From the original post:
July 9, 2022|#ChapelPerilousTheLifeandThoug, #Joesphmatheny, #Ongshat, #PropAnon, #qanon
(This interview took place between Joseph Matheny and me not long after the January 6th failed Trump coup. Q Anon was getting lots of headlines. So, I decided to speak to the guy who nearly single-handedly created Alternative Reality Games.)
By: Prop Anon
I first learned about Ong’s Hat from Bradley Sands, bizarro fiction writer extraordinaire, back in the late 90s. Hearing the story of paranormal activity happening in a New Jersey ghost town reminded me of other conspiracy theories involving the tri-state area and traveling through space and/or dimensions-like the Montauk Project and the Philadelphia experiment, which I found intriguing at the time. Later, I heard about how groups of people were venturing to Ong’s Hat in search of the secret magical remnants of a secret village of inter-dimensional time-traveling ex-Princeton professors.
Ong’s Hat was alive. It was so because of the active participation of its readers. It had become an urban myth where “legend trippers,” searching for a fun and free night of entertainment, went to the place and then by added interpretations of the everything on the Ong’s Hat internet forum. The story’s enigmatic quality and its exoteric insistence that it was true and not a fiction fantasy made it that more much engaging. However, as you will read, Matheny watched as groups of anonymous people swooped into the forum and attempted to high jack the story he created.
As you will read, it wasn’t just the plot of Ong’s Hat that made it so engaging. It was also the structure. Ong’s Hat is the original alternative reality game. As such it laid the tracks and created the foundation for many of the ARG’s that came after. For those still making sense of and deconstructing the destructive quality of QAnon, which looks to me like a propaganda campaign representing as a distorted and schizophrenic alternative reality game, Matheny’s insights offer a way out of the angry confusion.
Prop: Let’s talk about Ong’s Hat. When I first heard about it many years ago it tripped me out, because the story wasn’t presented as fiction limited to the page. It was on the Internet. And so that line between fact and fiction became blurred, raising real interesting questions about the nature of reality.
So, where and when did you first get this idea for Ong’s Hat?
Matheny:The first ideas for the type of narrative that Ong’s Hat became started in the ‘80s, pre-Internet. I was already playing around on the bulletin board systems which were kind of the precursor to the Internet. My first Internet access was through a bulletin board system. These were prompt based, usually Unix systems that you would dial into directly and there would be a bulletin board. I guess the modern equivalent would be a web board, but this was pre-web. You would log into this machine and have threaded conversations with people over a period of time. The web board is really the web’s version of a BBS bulletin board system, back then we only had the bulletin board system. No graphics, just straight text.
In looking at that in thinking about all the things I’ve been thinking about up to that point which was a lot of different artistic influences, a lot of different technical influences, and a lot of different literary influences. I thought it would be cool if you could have a book that wasn’t just static words on a page but one that tied into other types of media. So that if you’re reading a book and it references a movie you could find that movie and watch the movie. If you’re reading the book and it referenced a place, you could go to that place, and find some graffiti left behind by the character in the book.
Basically, what I was after was breaching the presidium or breaking the fourth wall, as they say in Hollywood. I was looking for something that really jumped over from just a standard narrative. From a single medium to a narrative that could cross mediums, crossover into real life, and feel almost like a LARP. (live action role play) We were doing a LARPS’ back then. Also, we were doing a lot of Mail Art and play by mail type games. There was this great convergence in the in the late ‘80s early ‘90s of all these mediums not just referencing each other but possessing the ability to take the user from one medium to another medium pretty seamlessly.
As time progressed and the Internet became something that people could publicly access, more people were creating multimedia, and there was a platform for it that became even more seamless. So, you could go from a phone call to the web to a book to a movie all these things were more seamless. The seamless movement through mediums was important to maintain the experience. When you have to step out of the experience you break the spell and the theatric ambiance, and the immersion effect is lost.
So, I started trying to put something together as early as the ‘80s. Knowing and thinking and believing that the technology was going to progress soon and that it would be there to facilitate my vision in its fullness, but I could at least get started with what I had.
Ong’s Hat started as a story that was co-written and then later, I took over the entire thing. From there I kept adding to it and adding it to. You could say it was Talmudic, but it started out as four basic stories that all tied together.
