Of the few episodes of The Twilight Zone that I’ve seen, Time Enough at Last (Serling and Brahm) has pierced my mind enough to stay with me year after year. It’s an episode about this one man who just wants to read his books in peace, but life; his wife, his boss, the ways of the world, keep him from being able to read as much as he’d like. The events that unfold ultimately see the man being the sole survivor of a nuclear annihilation that has leveled his city - while at first he laments the solitude to the point of contemplating suicide, he realizes he’s found the public library. Celebrating that he’ll finally have “time, time, time, time enough at last,” the man reaches for a book, and the tragic ending manifests. His glasses slide off of his face, shatter on the stone steps of the library, broken beyond repair. He can’t see at all without them - he can’t read, right when he’s finally gotten time - he can’t see a word on the paper. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed. It’s not fair. It’s not fair,” He bemoans, sobbing as narrator Rod Serling takes us away, one last look at the crumbling remains of human society. In the most literalist sense of it, this is the Lonesome Dystopia. It’s a piece attesting to modernity in the atomic age, and it leaves me with this haunted disquiet. What I was most drawn to was the apocalyptic face of loneliness - the horror that is being alone in the devastation.
However, the isolation I speak of in considering a lonesome dystopia is not quite so literal. Isolation, I argue, exists at the cusp of the hyperreal, it self-perpetuates in our institutions, in our cities, and our communities. It is the social alienation of modern life, the loss of community (Parigi & Henson, 156) that defines so many of our worldly anxieties, and so many of our experiences in the cyborg present where the Internet is more than a mere companion to our lived realities - it is lived reality itself.
In the months spent observing both my immediate points of daily contact and the Internet at large, I found myself immersed in sobering, paranoid, and pressing perspectives of a technological age. I sought to develop an understanding of the contrasts between the “is” and “was”, the “physical” and “virtual”, the “truth” and “myth”- and I found, at the same time, moments of contact, where the boundaries of my distinctive worlds of observation touched, blended, and created challenges for me. In observing those who live closest to me, I came to understand my residential community as reflective of specific cultural ideals. I contended with a pervasive matter in the world we live in now - the subjectively dystopian realm of Conspiracy Theory, which itself both seeks dystopia out in the everyday and births the political paranoid (Hofstadter, 4), a proxy inciting the end-times through an Ouroboric process of regaining agency (Harding & Stewart, 294).
Before analyzing the characteristics of Conspiracy, I want to compose the setting that Hofstadter’s paranoid style emerged in - that is, I didn’t begin my observations with the Internet at all, or even with the political. I simply observed my place, my presence, and questioned, before anything else, the isolation experienced in (Western) modern life and the distancing of “community.” Small-scale community dialogue has become nearly obsolete in the face of polarizing realities and a world that feels too big and rapidly shrinking at the same time. I don’t intend to glamorize or praise the past - it’s dangerous to give in to ‘small town nostalgia,’ which comes with its own particular significant inequities. At the same time, we benefit in and from community, with people we can identify with, talk to, rely on, look out for. What happens in sites of loneliness? What kinds of affects are communicated?
When it snowed in the middle of January in Hamilton, everyone in our townhouse complex was out there in the mid-morning, in their driveways and on the streets, shoveling together, walking their dogs, chatting about real estate; about their lives. All the neighborhood kids were running in the streets with reckless abandon- no cars and so much snow! Snowballs flew. Children leaped into the banks of snow their friends’ parents were piling into massive heaps. I felt something, some distanced joy maybe, in how they got to run outside and play in a world that we could pretend was normal, not scary. They got to have snowball fights with their friends like I did when I was a kid, on the snowbank behind the portable classrooms, the ones teachers would’ve told us to stay away from. That morning, I found myself resistant to the seeds of community mistrust that had been planted by moral panics of the late twentieth century, exaggerated by atomic age anxieties, like that of the red scare, and “stranger danger” panics (Harding & Stewart, 293.)
