This essay will demonstrate that rather than automatically dismissing conspiracy theories as fanciful and irrelevant in product design, the designer should acknowledge them and carefully consider their potential impact on the success of a design solution. Examples of non-mainstream ideas and beliefs that have been incorporated into the design of products will be provided, including where product designers will be aware that these ideas and beliefs exist due to the emergence of a conspiracy theory. It will be shown that conspiracy theories can be successfully incorporated into a design with example from the past and present. Also that as values change and culture shifts in society, including as a result of unproveable yet influential conspiracy theories and beliefs, there exists an opportunity for product manufacturers and service developers such as, in the case of medical professionals who have in the main rejected traditional and emerging homeopathic treatments, to revisit and accommodate these belief systems to ensure that they remain relevant and inclusive. It will conclude that the product designer benefits from knowing the target customers well and that in learning about his customers s/he should avoid judgement. In doing so the product designer is then free to set aside his or her prejudices and skepticism and instead approach the design process from the point of view of the users, their expectations in terms of form and function in a more targeted fashion. In this way the designer is able to meet the product/service users’ desire for a product that is not out of step with his or her principles and value base, thus making it more attractive, relevant, accessible and in the end more successful. Through this paper will demonstrate that greater attention to existing conspiracy theories which may impact on a product’s level of success should play a bigger consideration in the development of design projects, with a focus on deeper investigative research – a search for the ‘truth’ and hidden motivations of products and services, whether real or imagined.
The Oxford English Dictionary, describes a conspiracy theory as “an event or phenomenon [that] occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties’ and ‘a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event’. This may be incomplete though, as will be shown, because there are examples of conspiracy theories that remain just that – theories – because information is deliberately hidden by the actor or others whose interests may be compromised in some way. For example, were authorities decide that for reasons of national security important details from an event or incident are concealed, leading to an incomplete or unlikely picture and subsequent distrust of authority. In Britain, there are presently **** items being held by Government Departments with time bans on their publication of various lengths, ranging from *** to ***. Each of these has the potential to create the conditions to germinate and subsequently cause a new conspiracy theory to emerge. Robust, compelling evidence being necessary in preventing an official position on an event or incident from being accepted as a credible and bona fide statement of fact by those aware of an anomaly or omission in the account provided. And of course, if a conspiracy theory is baseless it cannot be proven, robustly or otherwise. Yet many theories are extremely well travelled and whilst often scoffed at, they are nonetheless widely known and accepted by many as fact.
Before moving on, it is worth exploring the similarities and difference between belief systems arising from conspiracy theories and faith religions, given that both could be said to lack robust evidence to back up assertions made. This is not to belittle, or disrespect religion in any way, but it is important to inform the reader that beliefs, who some may regard as fanciful and misguided, can nonetheless become mainstream and form the basis of belief systems with many millions of subscribers, or in the case of most organised religions, believers or worshippers.
Comparisons between recognised religions’ and belief systems based on conspiracy theories may appear a stretch, however, those theories not yet in the mainstream consciousness and still considered to be conspiratorial rather than bona fide, especially widely held theories, is relevant because it is logical to arrive at the conclusion that the early proponents of some, if not most, religions may well have been accused of being the equivalent to the conspiracy theorists of today. For example, the disciples portrayed in the early scriptures in the Christian faith were vilified for claiming that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. It is impossible to know for sure if the accounts of the establishment of this religion are based on actual events given that the one source of information available to us, beyond blind faith, is the Old Testament, the veracity of which cannot be corroborated. Further, in executing Jesus Christ it could be argued that this act had the effect of widening his appeal through martyrdom, and as a result the cause of having him accepted as the Messiah was advanced, not diminished.
Perhaps an example from the more recent post-war period can be more helpful in this regard. Launched as a new religion in 1952, Scientology has attracted harsh criticism due in part to its roots, having been devised by a Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, who was an author of science fiction and fantasy stories from New Jersey in the USA. Scientology has been described as,
“[A] body of religious beliefs and practices launched in May 1952 by American author L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard initially developed a program of ideas called Dianetics, which was distributed through the Dianetics Foundation. The foundation soon entered bankruptcy, and Hubbard lost the rights to his seminal publication Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1952. He then recharacterized the subject as a religion and renamed it Scientology, retaining the terminology, doctrines, the E-meter, and the practice of auditing. Within a year, he regained the rights to Dianetics and retained both subjects under the umbrella of the Church of Scientology.”
Yet despite its suspect provenance and the motivation behind it being well documented and questionable, Hubbard’s new ‘religion’ remains buoyant, including in its membership ‘A’ list Hollywood actors such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. The religion’s compelling claim “that the true self of a person was a thetan – an immortal, omniscient and potentially omnipotent entity”. Also, that “thetans, having created the material universe, had forgotten their god-like powers and become trapped in physical bodies. Scientology aimed to ‘rehabilitate’ each person’s self (the thetan) to restore its original capacities.”
Many would argue that Scientology has conspiracy theory written all over it as it ticks many of the boxes that have come to define the term. Scientology is likely to be viewed as fanciful by non-believers and is self-evidently not backed up by robust evidence but appears to rely upon the very fact that some elements of it are hidden from view, even from its own members other than those at the top: the religion’s elite. A cynic would suggest that this subterfuge helps it tick the ‘self-contained box’ on the ‘conspiracy theory bingo card, which is a typical feature of a conspiracy theory. This secrecy is likely to ensure that this ‘religion’ remains neither provable or disprovable. Consequently, it can be argued that it is not the lack of evidence or the nature of the claims made by mainstream religions that matters, or even how logical, feasible or otherwise these claims are, but simply the fact that they have managed to become mainstream itself, and in doing so, have gained credibility without the burden of proof.
There is of course no such recognition or access to the corridors of power and influence to proponents of conspiracy theories, other than a few celebrity ‘truthers’ such as Russel Brand a British comedian and David Ike, a previous television presenter, the theories not having achieved sufficient mainstream popularity. However, setting aside the fact that the exceptionalism and reverence that established religions are traditionally afforded in contemporary western cultures, there is a characteristic shared by both. ‘Faith’ is a necessity for the religious and the conspiracy theorist and as will be shown, it is this ‘faith’ in a belief system, conspiratorial or otherwise, that can potentially interact with product design.
Whilst the proponents of conspiracy theories are likely to be ridiculed and ostrasised by mainstream commentators, if they achieve sufficient support, those in power often embrace the theory instead of rejected it out of hand, despite the obvious absence of evidence, compelling or otherwise, underpinning the belief system. For example, a number of Church of England Bishops and other religious leaders are automatically entitled to sit in Westminster’s House of Lords, presumably due to their perceived importance to social cohesion and presumably the notion that as heads of recognised religions of Britain they are moral gatekeepers. The fact that the Church of England is formally accepted as the custodian of English Christian values and moral life is confirmation of this. This access to the corridors of power supports the theory, in the case of Christianity at least, that it is widely viewed as a force for good and its representatives are thus co-opted onto influential positions within the undemocratic House of Lords within the British Parliament.