It was a book catalog which really was a series of short stories that were disguised as a book catalog. The story began in one of the pamphlets and two interviews with two characters from the story all in that book catalog. One is with Nick Herbert the other one was with “Emory Cranston” in air quotes. Then I started publishing this stuff wherever I could put it. Mail Art catalogs, early bulletin board systems, early magazines, a lot of magazines were part of this project. I was building a back story for this grand finale which I wanted to build which was this kind of multimedia extravagant thing with people that were actors. They were playing characters that were online. Sometimes it was in person. I would set up these events where if people went to a certain restaurant on a certain day at a certain time, they would meet me while in character because I was a character in the story. One time we did a thing at Boulder Creek and Nick Herbert was there and a bunch of people showed up. And he stayed in character as Doctor Jabeer.
Over the years people asked me, “what is it?” It’s so many different disciplines that are tied together that it becomes difficult to really say without rambling for three hours. But I eventually came up with a succinct way to put it. Ong’s Hat is an art installation made for the new space which was the Internet. Which means that it’s an art installation that is no longer tethered to time and space. It was an art installation that was timeless and spaceless. It could go anywhere. Anybody from anywhere can interact with it. It basically played out in your head. The mind, after all, was the real medium. But the way that it was maintained was through what the later commercial ARGS developers called T.I.N.A.G., or this is not a game. Basically, we all know this is a game but none of us acknowledge that it’s a game while its being played. It reminds me of that scene in the movie Ed Wood. And a wall starts shaking while they are filming and someone asks, “don’t you want to shoot that scene again?” and Ed Wood says, “Haven’t you ever haven’t you heard of suspension of disbelief?” We were playing with the concept, which is we all know this is a game but none of us are going to have to ruin the game by talking about it.
When you are in a LARP, like if you do like a vampire warp on the streets of Santa Cruz which we used to do all the time, nobody talked about the fact it was a LARP while you were LARPing because it ruined the experience for everybody. You’re in character. you stay in character until the game is over and then you all go out and get a drink. Wrestling is another great example. K-Fab I think they call it. Two guys in the ring. One’s bad guy and one is a good guy. They already know who’s going to win before it starts. They go through the motions. They hate each other. They go out into the ring, they talk crap about each other, then the cameras go dark, and they go out and they get a drink. Politics is like that from what I hear. congressmen that hate each other actually go out drinking together.
It’s all just a thing that people do so that you can have the utmost of the experience in the moment and that’s really what I was after. This was an experiment in medium that I thought The Internet was the perfect vehicle for, and I was right. Unfortunately, too right in some ways as it turned out. But I was right, and it makes this really nice immersive experience so that’s the shortest way I can tell you what it is.
Prop: When it came out, especially on the early Internet. It was so future anticipatory. You were already digesting what was to come. Which is the role of a true artist true. So, I tip my cap to you. It’s hard to describe exactly what Ong’s Hat is in some ways but perhaps we can speak about the structure of the plot. Which I thought was so cool when I first learned about it.
The structure of ARG games, along with the plots, it really what propels the experience, doesn’t it? But in terms of plot, I’d like to just quickly hit some data points about it because it too activated readers to want to learn more. The plot involved a facility headed by renegade Princeton professors who conducted quantum physics, chaos theory experiments, and according to conspiracy theories discovered a new theory for dimensional travel utilizing an egg. The egg which was a wild computer interface sort of living thing it seemed like. Which totally anticipates the future of internet technology where we are not there yet. But the future of Internet technology that is still coming is this crazy interaction between our minds and this hardware.
Matheny: Much like what Elon musk is doing now which is the mind- computer interface.
Prop: You are talking about Neurolink.
Matheny: Much more than that. There’s other people working on that as well. He’s just the most popular character. It’s much more than that if you think about it. The mind-computer interface is the first step of what it really represents. The real next step is the mind-network interface, which means that your mind is networked to a computer device that has network access. What does that mean? Now you are apart of a giant mind that everyone else is tapped into. If you are a dystopian you are going to say, “It’s the Borg!” And if you are utopian you are going to say that it’s the Gaia mind and that we are facilitating the Gaia mind.
Prop: For sure, most people probably need to improve their ability to identify propaganda, bullshit, and disinformation in today’s age of instant information. I wonder what that will look like in the near future.
Matheny: What does it look like now? It’s unrecognizable at this point.
Prop: A recent article by Reed Berkowitz, an alternative reality game creator, titled “A ARG designers take on QAnon.” He mentioned a lot of interesting things in the piece. But one thing that stood out was his statement that QAnon only appears to look like an ARG, but in reality it’s straight propaganda.
Matheny: I would disagree. It is an ARG, but it’s a weaponized ARG.
Prop:Can you extrapolate on that?