It seems to me that humanity is unquestionably in a period of both glaring politically-charged polarization and intense loneliness, a time where social and economic individualism is fiercely guarded and enforced. I don’t hold ill feelings towards the thousands of changes sparked by modernity, like vaccines. Though the truth of the matter is that we do live in a strange world where we work more for less, where modes of relating are often detached from community. Parigi & Henson cite some key, in-depth analysis of stark contrasts between an imagined past and that of a present world, where communities formed as overlaps of locality (154, 163). They argue that today, it’s easy to know more people and expect & receive less from those relationships (158, 161). For example, it’s not unusual to have hundreds or thousands of followers and friends, speak to tens of hundreds a day, and log off feeling… empty. This creates the paradox that defines the ouroboric isolation of the online world that I’m interested in. Humans turn to the Internet for a number of reasons - ease of access, ease of social interaction, disparate modern processes that take them away from their communities and immediate kinships (Parigi & Henson, 155), and anxieties that spring up from perceived and real catastrophes; “a self-fulling source of anxiety and stress” (Harding & Stewart, 290). People hope the Internet will, somehow, ease away the mortifying ordeal of living in the twenty-first century. In expecting the Internet to fill the ‘voids’ in our lives, we end up more lonely, more online, more isolated. We turn to Tweeting again, desperately asking for something meaningful in the weariness of the world. Clinging to whatever incites a feeling, we act out drastic roles, expose ourselves to unique online traumas before understanding the dire stakes. “Technology ties us up as it promises to free us up. Connectivity technologies once promised to give us more time,” Sherry Turkle suggests in her fundamental book, Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. “[But] all the time in the world [is] not enough.” (13). People contending with all the relatively newer struggles of the ever-growing Internet, in the pursuit of that out-of-reach time enough at last, sets the scene for the stories we tell ourselves about the world.
Cyber-Folklore: Campfire Stories for the Culture Wars
In late March, my mother asked me, essentially, what the “New World Order” was. Or more accurately, she asked if I knew what it was. Of course I did. I bear horrifying witness to the spectacle of extreme conspiracy every day of my life when my eyes drift over to the Twitter ‘trending’ page. I ended up learning through conversation that a neighbour has fallen into the depths of that extreme semi-fringe side of Conspiracy. In short, the New World Order is an imagined shadow government birthed from the shadier corners of the Internet, largely relying on antisemitic fictionalized threats as fuel, and it’s widely recognized for its ties to militant white supremacy. This alt-right epistemological world had directly infiltrated my world, and I admit to having been startled with how close to home this way of thinking had come. Now I was presented with the world of conspiracy’s undeniable presence not only offline, but directly around me, literally dangerously close to home. Conspiracy captivates its undertakers and critics alike - it’s insidious, dangerous, and genuinely terrifying because it encourages people to partake in thinking that deterministically defines difference and “otherness” in absolute terms. And perhaps contrarily, or ironically, I'm not comfortable with simply demonizing what perhaps feels like Truth for some people ; I feel it’s more productive to get up close to that fear, expose it, and perhaps find some new frameworks that will empower those purveyors be more in-touch with the reality around them. The anxieties that perpetuate conspiracy come hand in hand with frightening changes that tease potentially severe consequences for our lives. Thus, it’s easier to create a narrative that is, in some ways, much more clear-cut “good vs. bad”, and that, what Susan Harding and Kathleen Stewart suggest, gives some perceived restored agency back to the individual. They succinctly highlight that “a pervasive sense of powerlessness and a politics of resentment can be fashioned into a perverse pride.” (294) It’s uncertainty, anxiety, paranoia, and it makes it so hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. In the commonality of the nearly universal struggles we face in modern life alone, I think significant nuance is lost when we completely write off Conspiracy as irrelevant at its core. It is crucial to think deeply about it. With what I now knew about my neighbour being participatory in the world of Conspiracy, I was challenged by the disquiet of my fascination, and the challenge it posed to dichotomies of “Good vs. Evil” in the stories we tell ourselves.
As the folklore of our times, conspiracy speaks to a new tradition of storytelling in that it transgresses boundaries of fact and fiction, truth and Truth, reality, and virtuality. In other words, Conspiracy becomes non-falsifiable by its purveyors; contrary evidence to the Conspiracy theory is proof that the theory itself is being censored or covered-up. This is crucial to its survival in contemporary spaces. It is unkillable, like a virus itself, mutating and evolving and self-validating through its retellings. It takes a hell of a lot of work from a hell of a lot of people to pull someone out of that. The avenues of the mainstream rarely see people who return from extremist conspiratorial thinking, largely because it drives people away, or frightens them from engaging with an individual lest things become hostile. In the case of my neighbour, I resolved I didn’t have the framework to in some way “shut down” this encroachment, I could only continue to negotiate civility to make life bearable.
The extremity of misinformation/ disinformation has become a vital field of study especially with the emergence of technology in our lives, and with the growing power of “quick and easy” social media titans since the early 2010’s. This is the backdrop for studying and observing modern folklores, whether urban legend, celebrity gossip, or conspiracy theory. In the case of Conspiracy, as its reach expands, the substance of it often becomes detached from the specific context it emerged from. Some of the most significant conspiracies are political (most of the current, extremely frightening ones are; observing politics as representative of an alleged moral decay), some of them are wholly supernatural, some of them are chemical. And mostly, they blend with each other, merging aspects of all three, or pointing to connections between them.
