Apophenia. How the Internet Transforms the Individual into a Conspiracy of One
The German psychologist Klaus Conrad called this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich. Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.
Conrad became famous for recognizing this oppressive emergence of patterns as a pre-psychotic state that he compared to stage-fright. It culminates in a false epiphany: an apophany is not a flash of insight into the true nature of reality but an aha experience (literally: Aha-Erlebnis) that constitutes the birth of delusion.
In an apophenic state, everything’s a pattern. And while Conrad’s stage-model uses the analogy of starring in your own one-man show, the narcissism of living online today provides plenty more. On Instagram you can filter your face, filter out unwanted followers, construct an image that you and your peers want to believe in—you’re living a private illusion, in public, that the world reifies with likes. For-profit data collection has literally “reorganized” the world to revolve around you. As you wish it—or they will it.
The true epiphany, I want to argue, is that you’re the one pulling the strings. Enlightenment is to realize you have more agency than your push-notifications would have you believe.