Matheny: Yeah, so after 9/11 I saw this really weird hard right turn in the conspire-tainment sector of the Internet. Previous to that I found it all amusing. I mean maybe I’m crazy or stupid or naive, but I didn’t really believe that that many people in the world thought David Icke’s reptilian thing was to be taken seriously. I didn’t take it seriously. I just assumed that most people didn’t. I know now that I’m wrong. As I started to meet some of those people and realize that I was wrong. By 2001, Internet users that were gathered around the forums dedicated to the Ong’s Hat game really had become hardcore conspiracy theorists. They were there to be believers. That was really a big reason why I started the back off and wind it down.
First, I had to put out a statement which, in reality had always been there on the CD ROM; called the “secret document.” It basically said, “this is a game, these are the influences, and this is what I’ve been doing.” Besides that, I’ve done several interviews over the years out of character when I said this is what we’re doing. I’ve archived those on my website. I never took them down. I never hid them. They were always there. I never thought in my wildest dreams that somebody would read this material and not see the obvious references to things like the Church in the SubGenius.
I never thought that there would be people taking all this as reality but there they were. I told as many people as I thought needed to hear that it was a game. Then I put out a public statement in 2001, before 9/11 happened, that I was going to wind the game down. Then 911 happened. Then I said, “you know what? I’m out!” I had already he gone off and started working on the majestic project with EA but when 9/11 happened that project got canned. They never really publicly said that’s why but privately we were told the events of 9/11 was why.
The game had already been written. All this money had been poured into shooting video segments that all had to do with a renegade resistance movement that was bombing buildings. It wasn’t stuff that you can do just after 9/11. The cold chill had fallen. This was not funny. It was just Not Allowed.
Prop: I hear you. They weren’t even playing Neil Young on the radio.
Matheny: Yeah right. So, everything got really tight for a while and I wound my game down. Majestic wound down. I never really got to do the last part of Ong’s Hat which would have been where we had a recap when the game over was declared over and we talked about our individual experiences. Which is what I was most interested in. For each person, I wanted to hear what their experience was, and I wanted everybody to be respectful of everybody’s view.
However, by that time the forum had become overrun with multiple groups of people who were there for various reasons, all of them conspiratorial. Some were saying that what I was doing was part of a part government psyop. Others were claiming that they knew that Ong’s Hat was real, but that I was an idiot for saying that it wasn’t and so everybody should follow them instead of me. There were like five or six of those types of groups. It just all became very chaotic and crazy and ugly. And so, I began to wonder ‘what’s going on here?” I went silent for a while and just stayed in the background and listened to a lot of the people were saying. Then I noticed that there was a very serious right wing totalitarian chatter that was going on privately within a lot of these conspiracy groups. They had really taken a hard turn right.
I remember when I first got into conspiracy theories in the ‘80s and it was mostly like old Kennedy assassination dudes turning me on to the theories. So, it was all very lefty. But now it’s like this new injection with all the people now coming on to the Internet. It really changed from the early adopters of the Internet who were a more experimental, left-libertarian, lefty, and definitely drug-oriented culture. Robert Anton Wilson was big. Terrence McKenna was huge on the Internet at the beginning. All this stuff is very counterculture and then the mainstream people started to arrive online. That’s when you started to see this weird stuff. They started to absorb all this conspiracy stuff that was online, and they went into their own John Birch direction with it. It was very weird.
So, I started to see this as something that we should pay attention to. I even told people “You can’t believe some of the stuff I’m reading. What these people are saying publicly is nothing like what they’re saying privately.” Those I’d tell used generally say, “oh you are overreacting. I don’t believe that.” But I just kept watching it.
Then December 2018, I was contacted by JG Michaels over at Parallax Views. He said that he’d been noticing all the things I’d been saying for the last 15 years and that these people are dangerous. He asked me to come on his show. I agreed because by then it had really started to become something. When I did that show I said I’m done talking about Ong’s Hat, and done talking about all this. I’ll do this show but then I won’t do anymore. And then QAnon’s popularity rose like a hockey stick.
Prop:To interject, QAnon first dropped in October 2017. It crystallized everything that you’re talking about and put it on steroids.
Matheny: Yeah, it was like all the worst parts of conspiracy people. There were flat earth people, which you know, Discordians used to make fun of like 40 years ago but here they are! Still around! Then there is the Reptilian agenda, and the SRA (Satanic Ritual Abuse) thing got woven in. Think about it. It’s like all the worst things that Alex Jones has ever exploited over the last 20 years. You stir it all into a big pot and you call it QAnon.