Barkun proposes an intriguing categorization of conspiracies that organizes them into “event conspiracies, systemic conspiracies, and Superconspiracies” (Barkun, 6). Event conspiracies are tied to specific events or series of events, systemic conspiracies have broader goals that are vaguely of the ‘world domination’ variety, and Superconspiracies refer to a constructed network of conspiracies - both event and systemic, which form a hierarchical congregation of power seeking absolute control. Ultimately, the conspiracy variety I came to know from my neighbour is a Superconspiracy which specifically merges anxieties about vaccination, the pandemic, and media censorship. When I heard from them directly, they argued that mainstream media had censored their beliefs because it was under the control of a censorial, malicious party. It’s an interconnected, tangled mess of paranoid politics that has become the predominant means of Conspiracy thinking, and which relies on a growing lack of trust in mainstream media. The belief in the New World Order comes with associated beliefs of insidious events that are supposedly carefully curated, and that operate under their own allegedly “perverse” human agendas, for evil ends.
“Mean World Syndrome” (Gerbner et al., 17) is a hypothetical cognitive bias in which the constant spectacle-like exposure to violence, warfare, and crime in the world around us in turn perpetuates the belief that the world is unsafe. I saw this in the fear my neighbour had in believing that some malevolent force working against them both in its spectacle and in the explanation it might offer to the idea of a “mean world,” and I believe it relates to why Conspiracy had pulled them in in the first place. The media we consume, whether fact or fiction, is a world populated with acronym-heavy police dramas, that encourage us to see the world as fundamentally violent through mediatization (Harambam, p. 161 & 171), even if that’s not the case in our particular realities – in this situation, those realities are tied to the hegemonic comforts of white privilege and economic security. In this way, our technological lens of seeing the world has constructed a simulated reality that is consumed as real. The Internet as the current main source of our dystopian folklore is prolific and ominous, driven by “media-rich, technologically sophisticated… new avenues for transmission” (Barkun, 12). It’s a tool in the belt of conspiracy - which relies on non-falsifiability and confirmation bias, that we come to accept our stories as real enough for us, cherry-picked by headlines of the extraordinary; we self-proliferate a terrifying world full of invisible forces which threaten our well-being. My neighbour suggested TikTok to me as a reputable news source, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the content they were being fed by an algorithm built to create echo chambers full of the misinformation spectacle that encourages their sense of reality.
“The Paranoid Style of American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter (1996) foreshadows much of what we see today by reflecting on the state of American conspiratorial folklore in the post-JFK assassination era. Since then, we’ve seen a number of similar significant political events which fall prey to narratives of greater evils and dubious reality as the hyperreal has become so clearly omnipresent (Harambam, 161). Paranoia is a powerful agent of conspiracy, a vessel for greater anxieties, and Hofstadter particularly captures the world of today in the character of what he describes as the political paranoid that I’ve mentioned several times thus far, “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression (…) his sense that his political passions are un-selfish and patriotic, in fact, goes so far to intensify his feeling of righteousness” (Horfstadter, 4). The simultaneity of the political paranoid is that they believe they are precariously victim and hero, and thus to believe in Conspiracy is, in a way, therapeutic.
My mom speculated that our neighbour plunged into radical Conspiracy because they were "lonely." That made sense to me. This individual's family had moved out – they lived alone with ja pet, and had expressed a longing for conversation. I believe that loneliness, and desperation for connection can potentially pave the way for a “falling in” with Conspiracy thinking, which may come across as startling and sudden to the people around them. Perhaps this individual is one of many who have given into conspiracy thinking because there were no active supports in their home or in their life. Like all stories, conspiracy serves a purpose, exists to fill the void of the human condition with narrative- it is not only plausible but, in my experience navigating the Internet, observable that the social media conspiracy world may stem from the largest generational demographic of our time experiencing unprecedented loneliness and the realities of aging, at the same time that they witness the growing presence of technology in our lives. At the same time, they create the setting by which “iPad babies” emerge: children growing up with iPads in their hands, the entire world at their fingertips.
