We Built This City On Conspiracy Theory

There’s a ‘new’ conspiracy theory emerging on digital spaces like TikTok and Instagram. (Just search the hashtag.) Today, I want to offer a few quick thoughts on what it is, and what it means for our politics and our future.

What is a 15 Minute City?

The conspiracy theory is a reaction to an urban design concept called “the 15 minute city”. The concept is largely credited to French Colombian academic Carlos Moreno. Cities like Paris, Amsterdam, and Alberta have expressed interest, along with countries like Scotland.

The premise is simple: not a city built on rock and roll (thanks Starship) but urban landscapes designed to accommodate most basic necessities within a 15 minute walk. (I think there’s some fascinating connections from this concept to Walt Disney’s “City of Tomorrow” aka EPCOT, but that’s a different conversation!)

Some obvious (and yes moral) claims of 15 minute cities include carbon reductions and the ability to disrupt “food deserts”. Cities designed by this principle might make nutritious food and other services more immediately accessible to communities cut out by poor urban planning, and the politics of zoning. 

So what’s the problem?

I tweeted a few weeks ago that climate change was going to generate more and more conspiratorial reactions in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. And 15 minute cities are proving that analysis. 

Conspiracy theories attached to this urban concept claim governments will use the design to surveil populations. They claim 15 minute cities are a slippery slope to “climate lockdowns”. In a word, rather than engage with academic ideas, moral claims, and political process, conspiracy theory short-circuits it all.

This 15-minute city conspiracy is an acute conspiracy. It’s attached to a particular event or idea. But then there’s chronic conspiracy theory. Chronic conspiracism is a host of assumptions, suspicions and commitments. Sometimes ideological, political, theological or all the above. And chronic conspiracism is what generates acute conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy Theory is a Feature of Our Digital “Infostructure” and Our Politics

So what? The world and our perception of it are fragmented by the sheer scale of information. Conspiracy theory (both chronic and acute) is a feature of our digital “infostructure”. It’s blend of ideological commitments and paranoid suspicions makes it easier to interpret the torrent of information.

If conspiracy theory corrodes our digital infostructure, it will also collapse our politics and our moral development. It already has. Q-Anon was just a novel example. Especially close to my research interests is how the ideological commitments and political agendas of evangelicalism will integrate theology in support of conspiracy theory. Again, all these things are at play, in fears over climate change and more.

One thing I know, the political, moral, and social demands of our shared future cannot, should not, be short circuited by conspiracy theory. We are responsible.

I’m glad to see this get profiled in length at The Conversation UK last week. Thanks to Ian Brooks (@sdg_brooks) for linking to the article on Twitter. This post was originally shared on my Substack.

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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