Conspiracy Theories… among Engineers

Where do conspiracy theories come from? I was fascinated by this link at the technology news site ArsTechnica. The article tries to debunk an urban rumor, “Does Apple really assign engineers to “fake” projects as a loyalty test?” It struck me as a classic conspiracy theory. What gives rise to such thinking? Engineers come to believe in “fake” products rather than the more mundane (and less interesting) conclusion that management consists of human beings who sometimes change their minds or make mistakes. OR that a junior engineer will be placed on a project that may be slated for possible elimination. No one in management would put new, inexperienced or unseasoned hires on mission-critical projects.
(There are conspiracy theories on stolen elections, vast left/or/right conspiracies, terrorist attacks, foreign soldiers landing on the coasts (WWII), Catholic bishops infiltrating American schools (Nativists), or space aliens or… or. The great World War II movie Tora! Tora! Tora! answered many of the conspiracy theorists about the source of the delay in notifying Pearl Harbor–US intelligence knew of the imminence of an attack, but assumed it would be the Philippines (not Hawaii) and the warning got bogged down in military bureaucracy. The warning was not delayed because FDR wanted to get us into the war. But then conspiracy thinking is so much more interesting than the reality of screw-ups and boredom. I think, in the end, conspiracy theories are ego-boosts insofar as we know something that no one else really knows. In the case of these new Apple engineers, these young people are coming from college and probably have egos, so they can’t imagine being put on a real project that gets killed, instead they can only imagine that they were working on a secret fake product that management never intended for the outside world. But I could be wrong, like so many of us were wrong about doubting the fake rock used by the British to spy on the Soviets.)

Wikipedia has a round-up of sources in its article on Conspiracy Theories (which is very incomplete but still a good starting point). In fact, the engineers at Apple are engaging in a kind of paternalistic conspiracy theorizing, not mentioned in the Wikipiedia entry. Conspiracy thinking can also be a way of dealing with lack of communication or even a bunker mentality.

And some conspiracy theory links:

(Edited 5/16/13 to add some more thoughts on conspiracy theories and Tora! Tora! Tora!, and edited again for the comments on Wikipedia and these links.)

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By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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