academia | advice | alcohol | American Indians | architecture | art | artificial intelligence | Barnard | best | biography | bitcoin | blogging | broken umbrellas | candide | censorship | children's books | Columbia | comics | consciousness | cooking | crime | criticism | dance | data analysis | design | dishonesty | economics | education | energy | epistemology | error correction | essays | family | fashion | finance | food | foreign policy | futurism | games | gender | Georgia | health | history | inspiration | intellectual property | Israel | journalism | Judaism | labor | language | law | leadership | letters | literature | management | marketing | memoir | movies | music | mystery | mythology | New Mexico | New York | parenting | philosophy | photography | podcast | poetry | politics | prediction | product | productivity | programming | psychology | public transportation | publishing | puzzles | race | reading | recommendation | religion | reputation | review | RSI | Russia | sci-fi | science | sex | short stories | social justice | social media | sports | startups | statistics | teaching | technology | Texas | theater | translation | travel | trivia | tv | typography | unreliable narrators | video | video games | violence | war | weather | wordplay | writing

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Alignments of random points

Last week, Gawker had some fun with the conspiracy theory ramblings OF Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy he posted on his personal web site (in ALL CAPS, LIKE THAT ENTIRE YEAR I FIRST HAD MY DINKY NOKIA CELL PHONE AND HAD NO IDEA THAT LOWER CASE EVEN EXISTED FOR TEXT-MESSAGING). On his web site, Prodigy wanted to let everyone know about the "NATURAL ENERGY LINES THAT CRISS-CROSS THE ENTIRE PLANET," not realizing that there are competing conspiracy theories about these phenomena. Yeah, yeah, all conspiracy theories have to have competition so that they can spread by means of response to counter-claims (we see them show up as comments to random posts on this blog sometimes). The real revelation of the alternative world order came in the comments section, when someone linked to the Wikipedia article on Ley Lines to joke about the robustness of the lines-links-connections trope in conspiracy theory language. I love the explanation of the popularity of the pseudo-archaeology myth from the Wikipedia entry:
Some skeptics have suggested that ley lines do not exist, and are a product of human fancy. Watkins' discovery happened at a time when Ordnance Survey maps were being marketed for the leisure market, making them reasonably easy and cheap to obtain; this may have been a contributing factor to the popularity of ley line theories.

One suggestion is that, given the high density of historic and prehistoric sites in Britain and other parts of Europe, finding straight lines that "connect" sites (usually selected to make them "fit") is trivial, and may be easily ascribed to coincidence. The diagram to the right shows an example of lines that pass very near to a set of random points: for all practical purposes, they can be regarded as nearly "exact" alignments. Naturally, it is debated whether all ley lines can be accounted for in this way, or whether there are more such lines than would be expected by chance. (For a mathematical treatment of this topic, see alignments of random points.)

The lines-links-connections trope is a weird literalization of how conspiracy theories work: the way to assert one's belief that there's a possible (thought-based) connection between x and y is to show that there's an actual, mappable link between x and y. Preferably with a map to illustrate this literalization. The evidence for these explanations looks similar to what Luc Pauwels has called artifacts of instrumentation: "objects and effects that are generated by the representation processes themselves and that do not refer to anything in the outside world or at least not to the phenomena under scrutiny," except that they assert that the lack of obvious reference is evidence of the conspiracy. I love pseudo-archaeology (including the goofy National Treasure franchise) for just these reasons--a too strong belief in the de-naturalizing effects of mediation and the power of reading to discover them!

It's not just a twentieth-century phenomenon. In Bring Out Your Dead: The Past As Revelation, Anthony Grafton has written some great articles about conspiracy theories among Renaissance antiquarians--everything is a Popish plot--and "polyhistors." It's as though the genre of historical writing can be tweaked just so--by adding in shadowy agents or asserting "energy" connections between past and present--and the attempt to explain past events in a chronology or an argument-driven narrative of rises and falls starts to look really weird.

In the eighteenth century, Massachusetts colonial governor and founder of the Antiquarian Society Thomas Pownall was inspired by Isaac Newton's System of the World to write A treatise on the study of antiquities as the commentary to historical learning, sketching out a general line of research in the Newtonian mode to establish a grand system of history. In his introduction, he shows future imaginative systematizers how it's done:
Did we follow the seductions of fancy, and quitting the sober steps of experience, hastily adopt system; and then form a dotage on our own phantoms, dress such system out in the rags and remnants of antiquity, we should only make work to mock ourselves: or were we on the other hand to persevere in making unmeaning endless collections without scope or view, we should be the dupes of our futility, and become in either case ridiculous. The upstart fungus of system is poison to the mind; and an unintrusive mass of learning may create and indulge a false appetite, but never can feed the mind. ... All the learning in the world, if it stops short and rests on particulars, never will become knowledge. To avoid then these extreams of self-delusion on one hand, or of the false conceptions of barren folly on the other, we should keep our minds constantly fixed on the PRINCIPLE and END of our institution.

