Distributed Ghosts in the Machine

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Amidst the laughing babies and spectacular soccer goals endlessly documented and dissected on YouTube, there are dozens of videos of paranormal phenomena: ghosts and poltergeists, aliens and reptoid news reporters. Some of them have amassed tens of millions of views. Together, they evoke an old relationship between technology and credulity: a kind of technological gnosticism.

There's a way in which many people see video as a means not only for documenting surfaces of daily life, but plumbing its depths. There's a sense in which the technology -- even, and perhaps especially, when at its glitchiest -- reveals unseen forces and governing spirits at work behind the veil of the quotidian. In the fuzzy, gremlin-haunted visual world of YouTube, paranoia and the paranormal have emerged as an aesthetic -- and perhaps as a mode of religious experience as well.

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Among the videos in this shadowy genre are many pieces of straightforward fabrication, running the smeary gamut from hoax to figured fiction. With digital effects packages like Avid and After Effects bringing Hollywood magic within consumers' reach, millions of casual auteurs can fashion chilling spectacles ripe for viral proliferation. Some of YouTube's most popular videos feature digitally-enhanced scenelets of demonic possession; fleeting, Blair Witch-inspired mini-dramas of haunting and stalking; and apparitions of horrid faces and hands.

But perhaps the most interesting paranormal spectacles on YouTube focus on the uncanny nature of video itself. Buzzing with glitchy signals, pixelated visions and otherworldly tones, television's cool stream of imagery has always mixed with the weird and the worrisome; even the droning fugue of tones offered up by tests of the old Emergency Broadcasting System can chill the marrow of late-night viewers. In a world of ubiquitous video coverage, where CCTV, camcorders and cellphones are always switched on, the possibility of uncanny error has increased exponentially. For many, such irruptions of unintended imagery aren't nuisances, but objects for a kind of esoteric contemplation.

Erik Davis, author and connoisseur of the technological fantastic, has noted gnostic possibilities of glitchy TV. In his new book, Nomad Codes, Davis describes how a signal error turned a 9/11 news report into "a portal into the compulsive repetitions of the media unconscious:"

The transmission snafu reminded me that explosions do not just happen in the material universe of airplanes and stock brokers; info-bombs also rupture the noösphere, dividing, confusing, and destroying minds, our minds, even as the machines that network those minds -- the telephones, the web servers, the satellites -- groan under the weight of our sudden compulsive need to tune it, to talk, to witness.... The glitch was an abstract, an artifact of data transmission, and yet it radiated like shrapnel through the Mobius strip of media.

For Davis, the uncanny experience of video error has a salutary effect, limning the psyche's own tortured encounter with overwhelming catastrophe. On YouTube, however, a cast of conspiracy theorists and creeptastic connoisseurs have catalogued video ruptures of the noösphere as evidence of unseen forces at work. Dozens of YouTube clips collect accidental uncanny visions: spectral faces in windows; shadowy figures seemingly unseen by passersby; wierd, tentacled creatures bustling in the backgrounds of news interviews. Hearkening back to late-19th century Spiritualism's application of early photography, YouTube's parasychologists see it as in the very nature of video technology to reveal layers of sur- and sous-reality not visible to conscious eyes in the waking world.

At its extreme, this technological gnosticism becomes a tool for elaborating conspiracy theories; video glitches reveal the presence of hidden powers working the levers of modern life. The most elaborate notion animated by video imagery has to do with the Reptoid Conspiracy: a secret, multi-generational cabal of shape-shifting reptilian extraterrestrials who have maneuvered themselves into positions of power in politics and the media. Their true nature is revealed when TV cameras glitch and swoon, skinning interviewees' eyes with nictitating membranes and turning the faces of news anchors into blistering, scaly masks. The effect is caused by camera filters intended to soften facial features while keeping background details crisp and suit lapels sharp; when driven to the point of malfunction by vanity or production extremes, the filters go awry, breeding televisual monsters.

Internet critics point to a condition of "continuous partial attention" afflicting the networked imagination. Perhaps the online consciousness experiences a related phenomenon that we might call continuous partial credulity, a condition of techno-agnosticism. In a world already populated with serial killers, talking cats and singing babies, in a network overrun with bots and viruses and feral memes, it's easy to take a few small steps to the possibility of angels, demons and reptilian alien overlords, distributed ghosts in the machine.

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Matthew Battles is a co-founder of HiLobrow.com and the author of Library: An Unquiet History.

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