Apophenia - by Edward Snowden — How the Internet Transforms the Individual into a Conspiracy of One
The easier it becomes to produce information, the harder that information becomes to consume — and the harder we have to work to separate the spurious from the significant.
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.
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. For those of us who grew up during the rise of surveillance capitalism, our online experience has been defined by the effort of separating coincidence from cause-and-effect. Today we understand, if not accept, that hyper-consumption of information online comes at the cost of being hyper-consumed, bled by tech companies for the that data our readings secrete: You click, and the Big Five scrape a sample of your “preferences”—to exploit.
The real cost to this recursive construction of reality from the ephemera of our preferences is that it tailors a separate world for each individual.
And when you do live at the center of a private world, reverse-engineered from your own search history, you begin to notice patterns that others can’t. Believe me when I say I know what it feels like to be told that you’re the only one who sees the connection—a pattern of injustice, say—and that you’re downright crazy for noticing anything at all. To manufacture meaning from mere coincidence is the essence of paranoia, the gateway to world-building your own private conspiracies—or else to an epiphany that allows you to see the world as it actually is.
I want to talk about that epiphany, about taking back control of our atomized, pre-conspiracy world.