Making Sense of QAnon
Perhaps the most interesting and important phenomenon this year has been the development and eruption of “QAnon.” Watching culture unfold in real time is a hobby of mine, so I happen to have been watching Q since just after it first showed up on 4Chan late last year. I believe that it is important.
At a minimum, I believe that you can measure the quality of your sensemaker by how early and clearly Q appeared on your radar. It is too important to have been overlooked. If you missed it (or dismissed it) then you might consider retuning your sensemaking system.
This month (early August of 2018), Q broke through to the popular consciousness when upwards of 100 mainstream media outlets surprisingly (or not) wrote about the “mother of all conspiracy theories” within a few days of each-other.
It seems that we are now living in the “post-Q era” and should begin to update our sensemaking in this new context.
At a superficial level, we can map out the two main perspectives on Q.
- The official narrative: “Everybody knows” that Q is a wildly insane nearly incomprehensible fully debunked conspiracy theory. Nothing to see here, unless you are interested in the kinds of pathology that have given rise to this mutation in tin-hat land.
- The alt-narrative: Q is true. The MSM is captured by the Deep State and we have been living in dis and mis-info for decades. Thanks to Q we are slowly moving towards a Great Awakening when these secrets shall be revealed and the injustices they hide will be redeemed.
I will not spend any time on either of these two perspectives other than to point out that in some sense, both of them have some merit. As I will describe below, it is fair to say that much of the Q phenomenon resembles a sort of “mass schizophrenia.” At the same time, in a Deep Code sense, the Q phenomenon is true and I do believe that something like a Great Awakening is at hand.
Interested in learning more? Well then, buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy. Where we are going, we don’t need roads.
In the interest of brevity, I’m not going to fully recapitulate the model that I have been developing in previous posts. If you are new to Deep Code, I recommend jumping into the time machine and checking out:
Medium tells me that this is about an hour or so of reading. For those who are up to the effort, gold star. The rest of this post will make a lot more sense.
For those who prefer their TL DR’ed, here is a very highly compressed version:
Things change. In particular, technology and culture change each-other. Different cultures give rise to different technologies. And different technologies give rise to different potential cultures. One of the more interesting technologies is media. Different media simultaneously change “how” we are able to communicate with each other (who speaks, what is said) and the very nature of the minds that are participating in the communication itself.
We are witnessing a whole bunch of major changes in the world. These are cutting at least as deeply as changes like the printing press, the emergence of science and the discovery of the new world cut into the cultures of the middle-ages. Back then we saw the collapse of rural agricultural Catholic feudalism into the global secular urban military-industrial nation-state of today. It took a few centuries, but even at that pace, the degree of change was notable.
The changes today are both more profound and are happening far more quickly.
Perhaps the most significant change happening today is the transition from a “broadcast analog” media (most notably television) into a “decentralized digital” medium (the Internet writ large). If you are looking around wondering what the heck is going on, you can find a lot (though not all) of the answers right here.
It is in this context that I am making sense of our friend Q here today. There are many other ways to look at Q (and at the broader set of changes that are coursing across our civilization). But this is an important and insightful lens that is, as far as I can tell, not broadly considered.
Part 1. Alice and Wonderland
Consider television from the perspective of a stone age tribesman. He or she would be reasonably familiar with the phenomenon. After all everyone sleeps and everyone dreams. It is an interesting novelty to be able to dream while awake. Even more interesting for everyone to be sharing the same dream. But this isn’t so mysterious: television is a waking dream.
Marshall McLuhan noticed that the human mind doesn’t come pre-loaded with a notion of where the body begins and ends. When we are born we don’t really have a sense that those wiggly things are “our fingers.” Equally, we don’t really have a sense that mom’s nipple isn’t somehow part of us. The mind is practical. As far as the mind is concerned “we” are simply that which we can effect and that which effects us.
Our body is an extension of our mind and technology is an extension of our body. Our car is an extension of our legs and feet. Our paintbrush is an extension of our hand. And our television is an extension of our imagination.
The mind relates through its extensions into reality and tries to do its best to adapt to the circumstances it finds itself in. So, when we consider the mind of the late 20th Century, we see a humanity massively overloaded with imagination. While our minds certainly can tell the difference between embodied reality and merely audio/visual fantasy, late 20th Century conscious experience included a much larger portion of fantasy than, say, our 18th Century ancestors. A lot more.
And this creates a sort of “niche” or “fitness landscape” for different kinds of culture. Those flavors of culture that were most able to take advantage of hypertrophied fantasy were advantaged. Those that were threatened by mass imagination were disadvantaged. As a result, the world we have been co-creating for the past few generations has developed into “Wonderland”.
