It’s always strange when one’s professional life and one’s hobbies collide. I’ve been collecting guitar effects pedals for several years, not nearly as long as I’ve been researching conspiracy theories, but I hardly expected to see the Boss MT-2 Metal Zone pedal show up in a conspiracy theory. In January, however, a schematic of the much-reviled distortion pedal was being circulated as proof that the Covid-19 vaccine contained a secret 5G microchip to allow the tracking of innocent citizens.
The schematic was subsequently revealed to have originated as a hoax, but that didn’t stop its spread through Reddit conspiracy theory communities (note: hoaxes always take on a life of their own, and they’re never a good idea if you want to prove how stupid or gullible people are). Since then, I’ve thought a lot about why something as anodyne as a guitar pedal schematic might seem so mystifying, alluring, or uncanny that it could be swept up into a conspiracy theory.
One term that gets used a lot in connection with social media and the Internet in general is “context collapse,” a term coined by Danah Boyd in 2013 to describe social media environments where people from one’s different social groups (family, co-workers, friends, etc.) are all brought together. The net result can often be difficulty in navigating the various registers that one maintains in these different social groups all at once, potentially leading to aggression, hostility, offensive behavior, and other negative outcomes.
There’s a perhaps different version of this, one that operates in a great deal of conspiracy theories: a kind of context collapse focused on infrastructure, supply chain logistics, schematics, and other aspects of modern life that are brought strangely to light by the web. Call it “technical estrangement”: what happens when people are confronted with aspects of otherwise-hidden infrastructure and struggle to make sense of them, preferring instead to fold them into conspiratorial musings and paranoia.
In my last book, The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained, I focused on this phenomenon in regard to “FEMA Camps”: the conspiracy theory that the government has prepared large scale detention camps in advance of a nationwide crackdown depends on the misrecognition of abandoned, or under-utilized industrial spaces. As I explained in that book, sometimes an industrial site whose purpose has been rendered obsolete, or one who’s function is just generally unknown, can be repurposed by conspiracy theorists: a fully functioning train depot just outside of Indianapolis, for example, was branded a FEMA Camp by conspiracy theorist Linda Thompson, and in a video documenting the site she repeatedly attributed nefarious motives to various straight-forward aspects of the site (wind socks, barbed wire fences, etc.).
Though Alex Jones was banned from Youtube in 2018, you can still view a video of him discussing a stack of plastic burial vaults outside of Atlanta, Georgia, making grim accusations about their nefarious purpose. “Why are tens of thousands of plastic burial vaults stacked in a field near Madison, Georgia?” he asks conspiratorially, describing the stacks of coffin liners as being on a “FEMA-leased area,” just a few miles from the airport. As goes without saying, there’s no attempt, in Jones’s monologue, to actually make sense of these things; the less is known, the easier it is to project on them a sinister plan. Jones understands that infrastructure rendered opaque is easily read as nefarious.
And then there are the Flat Earthers. In the Flat Earth model, the North Pole is at the center of a flat disc, and Antarctica is a wall of ice at the disc’s edge. Which means that the southern oceans are much, much larger than they appear on a globe, and the distances between South America, Africa, and Australia are far greater than we are told.
Maybe so! But this means that flying from South America to, say, South Africa, would take a very long time. And so one thing Flat Earthers will tell you is that flights in the southern hemisphere do not travel in what we would think would be east-west, but rather will cut across the equator secretly to get there faster.
The evidence they use for this is radar tracking sites, which allow you to see in real time where a give plane flight is. For flights in the northern hemisphere, they note, the flight path is a detailed, semi-squiggly line, charting the actual path of the plane — as with this flight from New York City to Los Angeles.
In the southern hemisphere, however, as soon as the plane gets over water, that detailed line is replaced by a smooth parabola, such as this flight from Johannesburg to Singapore. This is evidence, they argue, that the flight path is fictitious; the plane is actually rushing up to the equator; the parabola is deception.
This is only an interesting hypothesis if you don’t understand how radar works. Unlike GPS, in which the GPS device pings satellites above for a precise location, radar works by sending signals from the ground up, where they bounce off of objects and return back. Which means, you can only get a clear radar signal when there is a radar base to send signals; planes over water don’t have a radar location because there are no flight control centers in the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. And in fact, as it turns out, the same smooth parabola is evident in the Northern hemisphere, as seen in this flight from New York to Paris.
The schematic of the Boss MT-2 Metal Zone Pedal is just one more version of this. When it was first introduced, the only people who would have occasion to look at guitar pedal schematics were the designers and builders, along with hobbyists and other people deliberately seeking them out. Such diagrams weren’t hidden from the public out of secrecy; rather, primarily the only people who would seek them out would already more or less know what they were.
The Internet has made such specialized information readily accessible to everyone, which is great in the sense that it widens the audience of people who can learn about flight tracking or guitar pedal making. But it also means that these things will float free of context, and that people who aren’t trained to understand these things will encounter them. It also means that you can willfully refuse to understand them, and in the process, mystify them for your audience.
Freud’s definition of the uncanny rings true here: that which is normally hidden but which is brought to light. The conspiracy theorist sees these technical documents and diagram as uncanny, as the secret brought to light. But it is an ersatz uncanny, since these things were never hidden in the first place; they were just in places non-specialists had no real reason to look.