Objects In The Sky

“In 1896, newspapers throughout the United States began reporting accounts of mysterious airships flying overhead. Descriptions varied, but witnesses frequently invoked the century’s great technological achievements. Some sources reported dirigibles powered by steam engines. Others saw motorized, winged crafts with screw propellers. Many recalled a flying machine equipped with a powerful searchlight.

“As technologies of flight evolve, so do the descriptions of unidentified flying objects. The pattern has held in the 21st century as sightings of drone-like objects are reported, drawing concern from military and intelligence officials about possible security threats.

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By the 19th century […] the age of industrialization transferred its awe onto products of human ingenuity. The steamboat, the locomotive, photography, telegraphy, and the ocean liner were all hailed as “modern wonders” by news outlets and advertisers. All instilled a widespread sense of progress—and opened the door to speculation about whether objects in the sky signaled more changes.

“Yet nothing fueled the imagination more than the possibility of human flight. In the giddy atmosphere of the 19th century, the prospect of someone soon achieving it inspired newspapers to report on tinkerers and entrepreneurs boasting of their supposed successes.

“The wave of mysterious airship sightings that began in 1896 did not trigger widespread fear. The accepted explanation for these aircraft was terrestrial and quaint: Some ingenious eccentric had built a device and was testing its capabilities.

“But during the first two decades of the 20th century, things changed. As European powers expanded their militaries and nationalist movements sparked unrest, the likelihood of war prompted anxiety about invasion. The world saw Germany—home of the newly developed Zeppelin—as the likeliest aggressor. Military strategists, politicians, and newspapers in Great Britain warned of imminent attack by Zeppelins.

“The result was a series of phantom Zeppelin sightings by panicked citizens throughout the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand in 1909, then again in 1912 and 1913. When war broke out in August 1914, it sparked a new, more intense wave of sightings. Wartime reports also came in from Canada, South Africa, and the United States. In England, rumors that German spies had established secret Zeppelin hangars on British soil led vigilantes to scour the countryside…”

Text: How UFO Reports Change With the Technology of the Times

Pic: Andy Warhol – Silver Clouds, M Woods Museum.

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The Event

“After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys – yes, all men – from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own. […]

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“Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked: “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?”

“The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr Robot hack that takes everything down.

“This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed in time.

“That’s when it hit me: at least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the ageing process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape…”

Text: Douglas Rushkoff,  How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

“We watched at the eye-machine…”

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“According to Lindner, his patient first began experiencing a strange feeling while reading fanciful adventure novels during his youth. “In some weird and inexplicable way I knew that what I was reading was my biography […]. Nothing in these books was unfamiliar to me: I recognized everything… My everyday life began to recede at this point. In fact, it became fiction—and, as it did, the books became my reality.” At the further stage of this “psychosis,” the patient “filled in the spaces” between the written stories with “fantasy ‘recollections.'”

“If, in fact, the man described here is Paul Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith), this strange, distorted sense of reality did little to hinder his success in the more conventional world that you and I inhabit. He earned a Ph.D. in political science at Johns Hopkins, and in his early life he mastered six languages. He served on the faculty of Duke University, advised the military on psychological warfare (and wrote a seminal book on the subject), did work for the CIA, and advised President John F. Kennedy. And those are merely highlights of his terrestrial CV.

“Smith’s science-fiction work was obsessed with grand historical concepts and organizational philosophies, and describes in great detail command structures—in particular what he calls the Instrumentality of Mankind, a galactic governmental framework that recurs again and again in his work—and transformational epochs. A particular fixation of his was his projected future “Rediscovery of Man,” in which a technologically superior race of human beings deliberately renounces its advantages and blandly perfected lives in order to reintroduce risk and uncertainty into the sphere of day-to-day events.

“What an odd change from those all-too-familiar sci-fi books about the future, in which some authoritarian dystopian society is postulated. Here instead Cordwainer Smith envisions a future in which the powers-that-be prefer to embrace a messy, uncontrolled imperfection. In an unusual twist on the typical futurist saga, Smith describes a fierce backlash against the grand achievements of the social engineers—but only because they have succeeded so completely.

“The rulers now decide that they need to return to the less predictable ways of the past. Only 42 people in the entire universe know how to read English, that archaic language of a dead society, and a Common Tongue now allows universal communication, but that is now to be replaced by the reintroduced old languages. A host of other advances—medical, sociological, psychological, economic—are similarly seen as obsolete.

