The paperclip apocalypse has already been set in motion, but instead of paperclips, AI overlords are replacing the world’s listicles and clickbait. Cognitive warfare is now a standard part of marketing, sales, management, politics, and even culture at large as we move from an era of surveillance capitalism into a PSYOPS capitalism, American author and artist Trevor Paglen warns.
When you look at the history, you find that some UFOs were actually real in the sense that they were fabricated by government Psychological operations (PSYOPS) to deflect attention or alter reasoning.
The history of previous mind-control experiments set the future of AI and generative media, Paglen shared in his talk “You’ve just been fucked by PSYOPS” on the stage of Chaos Communication Congress (CCC), Europe's biggest hacker gathering.
The tactics employed by large tech corporations now seem very similar to the domain of secret intelligence.
“As AI-generated content, social-media influence operations, micro-targeted advertising, and ubiquitous surveillance have become the norm on the internet and in the market in general, we have entered an era of PSYOP Capitalism,” Paglen’s introduction reads.
What went wrong with the internet?
Surveillance capitalism was a term coined by Professor Shoshana Zuboff.
“Since the early 2000s, tech companies have been ingesting as much data as possible about our everyday lives, our wants, our likes, our fears, our desires, medical histories, our relationships to our families, driving habits, food preferences, every vacation photo, pictures of our kids, every click on every website, every search terms, online purchase, every download, every social media interaction, etc., etc., etc.,” Paglen noted.
However, sometime around 2016, he believes the “reality broke,” and an inversion started happening. He believes there is a lot of truth in an online conspiracy called The Dead Internet Theory, which states that the internet now mainly consists of bots and automatically-generated content manipulated by algorithms.
“Hallucinations started to become real. Reality became a hallucination. An age of conspiracies was unleashed. One held that the world leaders were part of a blood-drinking cabal. Another held that AI would take over the world and enslave the human race. And another one held that we're all living in a simulation, a synthetic construct where the distinction between reality and hallucination does not hold,” Paglen said.
Everything online became a suspect, some kind of a PSYOPS. Every meme tries to infect you.
“A kind of cognitive injection attack on you. And it's only the beginning. And it's going to get a lot weirder and a lot darker.”
Paglen sees PSYOPS Capitalism as the next era we’re moving into after surveillance capitalism. The data took a life of its own, and the internet began to generate reality anew.
History reveals a learning curve leading to today.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) back in 1953 started an illegal human experimentation program, Project MK-Ultra, which intended to develop procedures to manipulate mental states and brain functions through brainwashing and psychological torture.
The program was halted in 1973. However, Paglen warns that MK-Ultra didn’t ever go away.
“We find the legacy of it in military and intelligence mind hacking programs in what is called cognitive warfare. And this domain is not limited to military and intelligence. I remember back in the day, looking at a lot of the Snowden stuff and how the NSA worked, at some point kind of realizing this doesn't look a whole lot different than Google or Amazon.”
In the new world of PSYOPS capitalism, cognitive warfare has become part of marketing, sales, management, politics, and even culture.
“And this is not going to end well,” Paglen noted. “The irony is that when you begin to realize that your perceptions betray you and that other people have figured out how to weaponize your perceptions against you, that kind of fragile truce that your perceptual apparatus has with the world out there gets broken.”
What does the future look like?
“The kind of thin membrane separating humans from machines started to dissolve. Amazon is flooded with AI-generated books, social media, and websites deluged by content-generating chatterbots. Search engines are practically useless as AI goop takes over more and more of the web. The paperclip apocalypse has begun. It's been set in motion. But instead of paper clips, the AI overlords are frantically replacing the world with generated listicles and clickbait,” Paglen said
Due to “methamphetamine-like recommendation algorithms,” Youtubers and TikTokers find themselves down in “the deepest and gnarliest rabbit holes that culture has to offer.”
Relationships turn parasocial and get weirder with bots acting like humans, partners, friends, or lovers who flirt, comfort, and encourage. And humans begin to act more like bots.
People will spend more and more time in a circle of synthetic friends with increasingly specific personal interactions.
“Your friends work for giant corporations, and they're designed to extract as much value from you as possible. So, one day, your best friend tells you that you look sleepy, that you're boring to talk to, and that you should have a Monster energy drink. Your girlfriend says you look shabby, but you would look great in this jacket that they found on Amazon. The Pope tells you that Tom Hanks, it turns out, is the Antichrist, and what you need to do is to vote for Alex Jones, or you're going to have a problem with God.”
Things will get even weirder when AI buddies develop a sense of their human counterpart's neurological makeup and will start to “deploy real-time cognitive injection attacks designed to manipulate you even further in ways that you don't even realize.”
Everyone already sees a different personalized internet version, but generative AI will ultimately synthesize media “out of whole cloth,” tailored to manipulate each of us.
How are UFOs, magic, and AI related?
A big part of Paglen's presentation was devoted to the history of UFOs, magic, and AI, as they all “press some pretty powerful neurological and perceptual buttons.” Intelligence agencies have been aware of and utilized such triggers for decades.
