Conspiracy and prospiracy

One of the problems we face in the war against terror is that al-Qaeda is not quite a conspiracy in the traditional sense. It’s something else that is more difficult to characterize and target.

(I wrote what follows three years before 9/11.)

Political and occult conspiracy theories can make for good propaganda and excellent satire (vide Illuminatus! or any of half a dozen other examples). As guides to action, however, they are generally dangerously misleading.

Misleading, because they assume more capacity for large groups to keep secrets and maintain absolutely unitary conscious policies than human beings in groups actually seem to possess. The history of documented “conspiracies” and failed attempts at same is very revealing in this regard — above a certain fairly small size, somebody always blows the gaff. This is why successful terrorist organizations are invariably quite small.

Dangerously misleading because conspiracy theories, offering the easy drama of a small group of conscious villains, distract our attention from a subtler but much more pervasive phenomenon — one I shall label the “prospiracy”.

What distinguishes prospiracies from conspiracies is that the members don’t necessarily know they are members, nor are they fully conscious of what binds them together. Prospiracies are not created through oaths sworn by guttering torchlight, but by shared ideology or institutional culture. In many cases, members accept the prospiracy’s goals and values without thinking through their consequences as fully as they might if the process of joining were formal and initiatory.

What makes a prospiracy like a conspiracy and distinguishes it from a mere subcultural group? The presence of a “secret doctrine” or shared goals which its core members admit among themselves but not to perceived outsiders; commonly, a goal which is stronger than the publicly declared purpose of the group, or irrelevant to that declared purpose but associated with it in some contingent (usually historical) way.

On the other hand, a prospiracy is unlike a conspiracy in that it lacks well-defined lines of authority. Its leaders wield influence over the other members, but seldom actual power. It also lacks a clear-cut distinction between “ins” and “outs”.

Prospiracy scales better than conspiracy, and thus can be far more dangerous. Because anyone can join simply by buying the “secret” doctrine, people frequently recruit themselves. Because the “secret” isn’t written on stone tablets in an inner sanctum, it’s totally deniable. In fact, members sometimes deny it to themselves (not that that ultimately matters). What keeps a prospiracy together is not conscious commitment but the memetic logic of its positions.

As an exercise (and to avoid any appearance of axe-grinding), I’ll leave the reader to apply this model for his or herself. There are plenty of juicy examples out there. I’m a “member” of at least two of them myself.

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Categorized as Terror


  1. I agree that conspiracies can be “dangerously misleading” and even ridiculously funny, but remember that conspiracies are often are grounded in facts. I really dig this blog. I am going to bookmark Armed and Dangerous. Later

  2. Many years after this was written, I had need to refer to an association of individuals bound by an ideology with its own public and private memetic logics, where the private logic is not necessarily recognized by individuals who recognize the public logic. I thought instantly of “prospiracy”, and came here, and lo, that’s how the word is used.

    The trouble today is that “prospiracy” does not appear to have this meaning in the wild.

    Urban Dictionary defines it as a suspected group of people who are out to help you.

    Reddit cites A Way with Words, which defines it as “a secret plan by a group to do something beneficial”.

    (Yudkowsky uses the term in a quirky parable that appears to involve customary conspiracy groups. Being a Yudkowsky parable, it’s so layered with meanings that I can’t deduce what an intended definition might be, and whatever I arrive at would be arguably wrong or imprecise. To worsen matters, the term appears only in the title, never in the text.)

    Given UD and AWwW by way of Reddit, I have to conclude that the ESR sense is not going to be the understood sense in public, so I can’t use the term in public.

    I think the ESR sense is interesting (though I think it raises certain problems touching on kafkatraps), but at the same time, I have to say that the UD sense appears more naturally connoted by the name. The opposite of a “CONspiracy” should evoke the opposite of its meaning – a public group of people working together to achieve something negative, or a secret group of people working together to achieve something positive (UD sense). (There are other opposites I could imagine, but they appear to make less sense.)

