Q Lights Up Your Brain
I was once an engineer. I still remember that time and my experience of solving difficult problems for various companies returns to my conscious attention whenever I hear a QAnon supporter explain the world. Peering out from each explanation is a satisfied certainty with which I am familiar. It rings back to my own excited confidence when presenting my engineering solution for peer review. There is a joy in understanding something. There is a joy in completing the world. It is an addictive joy, a whole body joy that makes Q the drug of choice for the childish amateur army that is QAnon.
The Engineering Experience
Aside from my children and my sweet spouse, engineering was my greatest joy. At Sun Microsystems, the engineer was served a regular diet of problems that others had declared to be impossible. The process was terrifying and exhilarating. The engineer was presented with a problem to which no one knew an answer — a problem that was presented as insurmountable, impossible, an impenetrable cypher. The engineer was tasked with discovering that answer. Every problem is “the world, broken” and engineering method was applied to the task of exposing the breakage and rending from it the correction that no one else knew: the correction that would repair this tiny part of the world.
Sometimes weeks of study and review would yield no solution. The problem would become all-consuming. Possible solutions were reviewed and rejected over and over. The whiteboard was covered with possibilities and angrily erased, then new possibilities scribbled rapidly to try to recover the original revelation in a more practical context. After weeks of struggle, the revelation — the actual revelation that works — would arise. The whiteboard is covered with the scrawl and the engineer steps back astounded at the unexpected produce of the unconscious mind. At that moment, at that precious moment, there is a rush of visceral joy. I, myself, have been consumed by the ecstasy of such discovery. The conclusion to the engineer’s labors is a reward of rapture — weeping is not uncommon. The human brain relishes the discovery of the unknown. After first accomplishing the impossible task, it becomes an addiction. The engineer craves the next challenge and glories in the next deeply hidden solution.
What makes the elation special is not merely the discovery but the reveal. The engineer must present the solution to peers for review. The truly excellent solution is met with praise and accolades and promotions. The discovery of the unknown is most powerful as a communal experience. A group of people with similar goals, hoping to understand what was not known before, gather in a conference room and assess and jointly rejoice in a revelation from which the world itself may be improved.
This is the basic experience of engineering at an institution that values engineering.
The QAnon Experience
Q also provides problems that are intractable. Of course they are artificial, invented problems (problems from a vile conniving manipulator with no goal but the subjugation of dupes); but, to those who are otherwise incurious and unimaginative, these problems are as enticing as the problems submitted to the engineer. To an isolated loner or a repressed housewife, this tasty fruit of discovery may be irresistible. Combine that with the immediate interchange of the online community and we have the full repertoire of engineering joy: problem, resolution and reveal with commensurate accolades. By experiencing the problem within a community of peers, the ideas are reinforced and amplified as the individual is accepted and praised by the group. I suggest that the QAnon sycophant is drawn in and held by the same brain chemistry that makes the fields of engineering and science so alluring. The only difference is the discipline required to appreciate such a challenge and what results from that chemistry.
In QAnon, lost souls look for something interesting, something that may redeem their pitiful lives. Oh, they aren’t all poor. They aren’t all uneducated. They aren’t all classic cases of some mental anomaly; but they all need something. What they all need is meaning. As with every other human being, they need to feel that they are important, that they have individual value. Q provides them with inside knowledge and (much more important) problems. Q weaves a tangled tapestry presenting intricate and wondrous (indeed fantastical) problems. Few people, rational or not, can resist an intricate problem. The problem is the drug and it may cure or corrupt. A real problem with a perceptible, positive outcome is irresistible. Every human brain will lock on to this brightly painted target of unknown enigma.
The discipline of engineering helps to guard against the ridiculous problem that makes no sense. Peer review after challenging peer review helps to reveal the lie of the false solution. Without that discipline, faulty solutions would look like real solutions. Only years of disciplined practice help us to distinguish between the false question and the real question. The most important quality of the engineer is the ability to clearly recognize the extraneous goofy explanation as opposed to the reasonable serious explanation. That is engineering. Engineering is not a step-by-step procedure, it is a discipline and a method. A trivial, magically-produced problem in support of propaganda may be recognized and understood only with years of disciplined experience. Presenting this drug to the naϊve, hopeless and puzzled, to the sad and unfulfilled whose wealth is not sufficient to their desires, to the middle class Karens who cannot comprehend their role in the patriarchy, is to introduce a volatile explosive device into a Methodist bingo hall.