Prodigy, Fox Mulder, take note. Here's where the capital letters start to proliferate:
Nor must this analysis be made from any theoretick abstract view of things in general; but by closely following step by step the path in which nature acting leads; and by a strict induction of her laws as found in her actions. ... In this line of research conducted by this principle, he may hope to arrive at the true end of learning, THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SYSTEM OF HIS EXISTENCE; AND AT EXPERIENCE IN THE USE AND APPLICATION OF HIS POWER TO THE RIGHT POSSESSION AND ENJOYMENT OF IT.

Following the steps of inductive investigation is the key here, for the procedure starts to eclipse the actual things being studied in Pownall's explanation of the importance of this line of study. Indeed, he insists too much that the study is based on observable phenomena and not on mere imaginative extension of Newtonian language of "cause and effect" and "power" to arbitrary objects. That insistence starts to sound mighty labored:
If there was no ground as a basis for these experiments in assorting the scattered fragments and reliques of antiquity to a Reinstauration of (at least) the knowledge of the system to which they belong; the labours of learning would be but the building (as our proverb expresses it) castles in the air: if there was no certain decided and defined course in the movements and operations of nature, all theory on which these experiments could be instituted, would originate in caprice, and must end in empiricism: but there is in nature, a system by which every being is defined in its own essence, and in its relative existence; by which that being hath a certain energy and defined extent of power, by which the direction, which those powers in motion take, is determined. This system consists of a series of causes and effects, linked together by that golden chain which descends from heaven. If then this system exists by such a series in nature, there must be in the power of man a clue, by which reason in the patient spirit of investigation may retrace back the links of this chain to the primary, if not the very first principles on which the whole depends.

The particular examples he wants to connect in a "golden chain" from the past to the present are elements of speech; origins of written language in pictures, hieroglyphics, and elementary language; ships of ancient cultures; and chariots of ancient cultures. In these particular chapters of study, there's a fascinating self-consciousness on Pownall's part about how changes in the forms and circulation of information lead to changes in past human consciousness. He's up-front about the connection between his own writing process and the possibly-hard-to-believe claims he's making about the processes of human connections in the past:
It is as whimsical as it is true, that an Author sees his work, as well in the matter as to the manner, in a different view, when he reads it in print, from that in which it appears when he reads it in his own hand-writing: he rather thinks over than reads the latter, or, if he reads, does it rather with the mind's eye than with that of the body: he reads it with reference to an accompaniment of ideas, which the copy does not actually contain: which yet the author thinks he has so explained as to accompany his reasoning. To these circumstances, not only literal errors and grammatical inaccuracies, but even some obscurities are imputable: some such the Author has found in some of the first sheets of this treatise, which have been printed a year ago, which he could wish to have corrected, but the copies were worked off, and it was too late.

The different degree of accuracy in the reasoning, with which different parts of this work are conducted, the unequal spirit of composition, in which different parts are written, are owing to the degree of painful abstraction with which the mind was at times drawn off from its subject, or to the degree of attention which it was able to exert upon it at different moments of the period above referred to.

There remains one point on which he wishes to make an apology to serious people. The ideas hazarded in some parts of this treatise may perhaps cross upon those Forms, with which serious people have been accustomed to cloath their opinions: yet as to Things, the author is, as he thinks it the duty of every good citizen to be, as serious about them, as the most zealous professor.

So perhaps the propensity of conspiracy theorists to work most colorfully in typos, koans, and caps lock is on the same wavelength as Pownall's admittedly scattershot explanation of the system of human history. The features of these types of writing repeat themselves in new forms of print, again and again, as if in some golden chain...

Labels: , , , ,

Blogger Katy on Wed May 07, 10:43:00 AM:
Aww, Alice, I was a fan of your all caps text messages! Bring 'em back!
Blogger Alice on Wed May 07, 03:09:00 PM:
In honor of Terry Francona's praise of the Captain, "that C should be bigger," I shall from here on compose all of my text messages about Jason Varitek in CAPS LOCK.
Blogger Katy on Thu May 08, 09:19:00 AM: