This week National Geographic caught up with the teenager who thought he had discovered a lost Maya city by applying fringe-history style star correlations to a cherry-picked selection of Maya settlements in order to trace the constellations on the ground. William Gadoury, 15, told the magazine that he did not plan to let the facts get in the way of his certain belief that he found a lost city. He is looking to raise $100,000 to travel to Mexico to prove that his lost city exists despite widespread consensus that his “city” is actually an abandoned agricultural field, likely one used for marijuana.
I refrained from criticizing Gadoury in my initial coverage of his claims because he is 15, but Gadoury is obviously steeped in the beliefs of the paranoid fringe of archaeology. He believes, for example, that scientists are trying to protect their paradigms from his breakthrough understanding that the Aztec, Maya, and Inca all built their cities according to constellations: “I think scientists are jealous,” he said. “Sometimes they are scared of new ideas. They’re afraid to have their established ideas criticized.”
Where do teenagers get the paranoid idea that academia is trying to suppress new ideas? There is, of course, the obvious source: fringe history. It’s the message Ancient Aliens, America Unearthed, and their ilk send weekly. But I wonder if our everyday experiences aren’t priming us as a society to form paranoid and conspiratorial beliefs almost reflexively.
I thought about that when my computer told me I really needed to watch a movie trailer about some gelatinous creature that wears the shell of pickup truck as an exoskeleton.
Why would I be interested in what seems to be a kids’ movie about a monster living inside a pickup truck? That was the question I asked when a leading movie site told me that the trailer for the January 2017 movie Monster Trucks was “recommended for you.” The other day I wrote about some horror movies that I watched, and I made the observation that it seemed that the opaque algorithms that feed content had decided that I needed to see more movies starring Lucas Till. I presented that as a joke, mostly, but since writing that it seems that my computer really is spying on me. Guess who is starring in Monster Trucks. And some movie called All Superheroes Must Die that my computer tells me I should buy or stream. It’s getting weird now.
Granted, there isn’t really a way for me to distinguish between three possibilities: (a) my computer is spying on me and making some questionable assumptions, (b) a confirmation bias in which I am simply noticing more of a relatively steady phenomenon, and (c) the guy is just everywhere right now.
It's a silly thing, of course, but it’s far from the only time something like this has happened to me. When one of my cats died last year, my computer figured that out and spent weeks serving up advertisements for memorial supplies. That one certainly wasn’t a coincidence. It got to the point that it was upsetting to see blasé advertisements for urns twenty times a day, even after I tried flushing my cookies. Apparently a lot of data lives in the cloud now and can show up in unexpected places, across devices. Similarly, since I know Spanish and occasionally write back to Spanish-speaking correspondents in Spanish, my computer has wrongly decided that I am Latino, and from time to time will spend weeks at a time delivering ads—text and video!—in Spanish that try to appeal to me as a Latino. It’s interesting to see how different ads are for other demographics. Apparently advertisers think Latinos all live in multigenerational households and have large numbers of kids.
“Although users may expect that many of their online activities are anonymous, the architecture of the Internet allows multiple parties to collect data and compile user profiles with various degrees of identifying information,” Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky wrote in a 2012 article in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology.
I wonder if the fact that our computers spy on us doesn’t contribute to the rise of conspiracy theories. It must make it more logical to assume that strange powers are controlling everything when unknowable algorithms really are trying to control what we see and how we behave. Does this make people more paranoid? I wasn’t able to find any research into this, but last fall Walter Kirn wrote an article for the Atlantic about his own growing sense of paranoia after discovering that all of his smart devices were monitoring his words and using them to deliver advertising in increasingly creepy ways:
Some of these disconcerting prompts were harder to explain. For example, the appearance on my Facebook page, under the heading "People You May Know," of a California musician whom I'd bumped into six or seven times at AA meetings in a private home. In accordance with AA custom, he had never told me his last name nor inquired about mine. And as far as I knew, we had just one friend in common, a notably solitary older novelist who avoided computers altogether. I did some research in an online technology forum and learned that by entering my number into his smartphone's address book (compiling phone lists to use in times of trouble is an AA ritual), the musician had probably triggered the program that placed his full name and photo on my page.
Kirn compared situations like this to the tinfoil hat brigade of the 1980s and 1990s, and even mentioned thinking that he’d seen black helicopters when he started trying to trace back how his machines knew everything he was doing. He tried to find out if the government could do what advertisers do, and he concluded that the paranoid fringe might have the meanings and motivations incorrect, but there is certainly a reflection in conspiracy theories of a real life spying network that turns all of us into subjects: “There are so many ghosts in our machines—their locations so hidden, their methods so ingenious, their motives so inscrutable—that not to feel haunted is not to be awake. That's why paranoia, even in its extreme forms, no longer seems to me so much a disorder as a mode of cognition with an impressive track record of prescience.”
I would be very interested in research that looked into whether the rise in belief in conspiracy theories could be connected to the experience of “everyday paranoia” about the ways we’re being spied on, monitored, and influenced, ways that simply didn’t exist just 15 years ago.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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