The potent drug of mystery draws in the buffoon. A continuous flow of mystery draws in the uninitiated and reinforces the false worlds constructed by the seditious provocateurs. The mind, disciplined or not, is lit up by a problem and energized by the solution. To gain respect for knowing something that others do not is a life-changing event. It is meaning.
The NeverEnding Story
To those who follow Q, the problem is presented over and over in different guises, conforming to the latest paranoid whispers and always brought up-to-date with the ongoing evolving story. This is not harmless play. This is a long-term cynical project of gaslighting for the purpose of abuse. When the engineer addresses the problem and presents the solution, that project is done. The QAnon project must never be done.
When Q presents a problem and followers begin churning on it in hopes of presenting a proper reaction (a solution, perhaps); that solution must not be an end. Followers may proclaim, “I know what to do!” to which Q must respond with, “Maybe, but remember that underneath the lizard people are…” A solution draws the project to a close and the QAnon world must remain active and burgeoning with strife. Fed by thousands of followers responding to Q’s mystical stories with injected microchips, lizard cults and child pornography, the stories will naturally become more and more fantastic. Built up slowly, meme by meme, an entire world emerges: a world whose objects map item-for-item to objects in the real world but the value, purpose and interconnections of those objects are fundamentally warped.
Thus, for each occurrence in our world, there is a corresponding occurrence that may be presented in the QAnon world. Since the QAnon world is an internally consistent corruption of the real world, that occurrence is no longer innocent but corrupt. This structure was not built by some nefarious genius. Q threw out some vague suggestions to some confused people desperate to understand the changes happening around them. As noted in The Dupes of Hazzard, when sparked in this way, the human mind naturally struggles to make sense of the provided pieces. The more vague the direction, the more fuzzy the conclusions, the more desperately the brain struggles to make sense of the overall story. In time, completely fictional concepts must be used to brace the feeble construction. Fueled primarily by fantasy, the human mind becomes more of a fiction engine as it adapts to this impossible task by routinely making up the missing parts that allow the world to make sense.
The Q followers cannot be allowed to rest comfortably in their constructed world. With each new solution to each vaguely stated puzzle, the QAnon brain revels in the new understanding and reinforces the corrupt process that replaces reality with an ever-more-complex and internally consistent fantasy. Engineers must do the same thing. The original problem is usually poorly stated. The initial job is to make sense of the problem and fully understand its ramifications. With that done, the imagination is employed to see the problem in various contexts so that possible solutions might arise. The key difference is that a faulty engineering solution will be rejected in peer review or by the unfortunate customer. There is no such governor on the ever-growing QAnon story.
Thus, the Q world exploits these fundamental human characteristics. The human mind yearns to solve problems, answer questions and construct an understandable world. When confronting the world as it actually is, though, the brain must be trained to fathom and accept gaps because the real world is not consistent. It must be trained to allow for missing pieces without compulsively filling them in.
This powerful natural drive is our primary opponent in the struggle to restore reason to the public discourse. We are battling against brains engaged in those evolved activities that directly contributed to the success of Homo sapiens. Like our natural desire to consume fatty foods and our natural desire to propagate the species, the natural tendency of the brain to invent explanations must also be understood, managed and placed into the context of human civilization. The fact that it feels good to solve a problem doesn’t mean that every idea that brings that feeling is actually helpful. Well-educated citizens recognize this fact and temper their thinking in the same way that they temper their eating and sexual expression. We need to tackle this as a problem in education. While we cannot send every adult in the U.S. back to school, we must hope that through progressive public exemplars and a culture of acceptance and truthful criticism, we may use the natural inclinations of our brain to move some worlds closer to reality.
Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen, a book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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