Millennial Hijinx
Crackpots, conspiracies, and how
they amuse us

What's in store for the human race in the 21st century? According to postings on Usenet, nature is in a race against biowarfare geneticists to perfect an airborne virus that melts human innards into sludge. Scientists in Alaska are boiling the atmosphere and frying our nervous systems with a system ostensibly designed to use the Earth's ionosphere to communicate with deeply submerged submarines. Christian fundamentalists are funneling cash to Muslim extremists in order to cause turmoil in Israel and initiate a panoply of gruesome genocidal events outlined in the Book of Revelations. Aliens from distant star systems are competing with one another to domesticate the human race for use as breeding stock, laboratory animals, pets, or food. The ancient families of the shadow-world government are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the final stages of their plot to chemically subjugate the world's population with Prozac, Viagra, Minoxidil, Fen-Phen, and Aspartame. And that's just for starters.

See also...
... by Mark Frauenfelder
... in the Whoa! section
... from August 5, 1999

As we get closer to the year 2000, extreme ideas and postmodern myths are cropping up faster than the white blood cell count of an Ebola victim. The onslaught of dire warnings of massive conspiracies and apocalyptic doom are gushing through the pipes of the Internet at such a furious rate, we've become desensitized to the contents of the messages. TV shows like The X-Files have made conspiracy kookiness commonplace, even boring.

In fact, I'd pretty much given up on kooks as a source of entertainment nearly ten years ago, not long after ordering a bunch of free self-published literature from addresses in High Weirdness by Mail, Ivan Stang's wonderful guide of contemporary kookdom for the armchair traveler. At first, I enjoyed sending in for packets of literature written by people who claim to have created devices that can defy gravity, produce free energy, travel through time, or render the user invisible.

It was the Web itself that took all the fun out of kook ideas. Online, conspiracy theorists are as commonplace as Beanie Baby collectors. Last year, counterculture prankster and stand-up revolutionary Paul Krassner told me he was canceling his high weirdness newsletter, The Realist, after a 35-year run because the Web had made it obsolete. Who needed a quarterly zine about black-budget hijinks and celebrity stupidity when you could get ten times as much, every day, online? The overwhelming gusher of crackpot ideas destroyed the joy of crackpot theories.

But all is not lost in the search for entertainment and enlightenment through crank ideas. As our attention shifts away from bullshit theories and impossible inventions, a couple of veteran journalists, Phil Patton and Alex Heard, have focused theirs back on the messengers themselves with two new books: Dreamland and Apocalypse Pretty Soon. And in doing so, they've discovered a rich vein of deliciously interesting weirdness, in which supreme crackpots can be considered symptoms of a societal disease -- infoglut. Both books theorize that as the world becomes increasingly complicated, many people attempt to avoid the rigorous thinking required to understand complex phenomena by blaming it all on spacemen or evil military-industrial conglomerates.

"If information is power, secret information is secret power," says Phil Patton, author of Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51, a book about the fanatical groupies who hang around the peripheries of top-secret military air bases, hoping to catch a glimpse of the latest experimental aircraft, or the technologically-superior aliens whom they believe visit the installations. "Technological culture shock and something like post-cold war post traumatic stress syndrome are at work," says Patton. "Being 'in the know' about the way things really work redeems those without much power. Life's losers tend to be conspiracists, believing the game is rigged and they are really winners."

Patton uses sociologist David Riesman's term for these people -- "inside dopesters" -- the kind of "person who achieves validity by knowing about the inside details of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's marriage, Di's eating disorders, etc. Celebrity news in the tabloids sits right beside saucer news and JFK or Hitler-is-alive news."

Much of the typical kook's muddleheaded alien fear/worship can be attributed to "the unexplained and baffling nature of technology," says Patton. "Consider even such crude tales as the Day after Roswell book's assertion that microprocessors came from the Roswell crash wreckage: to anyone who can say that, a comparatively unchallenging technology such as the microprocessor still seems as bizarre as something from another star system."

Alex Heard's book, Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, examines a wide variety of kooks, from Christian fundamentalists intent on immanentizing eschaton to pie-eyed libertarians who want to build their own Ayn Randian Shangri-La on a man-made floating island in the Caribbean. With less sociological analysis than Patton's book, Heard focuses more tightly on the psychology of the individuals who believe the world is about to either end with a great big bang or change so drastically as to be unrecognizable.

Both books are very funny (especially Heard's, which is loaded with wry observations about the characters who want to believe that there's someone in charge of everything that happens), but the overall feeling is one of desperation and loneliness. As Patton points out, "The cornball alien face is the smiley button of alienation."

Mark Frauenfelder is a professional capybara breeder and has trademarked the phrase "Capybara -- the other metallic-colored meat."