Apophenia And The Bombardment

Through a post by Tim Boucher, I learned of “apophenia”, defined by danah boyd as referring to “the idea of making connections between previously unconnected ideas”. Boucher gets this from René Walter, so I’ll start there.

Walter begins by discussing Lovecraft describing the mercy of “the inability of the human mind to correlate all [the world’s] content”—an ignorance Walter says was “destroyed by social media”.

Within a few years we were able to read what half the world was thinking about any given subject, ready to be queried by search terms, sorted into tribal beliefs by algorithmic feeds. And, arguably, a lot of people absolutely went “mad from the revelation“.

This is where Walter turns to boyd and apophenia, and it’s best to just include here the entire quote Walter cites.

“Apophenia” refers to the idea of making connections between previously unconnected ideas. Unlike the concept of learning, apophenia suggests a cognitive disorder because the connections made are not real. They are imaginary. People see patterns that don’t exist and devise elaborate internally coherent explanations for non-sensical notions.

Like the cognitive process of apophenia, the social mechanisms of conspiratorial thinking are rooted in reality. It’s the pattern that’s non-existent.

(I’m going to very deliberately avoid the fact that Walter also makes reference to the so-called Dark Forest Theory of the Internet, which readers know drives me batshit because it’s Yancey Strickler getting the original theory from the Liu Cixin novel pretty much wrong.


Have to respectfully disagree here. The pattern is very much existent in the mind of the experiencer. That is, it is experientially really, regardless of its outward reality. […]

Anyway, the entire reason I find this interesting is that I’ve described my problems with social media and my difficulties with the allistic world around me as being a problem of the database versus the narrative—the issue being that having a brain that’s much more comfortable within the latter.

I do wonder if to some extent what’s happening is that autistic pattern-matching and need for predictable structure works overtime to try to narrativize the noise of the bombardment only to be stymied by the fact that no such pattern or narrative actually exists.

(This is one way in which what I consider to be an adaptation not a pathology in itself can become problematic depending upon the environment and circumstances in which, and the degree to which, it is put to use.)

Our “inability […] to correlate all [the world’s] content” drives us not to “making connections” or “conspiratorial thinking” but instead simply to needless cognitive wheel-spinning and ontological insecurity. All the more reason, then, for our robust defaults.