Inventing conspiracies for fun and profit
Note: Since I’m taking a deserved break for Thanksgiving, I’m reposting a few popular posts this week from earlier in this blog’s run. This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, on December 19, 2012.
If it sometimes seems like we’re living in a golden age for conspiracy theories, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Conspiracies are ultimately about finding connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and events, and these days, it’s easier to find such connections than at any other point in human history. By now, we take it for granted, but I still remember the existential shock I received, almost ten years ago, when I found out about Amazon’s book search. I responded with a slightly hysterical blog post that was later quoted on the Volokh Conspiracy:
Their Search Inside the Book feature, which allows you to search and browse 33 million pages worth of material from 120,000 books, is just about the most intoxicating online toy I’ve ever seen. But it terrifies me at the same time. Between this monstrous djinn and Google.com, I have no excuse, no excuse whatsoever, for not writing a grand synthetic essay of everything, or a brilliant, glittering, Pynchonesque novel…because millions and millions of beautiful connections between people and ideas are already out there, at my fingertips, ready to be made without effort or erudition.
Looking back at this post, it’s easy to smile at my apocalyptic tone—not to mention my use of the phrase “Google.com,” which is a time capsule in itself—but if anything, my feelings of intoxication, and terror, have only increased. A decade ago, when I was in college, it took months of research and many hours in the library stacks to find useful connections between ideas, but now, they’re only a short query away. The trouble, of course, is that the long initial search is an inseparable part of scholarship: if you’re forced to read entire shelves of books and pursue many fruitless avenues of research before finding the connections you need, you’re better equipped to evaluate how meaningful they really are when you find them. A quick online search circumvents this process and robs the results of context, and even maturity. Research becomes a series of shortcuts, of data obtained without spiritual effort or cost, so it’s tempting to reach the same conclusion as Jonathan Franzen: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.”
Which is true, but only up to a point. Raw information is everywhere, but authors can still be judged by the ingenuity and originality of the connections they make. This is especially true in conspiracy fiction, in which a connection doesn’t need to be true, as long as it’s clever, reasonably novel, and superficially convincing. (Among other reasons, this is why I don’t care for the work of Dan Brown, who only repeats the labors of more diligent crackpots.) Umberto Eco, definitive here as elsewhere, laid down the rules of the game in Foucault’s Pendulum:
- Concepts are connected by analogy. There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else.
- If everything hangs together in the end, the connection works.
- The connections must not be original. They must have been made before, and the more often the better, by others. Only then do the crossings seem true, because they are obvious.
And unlike Eco’s protagonists, who had to enter scraps of information into their computer by hand, we all have free access to a machine with an infinite number of such fragments. An enterprising paranoiac just has to look for the connections. And the first step is to find out where they’ve crossed over in the past.
When the time finally came, then, to construct the Pynchonesque novel of my dreams, I decided to proceed in the most systematic way I could. I constructed a vast spreadsheet grid that paired off a variety of players and ideas that I suspected would play a role in the story—Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, Georges Bataille, the Black Dahlia murder—and spent weeks googling each pair in turn, trying to find books and other documents where two or more terms were mentioned together. Not surprisingly, many of these searches went nowhere, but I also uncovered a lot of fascinating material that I wouldn’t have found in any other way, which opened up further avenues of inquiry that I researched more deeply. I felt justified in this approach, which is the opposite of good scholarship, because I was writing a work of fiction about paranoia, overinterpretation, and the danger of taking facts out of context, which was precisely what I was doing myself. And I came away with the realization that you could do this with anything—which is something to keep in mind whenever you see similar arguments being made in earnest. There’s nothing like building a conspiracy theory yourself to make you even more skeptical than you were before. Or to quote Foucault’s Pendulum yet again: “That day, I began to be incredulous.”