Self, echolocation, conspiracy theories

by Carl Dyke

Awhile back I tossed off a remark on a Facebook post that conspiracy theories are a form of echolocation. The host (Neuroanthropology, one of the very best pages I follow) asked me to say more and I gave it some thought, gave it some more thought, realized it had all gotten pretty unwieldy, and wrote this instead. As with most of my ‘pings’ I’m not sure it’s anything much better than a conspiracy theory, but maybe it makes a good blog post:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer this without getting too far down the rabbit hole and ending up reinventing the whole history of contemplation. So by way of sketchy sketch, what we call ‘self’ is pretty clearly an emergent, adaptive epiphenomenon of environmental, biological, and cultural feedback systems churning along at various scales. Because it’s dynamic, relational, and adaptive, there’s inherently no stable essence to such a structure. It only persists by active (massively active) engagement with its surroundings, whatever they may be from time to time. This is an energetic process obviously subject to resource constraint.

Adaptation and evolution create a distribution of strategies within this basic dynamic. Interaction is split off into subsystems that operate at different rates and intensities, both within and among ‘individuals’. Resources are differentially committed and optimized around particular interactive settings. For example, you posted awhile back on the various relatively hard wired rates at which learning occurs, with characteristic advantages and disadvantages to slow or swift response to new information.

Again, the dynamic interactivity of self means that its maintenance requires constant orienting feedback with and from the environments, internal and external. This is the echolocation part. But resource constraint means that we can’t be operating active echolocation in every subsystem and every scale simultaneously, and adaptive differentiation means we’re optimizing and prioritizing those feedback loops across a range of strategies. Practically, this means people are going to be active and maybe even ‘needy’ around a range of interactive domains, giving off and taking in information asymmetrically across multiple axes, none of this chosen or conscious obviously.

“Who am I” is a much harder question to answer and keep answered in interactively chaotic environments than homogenously stable ones. Environments produce a range of echoes, and processing biases reward different collection routines. It may be that for some people sometimes, somewheres, the mismatch between their pings and the available echoes is profoundly alienating, if not literally crazymaking. You would expect these distributional experiments out on the long tails, and you would expect those tails to get fatter as environments become more variable and chaotic. You would expect people to become more aggressive in their attempts to create and manage congenial echo chambers.

Conspiracy theories then work as a special case of a very ordinary kind of echolocating ping, by broadcasting a strongly biased signal into a chaotic environment likely to generate a loud and clear response one way or another. Although this feedback loop is likely to be identity and community defining, it’s not in the first instance about ‘believing’ the conspiracy theory at all.

4 Responses to “Self, echolocation, conspiracy theories”

  1. Might be interesting to see how these views intersect with Recognition-Primed Decision Making.

  2. Yes, for sure, you’ve mentioned that before and it’s part of the relevant field. The self as a feedback system is really a very old idea and inherent in any training process. Hume, Hegel, Marx, Freud, James, Mead, Dubois, Beauvoir, Piaget, Dewey, Goffman, all either explicitly or extractably treat self as an emergent property of feedback systems. RPD gets down into the weeds of how that works to generate developmental conduct patterns.

    I don’t want to step on your prompt, though. What were you thinking of for intersections?

  3. “I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests. This is going to go away without a vaccine. It’s gonna go away, and we’re not going to see it again, hopefully, after a period of time,” Trump said at the White House after meeting with Republican members of Congress. He did admit there might be some “flare-ups” before COVID-19 goes away, but “maybe not,” and predicted, “we’ll be able to put them out.” Pressed about what evidence he has seen that the pandemic will vanish without a vaccine, Trump responded: “I just rely on what doctors say. They say it’s gonna go.”

    Of course the doctors say no such thing. Is Trump really that ignorant, or that unrealistically optimistic? Is he slinging more fake news? But the virus really wil “go away without a vaccine… after a period of time” — that’s herd immunity. I smell a conspiracy — can I get a ping?


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