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26.4.06

Conspiracy Theories

Rachel S. has an interesting post about cell phones, describing how they undermine family life and enable increased surveilance of, and demands on, people -- especially women. She ends by asking "Am I too much of a conspiracy theorist?" While I'm not sure how much of her post I agree with, I can say that she cannot be legitimately accused of conspiracy theory.

First let's define conspiracy theory: a conspiracy theory is a claim that something (an event, a technology, etc.) was made to happen by the centralized decision of a powerful agent (often one with more power than they let on) in order to maintain that power and use it to serve their interests. So a conspiracy theory needs two parts: a causal link between something and the interests of a powerful agent, and a causal link, based on a centralized decision, running the other direction.

Rachel's post has the first element -- she makes an argument that a thing (cell phones) serves the interests (in controlling women) of a powerful agent (the patriarchy). So the crucial question is what (if anything) the link running the other direction is.

Perhaps there is no second link. The control of women is merely an unintended byproduct of cell phones. Obviously there's no conspiracy theory here, no matter how much the patriarchy may benefit from cell phones.

Moving one step closer, a person may argue for a functional link -- the benefits that accrue to the powerful agent somehow encourage the continuance of the thing without anyone necessarily being aware of it. I can't think of a functional link to propose in the cell phone case -- perhaps keeping tabs on women increases GDP, which increases the income to be spent on cell phones. In any event, even if someone were to think up a plausible functional link, it wouldn't be a conspiracy theory. You can't have a conspiracy if the conspirators don't know about it.

Inching yet closer, one might argue for a conscious but decentralized causal link. In the cell phone case, one could say that controlling women is among the reasons that people, especially men, buy cell phones. This is still not a conspiracy theory, because the men don't coordinate their purchases in order to control women as a whole. The overall control of women is simply an emergent effect of a lot of men individually getting cell phones.

Finally, we come to true conspiracy theory. A real conspiracy theory about cell phones controlling women would posit that some powerful central decisionmaker -- a Secret Grand Council of the Patriarchy, or just the cell phone companies -- deliberately orchestrated the creation and/or spread of the technology with the goal of controlling women. I see no hint of this claim in Rachel's post, so she is clearly not a conspiracy theorist.

Of course, the fact that Rachel is concerned to avoid conspiracy theory suggests one last necessary piece of the puzzle: the claimed link between the powerful agent and the thing must not actually exist. Calling something a conspiracy theory is a tactic for rebutting an argument. So if Rachel were to make the claim in the previous paragraph, she could then still avoid the pejorative "conspiracy theory" if she were able to show some good evidence -- say some internal Nokia memos talking about how their plan to control women was proceeding smoothly -- to support her claim.

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