My Journey to the Centre of the Flat Earth Conspiracy

They may be cranks, but they're also beautiful dreamers.

05 February 2016, 8:00am

My encounter with the Flat Earth began, like most life-changing discoveries, as a bit of a joke. It's always gratifying to stumble on some tiny, cohesive internet subculture that you never knew existed; it's like picking up an ordinary-looking rock to find that the earwigs have built an entire functioning miniature city underneath. There's a whole other reality there, scurrying under a very different sky: they have as little knowledge of you and your priorities as you had of them, and every new seam of strangeness just goes to show that the world is far richer and more complex than you ever thought. People who honestly, seriously, in the 21st century, believe that the Earth is flat, and that a vast global conspiracy exists to indoctrinate us into thinking that it's a sphere surrounded by empty space. Wouldn't you at least want to listen to what they have to say?

Like most fringe communities, the Flat Earth truth movement is a nebulous and sprawling collection of blogs and forums and long-decayed Facebook pages, a world wide cobweb, but if it has anything like a centre, it's probably YouTube. There are thousands of true believers there, amateur cosmologists with their free copies of Windows Movie Maker, each of them certain that they've managed to single-handedly disprove 20 centuries of accepted science. I must have watched hours of flat earth rants; they're certainly better than anything on TV. Very quickly I learned to avoid the long, popular, pedantic videos, which invariably describe themselves as "documentaries", and tend to consist of one person in a dank little room, trying his best to sound reasonable (and it is almost always a he) as he drones about composite photos of Earth from space over a tedious slideshow.

The really fun stuff comes from the smaller accounts, the people who care far less about sounding respectable to outsiders, who are so deep in their hermetic community that they've forgotten how anyone could possibly not see the truth. Things get weird fast; it's like outsider art, each piece with its own gloriously mad formal innovations. One user has his insights appearing as subtitles over Hollywood footage of monsters and aliens, backed by an Epic Dubstep compilation; insisting that he's not making any assertions, that he's only asking questions, they're all phrased as what-if scenarios, but the titles give the game away. "What if the ILLUMINATI has STARGATE technology and flat earth will NEVER be the same?" "What if I believe that YOU'RE deceived and flat earth is real?" There's the guy who calls himself Math Powerland, and appears for unknown reasons in a suit jacket smeared with metallic paint. Or the people who think that the clues are in the language: the word "planet" is just "plane" plus an unfolded cube! And if we're not living in Hell, why do we greet each other with hell-o? It was funny: look at these people, and how wrong they are, isn't it hilarious? Until, very suddenly, it wasn't funny any more.

You can only immerse yourself in this stuff for so long before you start to believe it. Far more than the people who think hip-hop is run by the Illuminati or that vaccines give your children autism, the Flat Earthers seemed to be tapping into something real, the sense that there's a vast and irreducible wrongness about the world and the way we view it.

Standing on the beach, a brittle winter wind pushing me into the rising foam, I tried to see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon, and couldn't find it anywhere. It's flat! Why is it that nobody's trying to tap Antarctica's vast chemical resources, if it's just a floating continent and not the forbidden wall of ice that surrounds our flat world? Why is it that commercial flight paths in the southern hemisphere curve upwards, towards the equator, when it would make so much more sense to fly over the Antarctic Ocean? How come a flight from Wellington in New Zealand to Santiago in Chile stops over in Los Angeles? If the world is round, it's an enormous diversion, a pointless globe-straddling triangle, but if you map it as a flat plane with the North Pole in the centre, the route forms an almost straight line.

Someone's lying to us. What do they know, and why are we being kept in the dark? Laughing at the weirdness of the flat earth believers became a way of pushing out the unwelcome idea that they might actually be right. It became much harder to be sure of anything, once I was no longer certain of the ground I stood on; the world grew dark and mysterious, and monsters thrashed about just over the horizon. Where am I? Where am I really?

I found that the Flat Earthers really do have something important to teach us. They might be wrong about the shape of the Earth, but when it comes to other, more important questions, they're far closer to the truth than the people who drearily insist that the world is a floating sphere. Late last month, the rapper B.o.B. had a minor Twitter spat with televised astro-bore Neil DeGrasse Tyson over the question of the Flat Earth: B.o.B. insisted it was real; Tyson maintained that it wasn't, and ended up featuring in an excruciatingly bad science-based rap parody to prove his point. ("The planet is a sphere, G!")

Tyson ended the exchange by writing "Duude — to be clear: Being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn't mean we all can't still like your music", somehow managing to be more wrong than someone who thinks the world is flat. It's not just the terrible extraneous "u" in "dude" – it's that five centuries ago, in 1516, absolutely nobody thought that the world was flat. Tyson has been pretty forthright in his dismissal of philosophy, which is a shame. If he'd read his Hegel, he'd know that concepts in the present do not emerge undiluted from the past, that phenomena are products of the concrete totality of human relations.

As everyone knows, Columbus never proved that the Earth is round: the scholars of Europe were already well aware of that (and had been since ancient Greece); he thought that the world was much smaller than it is, and ended up proving himself wrong. The flat earth movement is a distinctly modern phenomenon, dating back no further than the mid-19th century, when pseudonymous writers such as Samuel Rowbotham (who called himself "Parallax") started writing pamphlets insisting that astronomy was a deception and the Earth was a flat plane.

It's notable that this development only took place in the context of the emergence of a truly global capitalism and what the philosopher Max Horkheimer would later call "instrumental reason" – scientific reason that doesn't just explain reality, but which is put to use; the mode of reason that alienates people from a world reconfigured as one vast factory. For millions, technological advances meant not freedom, but utter misery – and just as it declares that everything can be known, instrumental reason abstracts that knowledge beyond immediate experience. "Enlightenment", Horkheimer writes, "has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity." Faced with a reality that could no longer be intuitively understood, whose secrets had become the property of a small class of scientists and administrators, the early Flat Earthers tried to claw back some of their autonomy. They insisted that their own experience, not the diktat of a ruling class, was true. And when you look at the Earth with your own two eyes, it doesn't look round. It looks flat.

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments , Søren Kierkegaard tells a parable: a man escapes from a mental institution and into town, but worries that he'll be returned to his cell if he's discovered to be mad. So he decides to answer every question with a statement that's undeniably true: "The Earth is round." This is, of course, madness, and he's quickly locked away again. The banality of angrily insisting that the world is round makes it in a way far less true than the idea that it's actually flat. Because it's not true, in the boring, conventional sense of the word, Flat Earth theory has an enormous creative potential: all those thousands of people, constantly creating their crystalline new realities and uploading them to YouTube. Flat Earth is fascinating because in an era where so much of the world is disenchanting and so much of social existence is already a given – you will have your job, you will have your life, you will be exploited and then you will die – there are people who can dream the Earth itself into a different shape. It's flat.


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