    So if I want to refer to the ESR sense, I think I need another term, plus some method of propagating it. The most natural alternative that comes to mind would be “cryptospiracy”. …A search for that term turns up no meaningful hits – good news in a way, since it means this term has no current conflicts. Moreover, I do get an en passant autocompletion to Cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes an ailment noted for its watery diarrhea and coughing. Make of that what you will.

  3. A PROSPIRACY is” the meeting of two or more people to achieve a worthy objective ”

    no no less more —

    from the originator

  4. Society is not unlike a network of individual computers. So using this metaphor, let’s imagine a botnet implemented across the network.

    The botnet code has already infected a hefty chunk of the network but for an average OS of a regular computer it’s nothing special; it just doesn’t acknowledge the fact that its network sockets are receiving and transmitting some information to its peers, with packets flying below any firewalls and other built-in means of detection. Still, the OS sees some nasty side-effects and tries to reassure itself: “Well, I’m seeing some strange effects – my HDD is not as idle as it used to be nor the CPU temps are as low. I’m asking my friends and they all feel the same. This must have to do with the geomagnetic activity being high these days”. Then it starts noticing that snippets of its private data began circulating freely across the network, ending up in unexpected destinations. “OK”, the OS keeps lulling itself, “it’s just that we’re living in an open and transparent society”. Then it starts getting denials of access to its own previously accessible files. A certain system process, say, “common_sense.exe” starts crashing every five minutes, but all the the peers keep chanting the same mantra “Ommmm, it’s trendy, healthy and just hip to crash the common_sense at least once in five minutes. ARE YOU AGAINST THOSE WHO DO!?”.

    Then there occur a small percentage of machines whose common_sense won’t crash due to a timely patch. They reflect upon themselves and notice that something really creepy is going on within and around. As they start blowing the whistle on this, they’re getting booed and called “conspiracy theorists”, because the majority does not believe there can be any substantial group of conspirators able to keep their affairs concealed and control huge subnets at a click of a button – a belief based on their own implanted inability to control their network traffic.

    This is the time when the concept of “prospiracy” enters the scene. It’s been told that indeed, there’s a problem, machines act weird, but they do so JUST BECAUSE THEY SUBCONSCIOUSLY (at the kernel level) CHOSE to do so. There indeed is a botnet but it is a self-arisen, sporadic, inexplicable – in a word, magical entity. And to many “woke” Winnies, Macsies and Linnies this might sound like a reasonable explanation.

    Sorry, but my common_sense.exe tells me that this just breaks the chain of cause and effect by acknowledging the obvious effect but leaving the cause out of scope.

    In the context of botnets, the key ingredient is the Vulnerability, and the driving force is someone’s knowledge how to implement the Exploit upon this Vulnerability. That of someone who is smart and self-contained enough to restrict this knowledge to a very tight circle of allies, layers of whom share the knowledge in strictly bottom-up way.

    “- Hey, but people are not computers!”
    – Sure they are not, that’s why they should also be capable of thinking metaphorically!

    “- But botnets are created by hackers, not machines!”
    – True, the Hacker is well beyond a machine’s scope into the Transcendent, but nonetheless He does not break the causal chain.

    The notion of ability of some people (or entities that program people) to control others is often so obnoxious for many, that even if they acknowledge the fact, they tend to demote it to black magic, even satanism (or completely on the contrary, surrender to it as the Providence itself). But what is magic if not knowledge yet unavailable for the consciousness?

    So, the concept of pure prospiracy is just half of what has been actually taking place in society, as well as that of pure conspiracy. The former is a visual manifestation of a process (“the trees are swaying”), and the latter is the driving force behind it (“the wind is blowing”). Only together they form a holistic experience of the process. Let me go bold and propose a more appropriate term to encompass them both: “Holospiracy”.

    P.S. With all due respect to the OP.

  5. I for for “nonspiracy” as in “it’s not a CON-spiracy, it’s a NON-spiracy.”

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