On December 29, I took a long walk up to Journal Square with Hilary. We’d somehow made it through 2019, and I was eyeing the calendar warily. My fear was that something dangerous was coming, but I didn’t know what it was. Hilary felt, reasonably, that I was scaring us for no good reason, and wanted to know why I was so certain that we were headed for trouble. I explained that we were all so tightly tethered to central databases and news sources that it was certain that we’d be exposed to psyops more intense and sophisticated than any we’d encountered before. 2019, I felt, was all phony war. 2020 was an election year; power was up for grabs. The big guns would be out, and the big data that had been meticulously collected would all be used in ways we wouldn’t like.
There are loud voices on the Internet who argue that the coronavirus is a psyop. I won’t indulge those who are determined to minimize what we’re up against. I know better. But I do think that the global crisis is providing excellent cover for those who want to play with our minds. Even before an ill wind blew across this country in March, millions of Americans were already struggling with their own fevered imaginations. Stuck at home, in front of screens all day, listening to messages both broadcasted and narrowcasted, we are sitting ducks for ideological programming. And isolation, I’ve noticed, tends to encourage apophenia.
Apophenia isn’t well known by name, but it’s the dominant psychological state of modern America. An apophenic sees patterns and connections where there aren’t any. For him, nothing is meaningless; everything signifies. Those suffering from acute apophenia are so focused on subtext that they’ve lost any sense of the text. Psychiatrists will tell you that apophenia is often an early stage of schizophrenia. This is where we are as a society: separated, even before social distancing, and chasing down individually-tailored rabbit holes as fast as we can go. I fear there’s nothing at the end but madness, but I can’t seem to stop my own fall.
One of the most dangerous things about apophenia is that those who suffer from believe that as their condition deteriorates, they’re getting smarter. They’re seeing an pattern that others are missing. The harder they look, and the more unrelated components they drag into their grand unification theory, the more convinced they are that they’re right, and that those who disagree are obtuse. In good times, this is troubling; in a global crisis, it’s an unbearable exacerbation of a terrible problem. In late 2015, right on the cusp of disastrous times, I wrote that it was certain that unscrupulous people were going to use our apophenia against us — that conspiracy theories were about to become a tool of the powerful and corrosive. It was one of the few times in my life that I’ve ever been prophetic.
Yet apophenia affects me as profoundly as it does those who are dead certain that the coronavirus is a plot to bring down the President by political opponents addicted to adrenochrome. My own apophenia often manifests as hypochondria: perceived symptoms, many of which aren’t symptoms at all, drive me straight toward catastrophic fantasies. I appreciate efforts to keep me educated, but I also feel, strongly, that some of what I’m getting from the TV news and the Internet is designed to amplify my anxiety. My challenge is to rise above my paranoia and my fear, beat back the urge to connect dots that shouldn’t be connected, and recover my balance. How, um… how am I doing? Not too well, I admit. I promise to hang in there as best as I can.