This is 2019, the year of Blade Runner and Akira. We’re living in the future and it’s only sensible that I find myself looking back at the past and wondering where it all went wrong.
For me, and perhaps for others in the same age bracket as myself, the future began in the 1990s with the shriek of a 56.6k modem and the greeting of “Welcome! You’ve got mail!” The adoption of the Internet into wide-scale use changed the world in a way few other events in the history of mankind have. It gave us untapped opportunities and a lot of us glimpsed the dawning of a bright future.
Twenty years later, I’m wondering where that went.
Oh, I know where it went: we’re humans and we squander everything we’re given. We find a way to turn opportunity for greatness into a means to subjugate the many and enrich the few. Instead of communicating, we instead form gangs and sharpen knives to wield against “the other side.” Our bright future is corroded by our worst inclinations and we end up with baubles instead of riches.
Ruminating on all this leads me to look up the 1990s with rose-colored glasses. I have no illusions that I’m indulging in strong nostalgia here, but a little self-delusion can be helpful from time to time. However, what I’m about to discuss is only slightly tinged with wistfulness, so I’ll continue on with my train of thought.
Of all the things that have gone wrong with our time, the one of the most disappointing to me is that fact that conspiracy theory isn’t fun anymore. (I also fully admit it just took three turns around the barn to get to what I set out to talk about).
Conspiracy theory and humanity’s ability to draw divergent events and phenomena into a unified whole has fascinated me from the first time I learned what an urban legend was. As the years passed, I found myself exposed to all manner of Kennedy assassination theories, Illuminati lore, UFO sensationalism, and far stranger ideas. I’ve always enjoyed a good conspiracy yarn while remaining skeptical about everything I read. It’s no surprise that I have an ongoing fondness for Steve Jackson Games, whose mentality and celebration of the weird so closely mimics my own.
Before the dawn of the Internet, conspiracy theory was something you had to seek out. While everyone had an uncle or an older brother who was convinced that the government was UP TO SOMETHING, it took some doing to delve deeper into the conspiratorial mindset. One had to track down a copy of the Illuminatus! Trilogy or visit secondhand bookstores with a shelf in the back crammed with small press runs of crackpot books or send a check off to a tiny publisher who advertised in obscure interest magazines to get the real riches. You really had to work for it if you wanted to delve into the topic and it took an immense amount of money and not a few dollars to subject yourself to intense daily bombardment of the secret and the strange.
Because of this, I suspect that there was a good percentage of conspiracy theory enthusiasts who were like myself—interested but not influenced. It’s hard to take the subject matter seriously when you had a prolonged decompression period between finishing one crackpot work and tracking down the next one. Perhaps, although this is clearly influenced by nostalgia, we were more adept at evaluating the information presented to us before the firehose of the Internet drowned our culture in data and overwhelmed our ability to separate fact from fiction.
Whatever the reason, I feel that twenty years ago we could entertain a well-constructed—or even a poorly concocted one if it entertained—conspiracy idea without it harming anyone. I could sit in a movie theater and notice when groups of five people came into it (2+3=5 and if you don’t know the significance of that, you’re missing out). I could drink beers with you and talk about Freemasonry and black helicopters and why no one would help this poor widow’s son and it would be a time for laughter and a little smugness in knowing we were aware of something not everyone else knew about. And that, at its heart, is the appeal of the conspiracy theory.
The dawn of the Internet didn’t change all that at first. If anything, it was a golden age for those of us who loved to swim in the shallow waters of conspiracy theory. I fondly recall Steve Jackson Games’ Daily Illuminator’s “Illuminated Site of the Week” which regularly drew my attention to some poorly-designed web site written by a true believer or, better yet, the work of a fellow conspiracy aficionado clearly spreading some bit of secret wisdom with tongue firmly in cheek.
Although the World Wide Web gave us as-yet unimagined access to the weird and conspiratorial, it still took some doing on the part of both the seeker and the disseminator, who had to possess at least rudimentary knowledge of HTML and the building and hosting a web site—which wasn’t widespread yet in the early to mid-1990s. Conspiracy aficionados remained a small majority of the masses and we could still relish in our elite status as either knowing more than the guy next door or at least being in on the joke.
Fast-forward two decades and look what’s happened.
There have been THIRTEEN seasons so far of “Ancient Aliens.” Alex Jones, once a somewhat enjoyable crackpot from the fringe, built a media empire to spread vileness and many people took it to be a real news source. There are honest-to-Bob folks who bought into PizzaGate whole-heartedly and we have the occupant of the highest office labeling anything he doesn’t like as “fake news.” Otherwise sensible ignore evidence of everything from falsified vaccination papers to global warming. My nine year old nephew knows what the Illuminati is.
The once refreshing waters of the conspiracy theory pond have swelled to a troubled sea filled with sharks.
At the real risk of sounding like a hipster holding court at the back of the new vinyl record shop, I liked it better before everyone was into this thing. I feel like the pranksters and the fans have been muscled out by the true believers, the paranoiacs, and those looking for evidence to further strengthen their hate and their fear. It’s hard to polish up your golden apple and demand your Slack when the guy next to you honestly believes in the Deep State and that QAnon is speaking the suppressed truth.
Apologies if you came here expecting elf game stuff, but this has been weighing on me as I consider what’s next for me in the field of fictional worlds and gaming material.
I don’t see any easy way out of this, no way to reset the tone of the room. I’d like to let my freak flag fly a little higher, but I fear who might come along to salute it.
This is a subject I’ll likely return to in the future. My thoughts are still in flux and will continue to evolve, but I needed to work out a starting point from which to build. So in true conspiratorial fashion, I’ll slip back into the shadows, giving you time to consider what you’ve learned.
Leave a coded message for me in the back of Village Voice if you need to contact me. Until then, fight the future.