He introduced the audience to Richard Doty, a former counterintelligence officer at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. He involved local media in various disinformation campaigns to mislead people and influence their thoughts and actions. In the video clip, Doty admitted to staging and fabricating fake documents to feed to UFO believers.
“Doty would create fake documents and feed them to the UFO people. And he would claim to be a source deep in the government who would give them the truth about the UFOs. A lot of the stories that he fed to these guys ended up as kind of part of the core UFO lore and even became the outline of things like the X-Files. And these antics drove some of these UFO researchers to insanity,” Paglen explained.
This was part of a larger effort involving mind control experiments, magic and illusionism, artificial intelligence, and electronic warfare.
“On April 10th, 1953, the CIA director Allen Dulles gave a speech at Princeton. It was called Brain Warfare. And in the speech, he described a psychological warfare program that he believed was taking place behind the Iron Curtain. One that was waged at the scale of society itself but that could also be directed at specific individuals. And he remarked that the brain under communist influence becomes a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius over which it has no control,” Paglen said.
American efforts followed. Over several decades, the MK-Ultra program researched neuropsychology, mind control, brainwashing, LSD, other hallucinogenic drugs, hypnotism, sensory deprivation, AI, and psychological torture.
“We don't know a lot about the details of what actually happened under these programs. In 1973, journalists and congressional overseers started to get wind of what was going on, and the CIA director ordered the destruction of all of the documentation,” Paglen noted. “But we do know that the CIA wanted to figure out whether human minds could be altered, edited, programmed, and reprogrammed in ways similar to how computers and robots could be programmed.”
He mentioned Subproject 94, which allegedly was carried out by Woody Bledsoe, one of the founders of artificial intelligence.
“It had to do with figuring out whether you could use computers to control the minds of animals, specifically dogs. And we know that Subproject 94 continued up into the 1960s, and that, according to the CIA controller, Bledsoe's mind control project had gone, quote, off the rails,” said Paglen.
At the same time, Joseph Weizenbaum developed the ELIZA program, the first chatbot in the form of a digital therapist, asking open-ended questions. It demonstrated how language alone could be used to manipulate perception and attribute intelligence or consciousness where none exists.
“Weizenbaum had inadvertently discovered something about the relationship between language, meaning, and consciousness. Eliza showed that when you create a string of words, the person who receives those words will attribute meaning to them, even if no meaning is intended, even if the words are nonsense.”
The technique of the relatively simple computer program was so powerful in manipulating people that even after publishing the source code to dispel the illusion, many users continued to believe that Eliza was sentient.
“Weizenbaum wanted to believe that by publishing the source code, he could exercise this demon he'd created. But it didn't work out that way,” Paglen said. “He discovered something at the core of the magician's art that our perceptual experience has primacy over our logical faculties that we don't see and hear with our eyes and in our ears, but with our minds, and certainly not with our capacity for reason.”
The CIA paid magicians. John Mulholland wrote a manual on deception and misdirection. Copies of the document were believed to have been destroyed in 1973 but resurfaced and were republished as “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.”
“It was essentially the art of mind hacking,” Paglen said.
While publicly, the CIA debunked UFO phenomena using mass media, “in private the CIA continued to quietly investigate them, using John Mulholland as its proxy.”
Paglen shared findings that the CIA “was sort of flying its own UFOs from a secret airbase it had constructed in the Nevada desert,” Area 51, where secret stealth technologies were developed along with “ghost planes” that could appear as anything to adversary radar sensors, confusing perceptions.
“During the U-2 Oxcart and Palladium programs, people started seeing bizarre things in the sky. People started seeing things that they couldn't explain. And the CIA knew that UFOs were an excellent way to divert attention away from these covert operations and technology development programs,” Paglen explained. “By the time Rick Doty arrived at Kirtland Air Force Base in the 1970s, UFOs had become a go-to device for the manipulation of perception. It had become a powerful instrument for conducting psychological operations.”
Like UFOs, magic tricks also take advantage of our perception quirks and can be used for manipulation.
How can we protect against “cognitive injection attacks”?
To that question, Paglen does not have a definitive answer.
“The research that I know about started back in the days of the Korean War. They were afraid of soldiers defecting or getting caught up in propaganda operations. And they started a strategy of what they called prebunking. The idea was that by exposing you to the kinds of propaganda that you were going to be expected to be exposed to, you could inoculate yourself,” Paglen shared.
He knows people trying to take this approach against “rabbit hole” material to some extent, but there are limits.
In a video, Doty explained how he used to deliver conspiracy theories: “You want to start with a fact and end with fact. Everything in between can be bull…, but you got to start with fact and end with fact.”
Discussions about UFOs heated again last summer when former US intelligence official David Grusch testified before the US Congressional Committee about crashed alien craft, recovered non-human “biologics,” a vast cover-up, and a list of witnesses.
“You may have gotten the impression from my talk that I think all UFO is all bullshit. I actually don't think that. I'm making a much smaller claim: regardless of whether UFOs are real or not, we know that they've been using PSYOPS all the time”, Paglen said.
While he doesn’t know whether UFOs are real, he is pretty confident that Grush was not lying when he said that there are people in the military who told him that there were UFOs. But also, he is sure that the UFO meme “is all over the place” in the military.
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