A land of affect, artifice, viscerality, and aphasia. Where it is much more important to “look presidential” than to be presidential. Where merely being on TV all the time is more than enough to “make you famous” and the more fabricated your presence, the more you appeal to the imagination, the better. How many of us know the Friends better than we know our friends? Or the goings on of the Kardashians better than our cousins or neighbors?
Oh, and make a mistake? Say something you regret? No worry, wait 15 minutes and everyone will have lost the thread in the great spectacle. Like Alice, we find that it is hard to keep track of things in Wonderland.
Part 2: Because you’re on Television, dummy
The impact of media on mind is one side of the coin. Now lets flip the coin over and look at the other side: how different kinds of media shape “the conversation” itself.
When a tribe is sitting around the fire, the ability to speak is more or less symmetric. While deference will be made to the most wise, the most powerful, or the most charismatic, there is no physical reason why everyone can’t have a voice.
Not so with broadcast. Unlike the symmetric circle of people around a fire, broadcast is intrinsically asymmetric. There are only so many television networks to go around. Only a few people get to speak — everyone else ‘gets’ to listen.
It doesn’t matter whether you get your “broadcast elite” through old fashioned power (e.g., Pravda) or through a “survival of the fittest” struggle in the market (e.g., the Big Three Networks), the end result is more or less the same: fundamentally asymmetric communication media naturally lead to concentrated control of the means of communication.
Between the two characteristics of the effect of media on mind and the effect of media on the landscape of communication, we get profound constraints on culture and power. If you wanted to be effective at creating culture and/or securing and keeping power in the 20th Century, you needed to be very good at playing the broadcast television game. This meant being mindful of securing the channels (as invisibly as possible) and mindful of keeping a good coherent story going at all times.
Whether the story was All in the Family, the CBS Evening News or the Reagan Administration didn’t really matter that much. Just keep the story compelling, keep the channels telling that story and keep smiling.
No conspiracy is needed here. No more than the conspiracy that gave rise to the lion as king of the African savannah or the orca as peak predator of the oceans. Simple evolution will do all the work.
Hence the Blue Church: the “peak predator” of the Western version of this niche. Over the second half of the Century, the Church linked together many different kinds of broadcast (teacher-student, the expert-audience, newspaper, television, etc.) into fluid hierarchies of (at least somewhat) competence-linked authority.
In doing so, the Blue Church evolved into the most effective way to play the game of the late 20th Century. It proved good at making up coherent and compelling stories. Good at staying “on message” and making sure that everyone was on the same page with “good opinion” to keep things moving smoothly.
The Blue Church built the interstate highway system, cured polio and brought us to the moon and back. It integrated schools, removed lead from gasoline and cleaned up both water and air. It got us into Vietnam, bailed out the banking system and waged a war on terror.
And so history rolled on. Until a new medium rode into town.
Part 3. The Truth is Out There
If we use this same model to consider the dominant medium of the 21st Century (the Internet), we don’t have to look too closely to see how very different it is. Television is like a waking dream. A hyper-version of fantastic imagination. And while the Internet is more than capable of pumping out fantasy, it does so in a context that includes a very different capacity: memory. Lots of memory.
Television is a constant present. It flows from moment to moment. As long as the last few minutes aren’t too incoherent everything seems to hang together. Television has the memory of an aging stoner.
The Internet never forgets.
Consider every trivia argument “before Google” and “after Google”. Before Google who really knew who played Bosley in Charlie’s Angels? After Google?
Anyone and everyone who cared to type in a search.
Before Google, who really knew about Operation Mockingbird? After Google? In July 1964, who really knew the truth of the Gulf of Tonkin incident? In 2018? Anyone and everyone who cared to dig into the expanding database of the Internet.
Memory. This is a big deal. During the Age of Wonderland, a whole lot of people figured out that it was easy to keep secrets and tell lies when no one could check your facts or remember what really happened. In fact, if you didn’t keep secrets and tell lies back then, you lost to those who did. Survival of the fittest.
But now the landscape is changing. More and more people are waking up to the reality that if they want to, they can dive into the infosphere and learn more than their history professors ever dreamed.
Of course, in addition to providing memory, the Internet is also symmetric: anyone who wants to can express themselves into this enormous database. On the one hand, this means that we have access to the possibility of “experience at the edge” largely unfiltered or spun by middle men. Direct, on the ground and en masse.
On the other hand, the folks pouring information into the Internet, don’t necessary have to know what they are talking about to do so. Nor do they necessarily need to be truthful.
