Tags: connection



Sunday, August 9th, 2020


Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:

For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.

Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.

When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.

There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.

In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.

Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.

We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit. 

Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:

There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.

This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.

I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:

Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.

Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.

By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:

Do not multiply entities without necessity.

That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:

Multiply entities without necessity!

That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.

Anyway, I recommend reading what Dan and Adrian have written about the shared psychology of QAnon and Alternate Reality Games, not least because they also suggest some potential course corrections.

I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.

I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:

For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…

Friday, July 17th, 2020


Look out someone else’s window somewhere in the world.

There’s something indescribably lovely about this. It’s like a kind of positive voyeurism.

I lost a lot of time to this.

Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

Roam Research – A note taking tool for networked thought.

This looks like an interesting hypertexty tool.

Monday, January 20th, 2020


I’m finding this tool to be very useful for the kind of chaotic mind-mapping I do when I’m preparing a conference talk.

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

Y2K @ 20 - The New York Times

This is quite remarkable. On the surface, it’s a short article about the Y2K bug, but the hypertextual footnotes go deeper and deeper into memory, loss, grief …I’m very moved by the rawness and honesty nested within.

Friday, April 5th, 2019

Simon Collison | Identity at Dot York 2018

After two decades in tech, I realise phones and social media won’t be going away, so we work with them. My take is that I now need to seek positive digital tools that connect more of us to the non-digital world and really benefit our lives.

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Talk at Bush Symposium: Notes

On the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, Tim Berners-Lee delivered this address in 1995.

To a large part we have MEMEXes on our desks today. We have not yet seen the wide scale deployment of easy human interfaces for editing hypertext and making links. (I find this constantly frustrating, but always assume will be cured by cheap commercial products within the year.)

Friday, December 14th, 2018

GitHub - GoogleChromeLabs/quicklink: ⚡️Faster subsequent page-loads by prefetching in-viewport links during idle time

This looks like a very handle little performance-enhancing script: it attempts to prefetch some links, but in a responsible way. It won’t do any prefetching on slow connections or where data saving is enabled, and it only prefetches when the browser is idle.

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

What do you want to do when you grow up, kid? • Robin Rendle

Publishing on the web really is quite marvellous:

…an endless thrill, a sort of everlasting, punk-rock feeling and I hope it will never really go away.

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

Internet Archive: Connections season 1, episodes 1-10

Videos for the whole first season of James Burke’s brilliant Connections TV series.

Internet Archive and chill.

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Dynamic resources using the Network Information API and service workers

Smart thinking—similar to this post from last year—about using the navigator.connection API from a service worker to serve up bandwidth-appropriate images.

This is giving me some ideas for my own site.

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Laura Kalbag – Insecure

The web can be used to find common connections with folks you find interesting, and who don’t make you feel like so much of a weirdo. It’d be nice to be able to do this in a safe space that is not being surveilled.

Owning your own content, and publishing to a space you own can break through some of these barriers. Sharing your own weird scraps on your own site makes you easier to find by like-minded folks. If you’ve got no tracking on your site (no Google Analytics etc), you are harder to profile. People can’t come to harass you on your own site if you do not offer them the means to do so

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

Telepresence - daverupert.com

Dave is liking the word “telepresence”:

On social media we broadcast our presence and thoughts over radio and wire and I likewise consume your projections as they echo back to me. We commune over TCP/IP.

Just wait until he discovers the related neologism coined by Ted Nelson.

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

The internet doesn’t suck - Mark Surman

We need to keep our eyes on the prize: making sure the internet does not suck for as many people as possible for as long as possible. That’s the work we need to be doing. And we should do it not from a place of fear or despair, but from a place of joy.

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Network based image loading using the Network Information API in Service Worker | justmarkup

This is clever—you can use the navigator.connection API from a service worker (because it’s asynchronous) which means you can have a service worker script that serves differently sized images based on bandwidth.

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Network Information API

It looks like this is landing in Chrome. The navigator.connection.type property will allow us to progressively enhance based on connection type:

A web application that makes use of a service worker to cache resources during installation might have different bundles of assets that it might cache: a list of crucial assets that are cached unconditionally, and a bundle of larger, optional assets that are only cached ahead of time when navigator.connection.type is 'ethernet' or 'wifi'.

There are potential security issues around fingerprinting that are addressed in this document.

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Most of the web really sucks if you have a slow connection

Just like many people develop with an average connection speed in mind, many people have a fixed view of who a user is. Maybe they think there are customers with a lot of money with fast connections and customers who won’t spend money on slow connections. That is, very roughly speaking, perhaps true on average, but sites don’t operate on average, they operate in particular domains.

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

Mapping the Sneakernet – The New Inquiry

When it seems like all our online activity is being tracked by Google, Facebook, and co., it comforts me to think of all the untracked usage out there, from shared (or fake) Facebook accounts to the good ol’ sneakernet:

Packets of information can be distributed via SMS and mobile 3G but also pieces of paper, USB sticks and Bluetooth.

Connectivity isn’t binary. Long live the papernet!

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

The Hummingbird Effect — How We Got to Now

How the printing press led to the microscope, and chlorination transformed women’s fashion—Steven Johnson channels James Burke.

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Connections #2

There’ll be another Connections event this month, following on from the excellent inaugural humdinger. Save the date: Wednesday, April 23rd at 7pm in the delightful surroundings of 68 Middle Street.

There’s one obvious connection between the two speakers this time ‘round: their first names are homophones.

We’ve got Leigh Taylor of Medium and Gravita fame. He’ll be talking about this holacracy stuff that people have been banging on about lately, and what it takes to actually make a creative company work in a decentralised way.

We’ve also got Lee Bryant, an ol’ pal of mine from way back who recently launched POST*SHIFT. He too will be talking about flexible organisational structures.

Should be good brain-tickling fun. You can secure your place at the event now. It’s free. But the usual warning applies: if you can’t make it, be sure to cancel your ticket—if you book a place and then don’t show up, you will be persona non grata for any future Connections.

See you in two weeks time.