Younger generations are not immune to the psychological consequences of an Internet-heavy world. I’ve seen friends and strangers of my age group start to reflect on being the first generation to have sweeping Internet access in their childhoods with disdain for the “freedom” they once might’ve relished. They’ve brought up concerns about the ethics of Internet access, and called into question the “acceptable age” for Internet use, and the crucial roles it plays in self-discovery, building social skills, and relationships. They make good points - the volatile and largely un-mediated environment of the Internet that enticed conspiracy and lured in largely older generations in equal part aims for a demographic of the young, the children of over-worked millennials, raised by YouTube Kids as opposed to state-mandated social security nets. What are the impacts of the absence of socialized care? Since post-Columbine 1999, parents have wrung their hands with anxiety about the safety of schools, the “lone wolves” and victims of bullying, the unshakeable tragedies that spiral into body counts. Unfiltered Internet access, the key selling point for so many, creates young agents of fake news that spur violent epistemologies, and domestic terrorism served on a silver (algorithmic) platter.
In mid-April of this year, I stepped out of the house to walk my dog, and I ran into my Conspiracy-focused neighbour, a fleeting conversation of pleasantries that quickly turned into something more tense, interrogative. They spent ten seemingly-eternal minutes putting me on the spot in teasing out my political ascriptions, a coy “So your mom tells me you’re into a lot of politics?” and a “Where do you get your news from?” I smiled through it, and met them halfway in shared distress about concerns of misinformation and mistrust in the news - that was when they told me they were getting their news from TikTok, and I could only imagine what that really looked like. It stuck with me. I had talked to them so many times before, but this felt completely different, like I was caught in a bad dream that wasn’t quite a nightmare. I went back inside after the interaction, wondering if this neighbour would continue to try to approach the topic of politics with me in future conversations, and if I’d somehow emboldened them by nodding and smiling through an interaction that was littered with “You can’t trust the news”-type Conspiracy dog whistles.
The Internet confounds and seduces us; makes us feel more and less lonely all at the same time. It challenges the meaning we find in the world, in our lives, in the systems we orient those things around, and the ways we form connections with others. It promises, and breaks promises, and re-makes those same promises a million times a day – promises for answers, for concrete solutions to the problems we face on independent and collective levels. It caters to the desire for absolutes in a world of shades of grey, and fosters our anxieties as much as we might hope to survive the apocalypse, the death of truth, the death of all things that keep us on that 9-to-5 grind. We are enticed and horrified by the folkloric anxieties that the Internet markets itself to soothe at the same time that it amplifies them, and we can no longer stay away from it. Some humans are lonely and some feel desperate, and this isn’t so bad nor is it so new - but we need to radically reconfigure the stories we create from our loneliness, and the narratives that emerge with those as close as our neighbours, and change the systems of our world that push us away from each other, from the fleshy, material presence of humans around other humans. This is monumental, likely a frighteningly near-impossible undertaking. But in an era where anxiety runs rampant, where the Lonesome Dystopia charges the human spirit inward, away, alone, when the paranoid becomes insurmountably loud and there’s simply not enough time, the most radical choice of action is nuanced, empathetic, and hopeful.
Carissa Faria is a multimedia artist in the Drawing & Painting program with a growing love for post-structuralist theory, cultural criticism, and the art of empathy. At the intersections of her identity, as a Guyanese-Canadian, she finds comfort in tracing the lines of our current cultural moment and untangling the realities of Colonialism. In her free time, when she’s not scribbling down ideas on a scrap piece of paper, Carissa enjoys a nice, long podcast and a hot cup of coffee in one of her many, many mugs.
- Barkun, Michael. Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 2013.
- Gerbner, George, et al. “The ‘Mainstreaming’ of America: Violence Profile No. 11.” Journal of Communication, vol. 30, no. 3, 1980, pp. 10–29., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1980.tb01987.x.
- Harambam, Jaron. Contemporary Conspiracy Culture Truth and Knowledge in an Era of Epistemic Instability. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020.
- Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays. Knopf, 1965.
- Parigi, Paolo, and Warner Henson. “Social Isolation in America.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 40, no. 1, 2014, pp. 153–171., doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145646.
- Serling, Rod. “Time Enough at Last.” The Twilight Zone, season 1, episode 8, 20 Nov. 1959.
- Stewart, Kathleen, and Susan Harding. “Bad Endings: American Apocalypsis.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 28, no. 1, 1999, pp. 285–310., doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.28.1.285.
- Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Tantor Media, 2011.
- Stylistic Ethnographic Influence:
- Stewart, Kathleen. “Mattering Compositions.” Between Matter and Method, 2020, pp. 21–33., doi:10.4324/9781003084792-2.
- Gandolfo, Daniella. The City at Its Limits: Taboo, Transgression, and Urban Renewal in Lima. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.