In many ways, the Internet right now somewhat resembles the floor of the old New York Stock exchange: an enormous crowd of people yelling all at once. This can be a bit disorienting. Particularly for the mind and models that were designed around broadcast and television. These are wholly inappropriate to the cacophony of the Internet. Bring an old mind to this morass and it will indeed look a lot like mass schizophrenia: Partially coherent narratives floating about in fragments, mating with viscerally compelling memes to form a sort of “fungal” sense that is neither television nor Internet.
If you have a 20th Century mind, this will all seem very disorienting and . . . wrong. But if you happen to have been born into the Internet and have been learning how to make sense in this new medium from childhood, it starts to hang together.
It isn’t the same kind of sense made in the Encyclopedia Britannica or the CBS Evening News. We are witnessing the birth of an entirely new kind of sensemaking. Right now it is rather a mess. This is not surprising considering the fact that it is emerging from the long memory hole of Wonderland. It is even less surprising given that it requires the development of an entirely new kind of mind.
Yet it is starting to come together. Widely distributed, symmetric memory. The truth is out there, we are just waking up to how to find it.
Part 4. Knock, Knock, Neo.
This brings us to the importance and fascination of Q.
I know for certain that I can’t make any sense of the thing at ground level. Is it a LARP? A sophisticated operation by some intelligence agency? A weaponized autist? The Donald himself? There are many rabbit holes here — and a lot of folks have been diving into them head first. Care to have an opinion? Knock yourself out.
But if I pull up to 40,000 feet, I can start to make sense of what kind of thing this is and what it means in the context of the larger changes discussed above: Q is the most recent and most important example of a widely distributed self-organizing collective intelligence.
We’ve actually seen many precursors. Cicada 3301 is a famous example. Even the I Love Bees ARG for Halo 2. Perhaps Bitcoin is the most important precursor to Q.
These “self-organizing collective intelligences” (SOCI), are a new kind of socio-cultural phenomenon that is beginning to emerge in the niche created by the Internet. They involve attractive generator functions dropped into the hive mind that gather attention, use that attention to build more capacity and then grow into something progressively real and self-sustaining.
The Q SOCI is, for the most part, about sensemaking. It is combing through the billions of threads of “what might be real” and “what might be true” that have been gathered into the Internet and it is slowly trying to weave them into a consistent, coherent and congruent fabric. In the transition from Wonderland, sensemaking is so obviously needed that millions of people are viscerally attracted to the SOCI. The shared desire to wake up from Wonderland and have some firm notion of what is real and true is proving a powerful attractor.
This is how it seems to work: People come to Q with a desire to know “the truth”. They bring with them a whole pile of pre-conceived notions of what is true and real and, more importantly, pre-conceived constructs for how these all fit together into a consistent world-model.
This collection of curious seekers and their collection of experiences, notions and frameworks is the beginning of the collective mind of Q. At first, this mind shows up as a completely incoherent bramble of truth, falsity, clarity and dysfunctional nonsense.
But then the collective intelligence gets to work. Slowly, fitfully, the attention of the SOCI begins to orient towards the most complete and inclusive world-models and weeds-out those that fail to maintain consistency with either other world-models or large chunks of “facts” (e.g., flat-earth models got more or less weeded out early).
In the meantime, new facts are constantly surfaced — with various levels of provenance (i.e., some are well founded, others are pure conjecture, still others are lies). Some are “hinted” by Q drops and questions. These invariably stir up a frenzy of “digging” and more or less wild speculation. Others are brought in by the distributed members of the SOCI — posted to the chans, in myriad forums, in YouTube videos.
All of this is collectively processed by the “Q community.” Models and hypotheses are proposed (often willy nilly) that try to make sense of some set of information. The most compelling are shared through the distributed network of the SOCI where they are integrated, modified and brought into further consistency with the larger set of meta-models.
Looked at through the lens of “Blue Church” expertise, the whole thing looks brutally off-base. Whole models emerge that are premised on “obviously” insane propositions. Other models show up that are internally consistent — but obviously inconsistent with other models that are well proven in the world. A huge amount of noise is generated by the myriad cognitive biases (e.g., confirmation bias) at both the individual and collective level. Much of what becomes “common knowledge” is little better than folk mythology that feels good, isn’t obviously contradicted and is easy to spread.
But this is really no different from what goes on in any given individual’s head every day. Or the content of every culture in the world. This is just the sausage-making of how we humans go about making sense in the world. If we use the model of a developing human, I’d estimate that the QAnon collective intelligence is somewhere around the equivalent of a 6 month old human in terms of cognitive development. It can recognize objects, recall some faces, make some connections. But it still has a very long way to go.
