not wearing masks. Then they flipped the script and started strongly recommending them. People who pointed out these inconsistencies were called conspiracy theorists. As a result, people were searching for reality entrepreneurs. In a world where you don’t know who to trust, a thousand conspiracies will bloom. Which is why there are so many of them today.
Another reason for the rise in conspiracy theories is that we’ve had a front row seat to so many institutional failures.
These institutional failures have led to people taking matters into their own hands. The failure of the Fed led to Bitcoin. Failures in governance led to the Charter Cities movement. Failures in police reform led to Abolish the Police. These are movements of people trying to understand and shape reality from the bottom up.
On the other side, quoting Paul Skallas, “you have institutionalists like the World Economic Forum and Bill Gates trying to reshape society from the top down. They are attempting to address issues that affect the world at a global scale, such as climate change. By engaging with immense social engineering at a global scale, they will create a lot of space for various conspiracy theories. Some of them may end up being true, some of them may not.”
In summary, when it comes to explaining the rise of conspiracy theories, a few things appear true:
Firstly, any explanations outside of an increasingly narrow set of explanations are increasingly labeled as a “conspiracy theory.”
Second, ideas that were once dismissed as conspiracy theories are increasingly being proven true.
Thirdly, thanks to increased transparency made possible by the internet, people are increasingly disillusioned with our institutions while also being equipped with the tools to organize against them.
Conspiracy theories are Bizarro Current Things
In my previous piece on why the marketplace of ideas all converges on a Current Thing, I quoted Marc Andreessen’s line on why the intellectual monoculture came as a shock to him.
“In business, you seek to differentiate, to offer a unique product that your customers can't get anywhere else. In economic terms, differentiation is the key to pricing power, which is the key to profits, which is the key to staying in business. This is precisely what the existing media industry is not doing; the product is now virtually indistinguishable by publisher, and most media companies are suffering financially in exactly the way you'd expect. Second, civilizational progress happens not by top down unanimity and ideological instruction, but by debate and dispute. That this should happen, but is not happening, in the institutional media today is obvious.”
You know what exists outside of the prevailing intellectual monoculture? Conspiracy theories! Sometimes they’re true. Sometimes they’re wrong. Often they’re crazy. But they’re different, and that’s why some people gravitate to them.
Current Things are often literally true, but sometimes have something false-feeling about them. Conversely, conspiracy theories are often literally false, but sometimes seem to have a kernel of truth about them. This is because by their nature, Current Things over-simplify our messy reality, which makes them appear false. Conspiracy theories identify that oversimplification, which explains their kernel of truth, but then turn around and push forth a false and bizarro new Current Thing in the original’s place.
To present some examples of Bizarro Current Things: They’re mandating that we take a vaccine? Well, the vaccine must be Bill Gates implementing microchips to track people! They want us to take steps to mitigate climate change? Well, soon they’re going to impose climate lockdowns! They’re attempting to introduce sex & gender education in elementary schools? Well, the teachers must be grooming children for their own perverse enjoyment! The World Economic Forum has a plan called “The Great Reset” where we’ll own nothing and be happy? Well, they must be – Wait. What. The. F*@#!
What’s interesting to note, though, is that these conspiracy theories sometimes serve the same purpose as Current Things — just for a different audience. In the same way as Current Things bind communities together, oppositions to Current Things do the same. What unifies the rabid fan base of, say, QAnon, Bitcoin, or Alex Jones? Opposition to the Current Thing! When our status quo is constantly under question, a certain pride in questioning it begins to emerge — even if only for its own sake.
To summarize: conspiracy theories are often Bizarro Current Things, two sides of the same coin. Like Current Things, they are less about complete truth, and more about group membership. Like Current Things, you have to believe them—or you’re out of the tribe.
Conspiracy theories subvert the power of Current Things, but that isn’t much to be happy about. Instead of a monopoly of ideas, we sometimes have a duopoly. Great.
Why can’t nuance ever seem to penetrate Current Things or conspiracy theories? Why aren’t the thousands of intellectual shards or niche subcultures able to substantively challenge The Current Thing or The Bizarro Current Thing? Why is our discourse so uniquely stupid? We’ll discuss that in the next post in this series.
Thanks to Molly Mielke