There is one specific article by Edward Snowden that has been inspiring me since its publication in August 2021. It’s called Apophenia – How the Internet Transforms the Individual into a Conspiracy of One. ‘Apohenia’ is a term coined by a German psychologist during the Second World War, it means seeing patterns that aren’t really there, a type of conspiracy mindset, an epiphany into delusion instead of reality. Today, this term leads us back to a crossroads between right and wrong. In his article, Snowden writes:
Humans are meaning-making machines, seeking order in the chaos. Our pattern recognition capabilities are a key determinant in defining intelligence. But we now live in a dystopian digital landscape purpose-built to undermine these capabilities, training us to mistake planned patterns for convenient and even meaningful coincidences.
Public thinkers who have spoken up in recent years are aiming for mankind to get out of this ‘Conspiracy of One’ experience of the internet, argues Snowden. In other words, governments villainize so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’ while they are often aiming for ‘regular folks’ to break free of ‘The Trueman Show’-like conspiracy of a manipulated online experience:
You know the drill: email a colleague about the shit weather and start getting banner ads for cheap flights to Corsica (I hear it’s nice?); google “ordination license” or “city hall hours” and watch your inbox fill with rebates for rings and cribs. (…) Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage. But in this case it’s staged specifically for you, the audience who’s also the star.
Contemporary public thinkers, in the often undesirable role of whistleblowers, are creating an antidote to the fact that people, and human nature, are literally being ‘consumed’ by Big Tech and governments. The public thinkers have been offering insight into methods of resistance to this ever-growing web of psychological manipulation, as has been described most eloquently by Jacob Siegel. And so it is no surprise that public thinkers are being chastized by The Power Hungry as ‘the conspiracy thinkers’, or those who have the nerve to convince you that there is more to life than the disempowering voices in mass media, that you’re worthy of connecting with others –expressing yourself– without all your data being stored and used to influence you, and that freedom is possible.
Once you wake up to the idea that the world has been patterned, intentionally or unintentionally, in ways you don’t agree with, you can begin to change it.
Historians in my own academic circle have been silent on the consequences of the internet as described in Snowden’s and Siegel’s work, which is unfortunate and unexpected, because historians are trained to focus on cycles, patterns and, particularly, turning points in history that have either served or harmed mankind. Evaluating this is not merely an intellectual proces but requires empathy and, as Snowden calls it, ‘basic human decency’. There have been plenty of historians who are obviously accomplished in the intellectual division but have fallen tragically short in emotional intelligence, undermining and sometimes nullifying their entire work. After all, we ideally would cherish the good things from the past and lose what proved harmful. Isn’t that the definition of wisdom?
Public thinking –in-depth writing, reading, speaking and thinking out loud with others– is indispensible to a productive mind and the quality of public debate. Snowden links this type of work to Karl Popper’s definition of the ‘social theorist’, a public thinker who aims to improve society, as opposed to the ‘conspiracy theorist’, who is a victim of overpowering institutions. The contemporary public thinker as a ‘social theorist’ is a fitting and optimistic idea, even when it may be not be a coincidence that we never hear about ‘social theorists’ as much as ‘conspiracy theorists’.