Nonetheless, given the incomprehensible mess of information that is being sifted through, the complete novelty of the sensemaking approach and the incompleteness of the psychological and technical toolset to participate in that sensemaking approach, what has emerged so far is truly remarkable. Consider how these kinds of self-organizing collective intelligence networks begin to show up as the “internet of things” rolls out. When Q diggers can do more than sift through the database of dead information sitting on the Internet and can begin to access sensors everywhere in the world in realtime? Perhaps even routing robots to investigate areas of interest?
I happen to have been first hand witness to about a dozen “emergent socio-technical cultures” dating back to the PC and the modem/BBS cultures in the 80’s, through the Usenet and “online services” to Web 1.0, digital media, Web 2.0, crypto, etc. etc. There is a lot of divergence in how these kinds of things come into being, sort themselves out and then stride into the larger world. But there is also a lot of commonality.
Q is growing up quickly and it is already digging up a fair amount of true-but-hidden info amidst all of the murk. To be fair, seventy or so years of Wonderland have left a lot of lies and secrets barely hidden. Things like the Deep State, Operation Mockingbird, and the manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin have never really been absent from the larger consciousness. None-the-less, for nearly everyone in the Blue Church, these were hidden from view. The pace at which the Q SOCI has been able to identify, verify and disseminate largely obscure information like this into what is likely at this point tens of millions of minds has been impressive.
If we imagine that finding and sharing true but hidden information to be the self-reinforcing fuel that drives the early stages of a collective sensemaking SOCI like Q, we might expect that Q (or something like it) is going to continue to accelerate. Wonderland has left a lot of low hanging lost, hidden and obscure information to be recovered and reconstituted into a post-Wonderland model of history and society.
Will Q itself be the future? Well, when it comes to SOCI, my perspective is that their long term success depends on a few factors.
- Is there really a niche? Check. Collective sensemaking and, decentralized collective intelligence, is a near-certain component of any future.
- Is there a path connecting here to there? Can you get from the early adopters and low-hanging fruit through the “innovation curve” into the fullness of the niche? Is Q pokemon go? Doomed to be a flash in the pan unable to cross the chasm? Or is it social networking? There is a long way to go and it is hard to say.
- Is the “founding culture” of this SOCI capable of making that traverse from here to there? As is usually the case with early examples of a foundational new movement, the earliest adopters of Q tended to be somewhat . . . idiosyncratic. Consider the first two generations of the Bitcoin community. Or, for that matter, the big early Usenet groups or the first two thousand websites. In the case of Q, I imagine that many of the biases of its founding culture that proved crucial to its early traction will likely hold it back over the longer term. Particularly values like a preference for viscerally thrilling, dramatic, contrarian frames and a lean towards weaving premature narratives rather than taking the facts slowly.
At the same time, as I witness the SOCI emerge, I notice that there is much to the developing culture that is fully in alignment with a highly effective and adaptive self-organizing collective intelligence. Consider the cultural values that are showing up as central to the community: an emphasis on “digging” (e.g., doing deep and time consuming research) and “thinking logically,” self-responsibility (“think for yourself”), and a preference for ego-free anonymity and being of service to something that is larger than the individual (“Where we go one, we go all”).
Part 5. The Q Continuum
In 2017, I proposed that “The conflict of the 21st Century is about forming a collective intelligence that can outwit and out innovate all of its competitors.” Q is not there yet. But it seems likely that it, or one of its descendants, will be at least part of a comprehensively new and decisively more powerful form of collective intelligence.
The Blue Church (and its various allies) is a waning power. As powerful and capable as it once was, it was built by and for a previous age. What comes next will not resemble the Blue Church. It will not be made up of hierarchies of ‘legitimate authority’ and ‘good opinion’. These approaches won’t work in the context of the emerging world. The sensemaking challenges of the future are too vast and too nuanced and will change too quickly for the bulky expertise systems of the 20th Century to respond.
We are witnessing a major transition. This bodes ill for the entire set of power structures that were designed to control the minds and institutions of the broadcast era. A lot of dirty laundry is going to be aired. And most of the old engines of consensus and control are going to drop into obsolescence.
It seems that we are poised to move into a number of possible futures. Will we witness the emergence of a collective sensemaking system that combines the right cultural and architectural elements to re-member an honest record of things and base our choices on a clear and broad perspective of what is really real? Or will we find that the future is made up of myriad delusion-collectives? Each competing to inject their internally consistent but disconnected from the world frames into whatever choicemaking structures could endure under such conditions?
In any event, we are now living in the post-Q world. Its time to update your sensemaking and shift into something that is coming from the future. That future is coming quicker than you might think.