“I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter, after fourteen thousand years,” announces the narrator Paul in Smith’s short story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.” “I took Virginia to hear the first piano recital. We watched at the eye-machine when cholera was released in Tasmania, and we saw the Tasmanians dance in the streets, now that they did not have to be protected any more. Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world. I myself went into a hospital and came out French…”

Text: Ted Gioia, Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling, The Atlantic.

Image: Kazuya Akimoto, The Evil Eye, 2010.

The Imposter Lives with the Patient

 

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“Mary, aged 40 years, was referred for psychiatric evaluation out of concern that a mental health diagnosis was interfering with her ability to appropriately and safely care for her child. The patient had stated on numerous occasions that her 9-year-old daughter, Sarah, had been placed in the custody of Child Protective Services and replaced by an imposter. Mary also reported that she had given birth to twins but that the hospital record only documented the birth of Sarah. On occasion, she had shown up at her daughter’s school, refusing to pick her up, screaming, “Give me my real daughter; I know what you’ve done.”

“Despite reassurance from multiple health care providers and relatives, Mary continued to express concern that her daughter was not, in fact, her own. Furthermore, she related several episodes in which her daughter was “whisked away before I could talk to her” while going about her daily business. For example, Mary related that a car driven by an unknown person, with Sarah in the passenger seat, passed by her while she was running errands but sped away once she was noticed…

[…]

“A case has been described in which a mother believed her adult daughter had been replaced with a look-alike imposter. On delving into the patient’s history, it was found that the patient had to leave a very serious relationship with a man she loved because she was pregnant with another man’s child. The baby eventually grew into the adult daughter who the patient believed had been replaced. The patient’s resentment for having to leave her lover when she was pregnant was believed to be the psychodynamic source for the current delusion.

“With Capgras syndrome, the family member who is believed to have been replaced is most often a spouse, parent, or sibling. For unknown reasons, the “replaced” family member is rarely the child of the delusional person and even more rarely is the child younger than 20 years. Although violence aimed at any person is a significant threat, violence aimed at children is particularly worrisome. Mary’s case is unique because the increased potential for violence in her relationship with her daughter needs to be taken into consideration when assessing the patient’s ability to be a safe and effective parent.

“Although violence can be seen in all psychiatric disorders, there is a higher incidence of severe violence in patients with delusional disorders. In patients with Capgras syndrome, the violence is often directed at the imposter or, in some cases, the people the patient believes replaced the loved one with the imposter.

“Bourget and Whitehurst found several demographic features that increase the likelihood of violence in persons with Capgras syndrome. Specifically, if the imposter lives with the patient or if the delusional person is male, has a persistent and long-term delusion, or has a history of violence or substance abuse, the risk of violence is increased. The sources of violence can be frustration or fear of the imposter, but it can also be cultural.

“Silva and colleagues found that some folklore and regional legends suggest that if a child is thought to have been replaced by another person or even by a demon, battering and being physically aggressive toward the imposter might bring the “real” child back. One Swedish fairy tale recounts the story of a woman who believed her child was an imposter. In the story, she is advised to put her baby into a hot oven; when she does this, her “true” child is returned. This is a severe case that is not necessarily the norm for patients with misidentification delusions; however, it is evidence that violence in delusional persons can happen.”

Text: That’s Not My Child: A Case of Capers Syndrome, by Jeremy Matuszak, MD and Matthew Parra, MD, Psychiatric Times.

Pic: The Lovers 2, 1928 by Rene Magritte

Events Appear Random, Hard to Reconcile

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“The belief that an event, a situation, or a set of people is controlled by unknown or secret forces, which usually have unsavory intentions. The conspiracies are supposedly intended to seize or hold political power, keep shocking information from the public, protect parties guilty of a crime, or overthrow social institutions. Conspiracies may be controlled by unidentified figures or by known institutions such as the CIA, the FBI, or the U.S. government; they may refer to known religious groups, such as Jews or Catholics, or they may assume an unprecedented new cabal; they may be attributed to aliens, communists, racial or ethnic minorities, or to a stranger. What all conspiracy theories have in common is the idea that common people have gained secret knowledge that a powerful elite is trying to keep hidden and that uncovering the conspiracy will help explain things that were previously hard to understand.

