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Purity of essence

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The Atlantic is running what looks like an interesting series on conspiratorial thinking in American culture (On a side note, it looks like Jeffrey Goldberg has almost miraculously found some terrific journalists who aren’t white men).

This essay by Katilyn Tiffany, about concerns over the possible health risks created by 5G wireless networks, captures well how difficult it is analyze such subjects from an — essentially imaginary — neutral perspective:

As with any argument about injustice and capitalist conspiracy, it is easy to flirt with believing for moments or hours at a time. Wireless technology could be slowly killing us all, or at least it could be slowly killing some of us (as other profitable things have done from time to time), or at least it could be true that we aren’t sure, and are moving ahead recklessly. In the 50 or so years since Americans started eyeing our microwaves with suspicion, we’ve been introduced to a parade of new products so quickly it’s hard to feel as if we ever had a choice. In 2020, the average person doesn’t get to decide whether she wants a smartphone or an email account or a home computer: They’re the default, the instruments we all need to live a functional life. In the case of 5G, the lack of agency is even more obvious. The infrastructure is being built whether we want it or not. So at some level, the conversation becomes not about the technology itself, but about the fact that ordinary people don’t feel as though they had any personal say. And sometimes, in fumbling for lost agency, people grab on to conspiracy theories.

Lots of people consider the claim that capitalism is a society-wide mostly unconscious institutionalized conspiracy to get people to buy stuff they don’t need while turning the planet into a garbage dump to be the quintessence of a crazy idea, while others consider it to be so obviously true as to not require further elaboration. The truth no doubt lays somewhere in the middle, as Tom Friedman would no doubt conclude, lounging in a smoking jacket in his 14,020 square foot Bethesda pied-a-terre, while waiting for Javier to bring him his postprandial palate cleanser [some details invented for dramatic effect].

Where was I? Ah yes:

The meeting’s host, Stephanie Low, has been an activist for 20 years, working against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, fracking, and, now, wireless technology of all sorts. “I only work on things that are enormous horrors,” she says. She hands me a business card, one of 1,000 she had printed to hand out to parents around the city when she sees them giving their young children a cellphone to play with. The card depicts a cartoon child with a smart meter—which emit electromagnetic radiation—hovering near their throat and a cellphone near their brain, next to a stop sign and a note: “Protect Your Kids! Studies show that the developing brains of children from conception to teenage years can be damaged by cell phone use. To be safe, even casual play should be prevented.”

Here in beautiful Boulder we are of course surrounded by these types. The contamination anxieties of upper class white people are . . . extensive. Basically gluten might as well be plutonium — yes I realize celiac disease does exist — while apparently it’s possible to make a lot of money selling candles that smell like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina (Yes this is a real thing. Or a “real thing” as Zizek would say).

And to entrepreneurs with an eye for the main chance, nothing smells like money more than fear itself:

The supremacy of wireless technology in American daily life is, really, a capitalist plot—at least insofar as the best way to protect yourself from anything is with money. The No. 1 seller in Askinosie’s shop is a rectangular shungite sticker ($9.95) that goes on the back of a cellphone case and protects “your energy against EMFs.” Second is a shungite phone stand ($34.95), and third is a shungite plate ($14.95), to set any kind of electronic device on. (“By placing your devices on a Shungite Plate, the Shungite stone properties minimize the EMFs emitted by technology.”)

The California-based lifestyle brand GIA Wellness offers the typical roster of skin-care products and meal-replacement protein powders alongside a range of Lifestyle Energy Products, including a $64.95 cellphone case that was designed in part “to help support your body’s natural resistance to the stress-related effects of electropollution (EMF) exposure,” a pendant that serves a similar purpose for $312.50 (both use “Energy Resonance Technology,” a “proprietary process, custom programmed to resonate with, and support your body’s energy field”), and a “Home Harmonizer” that costs $234.50 and has been designed to “support an energetically harmonious environment” with up to a 60-foot radius.

On a closely related topic, for all its destructive absurdity, the anti-vax movement is rooted in some legitimate fears — not of vaccines, but of the society that produces them:

The fear of some generalized capitalist conspiracy comes up, too, in Eula Biss’s 2014 book, On Immunity, which discusses the anti-vaccine movement. Biss spent years talking to fellow parents about their suspicions and fears, concluding that while these feelings can be easily justified, what they are most of all is sad: “That so many of us find it entirely plausible that a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide would willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us,” she writes.

In the case of anti-wireless activism, the scope of the conspiracy widens to the point where it becomes a worldview: Connectivity for connectivity’s sake was a mistake. Why are we carrying it around on our bodies? We could dial back, or we could stop moving so fast—we could stop ruining the night sky with satellites that will do nothing but bring super-fast internet to more people who will soon regret what it does to them.

So it’s all very complicated — and even more so in the age of COVID-19.

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