“Conspiracy theories develop for several reasons. They are a way of making sense of information that is difficult to organize or comprehend. When logic and rationality do not provide a good story to explain something, conspiracy, attached to a series of seeming coincidences, can do the job. Events that appear random and hard to reconcile with known causes can be brought under control if a conspiracy is used to explain them. The effects of actions by large institutions, such as governments or corporations, are difficult to explain because of their complexity; conspiracy can account for their actions in a comprehensive way. Conspiracies are hard to disprove because any opposition to a conspiracy theory can be seen as another part of the conspiracy and as an element of a cover-up.

“Conspiracy theories are popular ways to talk about the unknowable. Big, disturbing events, such as the attacks of 9/11 or the John F. Kennedy assassination, spawn conspiracies because they seem too random or unexpected. The 9/11 conspiracy theorists were not satisfied with the explanation that Al Qaeda operatives were responsible and have developed a series of theories that blame the U.S. government. The Kennedy assassination has nurtured decades of conspiracy theories, in part because the government’s official explanation (in the Warren Commission Report) contained inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Theories such as the crashing of an alien spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and the subsequent transport of alien bodies to “Area 51” in the Nevada desert, have become acceptable ways of talking about encounters with the unknown. For more information, see Becker (1994) and Shermer (1997).”

Text: Conspiracy TheoryLarry E. Sullivan, The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Image: Ant Farm & TR Uthco, The Eternal Frame, 1975.“The Eternal Frame was a project by Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco, 1975, that resulted in a 24 minute video work about the JFK assassination. At the center of this work was a re-enactment of the tragedy produced and performed for the camera, but unexpectedly many bystanders showed up to watch and were interviewed.”

Control Threats

“People’s desire to make sense of the social world is closely coupled with the extent to which they experience control over their environment. Various complementary theoretical perspectives, on meaning-making (Heine, Proulx, & Vohs, 2006; Park, 2010; Van den Bos, 2009), paranoia (Kramer, 1998), and compensatory control (Kay, Whitson, Gaucher, & Galinsky, 2009; Rutjens, van Harreveld, & van der Pligt, 2013), assume that threats to control increase people’s mental efforts to make sense of the social world, imbuing the world with meaning, purpose, and order. These insights may explain why conspiracy theories seem to gain momentum particularly following impactful societal events that are likely experienced as control threats by citizens (e.g., a terrorist strike, a war, or a natural disaster; see Pipes, 1997; Robins & Post, 1997; Shermer, 2011). Indeed, research reveals that people are more likely to attribute impactful, harmful societal events (e.g., a politician is assas- sinated) to conspiracies than societal events that are less impactful or harmful (e.g., someone tries to assassinate a politician but fails; see McCauley & Jacques, 1979), a finding that is attributable to people’s sense-making motiva- tion (Van Prooijen & Van Dijk, 2014).

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“In a similar vein, various operationalizations of control threats have been found to predict conspiracy beliefs. For in- stance, an external locus of control—that is, a dispositional tendency to believe that one’s outcomes are controlled by external forces—is correlated with interpersonal mistrust and paranoia (Mirowsky & Ross, 1983) and belief in conspiracy theories (Hamsher, Geller, & Rotter, 1968).

“Furthermore, a seminal study by Whitson and Galinsky (2008) reveals that experimentally induced control threats increases the extent to which participants perceive patterns, such as images in random noise, patterns in stock market information, and conspiracies. Complementary findings indicate that control threats elicit responses that are widely associated with conspiracy belief, such as attributing increased power to one’s enemies (Sullivan, Landau, & Rothschild, 2010), and scapegoating (Rothschild, Landau, Sullivan, & Keefer, 2012). Furthermore, constructs that are closely associated with control threats, such as death anxiety (Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch, 2011), uncertainty (Van Prooijen & Jostmann, 2013), and attitudinal ambivalence (van Harreveld, Rutjens, Schneider, Nohlen, & Keskinis, 2014), have been found to similarly influence conspiracy beliefs. In the following, we discuss how the present contribution is designed to expand on these insights.”

Text: The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Conceptual and Applied Extensions, Jan-Willem Van Prooijen and Michelle Accker, Applied Cognitive Psychology, Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 29: 753–761 (2015).

Image: Adolph Gottlieb, Green Dream, 1969, Serigraph, 24.13 x 19.13 inches

Mental Time Travel

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“To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival. It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behaviour may influence future generations. If we were not able to picture the world in a hundred years or more, would we be concerned with global warming? Would we attempt to live healthily? Would we have children?”

Text: Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias, TIME

Pic: Thomas Cole, The Architect’s Dream, 1840.