So, I’m watching this and I’m like, “OK well I can’t not talk about this.” I feel obligated to talk about this because they are using my methods and I don’t like that. On top of it people have started to say, “Oh this is like Ong’s Hat.” No, it’s not. I mean it follows the formula. But content and intention wise it’s nothing like it. Now I’ve put off retiring from talking about this and I spent a lot of time in 2020 talking about this stuff. All I talked about in 2020 was QAnon.
That’s also all anybody wanted to talk to me about too. I really felt like there had to be somebody pointing out that this is something that follows the strategy of an ARG, but it’s weaponized. Then I noticed later last year when the mainstream media started to pay attention to this movement–because it’s a cult now– there’s no other way to describe it. Then a lot of people started to step up and say it’s an ARG and it’s dangerous.
Prop: So, its utilizing the structure and the vessel that you played a major part in creating. Why QAnon is a cult?
Matheny: Well, it’s asking you to suspend common sense, to throw critical thinking out the window, and to believe these ideas which are unsubstantiated. On top of it, there’s no way you could substantiate them. I can say somebody’s name and I can say that they are a Satan worshipping pedophile who is killing children to extract adrenochrome. I can say that. I can say that on a forum somewhere. If I’m smart, I’d probably wouldn’t do it with my real name attached to it because I could get sued. So, I would be anonymous so I can say anything I want to say. On top of that, I would get a bunch of people interested in searching for clues in material that really doesn’t have any clues. It’s nebulous material, kind of liminal, so it could mean anything it wants to mean to anybody who wants it to mean something to them. They’re looking for patterns and they’re going to find them. We know this as Discordians it’s called Starbucks pebbles. If you are looking for fives, you are going to find fives. If you are looking for 23s you are going to find 23’s. Unfortunately, most people have not read Cosmic Trigger,most people have not read Principia Discordia most people have not read Illuminatus!Even some people that have took it seriously. Believe it or not man I have met people that I have to call Discordian Orthodox. I can’t call them anything else. I mean they really missed the fucking point. I learned that there’s nothing you can do about that. There’s always going to be those people.
I am not sure that the Q people that were puppet mastering QAnon even knew what they were working towards other than selling merch. But in the beginning, at least, it was to build a belief system around the cult of Donald Trump which is about personality. They were there to really build his reputation as some sort of do-gooder. Donald Trump is going to rise up on a white horse. What did they call I it? The great awakening, no wait…The Storm. And they were going to round all these people up like Hillary Clinton and her friends and they were going to put them in prison. And they were going to be public executions and blah blah blah.
Basically, just like any cult, they were promising something that was never going to happen. There was no way to substantiate, there was no provable way to say that this was or was not going to happen. If you are using your common sense you could say probably not but most of these people were not using their common sense. They were looking for something to believe in. So just like a cult, you find damaged people that are looking for parental figures, looking for love, and looking for a community. They’re looking for all these different things that they feel like they don’t have. Instead of looking in the right places around them, they look in the wrong places, and they end up hooking up with some person who is charismatic or enigmatic. In the case of Q, Q is enigmatic. Charismatic not so much because if you’ve read these drops, they are very uncharismatic, but they are very enigmatic. However, they do hit the high points of repeating the slogans.
Another quality of a cult is that they have simple, digestible slogans. It doesn’t matter if they make that much sense, but it is something that is repeatable, but they seem to make sense because they simplify complex issues down to a sentence. They are bumper stickerisms. They can be repeated to each other, they can repeat it in large groups in rhythmic shouting and chanting. All these things that make it a cult. A giant brain washing has happened to a bunch of people. To themselves collectively they are mostly doing it to themselves because a cult can never be successful unless the cult members are participating willingly in this brain washing. Yeah, it’s partly the bad intention of a bad actor, i.e., a cult leader. However, I would mostly put the blame for what happened on the shoulders of the cult members because they are participating. They’re not questioning. They’re not practicing Maybe logic.
I don’t think we can expect them to, to be honest with you. I don’t think the ideas of people like Robert Anton Wilson or Alfred Korzybski’s language theories are not being presented in their quests. I had not been exposed to that that stuff in college. I got it when I got out of college and my guitar player in my band said, “hey dude you should read Illuminatus!Trilogy because you are always doing acid.” That’s literally how I got exposed to Illuminatus! I was a Jim Morrison fan. A Syd Barret fan. And I was a singer in a band. I used to just gobble LSD like it was candy. And my guitar player said, “You’d like this,” and he was right, I did.
Then I found Cosmic Trigger and then I got turned on to the ideas. But most people I talk to about that even back then or now, they probably did not go that direction. So, all these people that are having these experiences are getting bombarded with this highly sophisticated form of technology that is being weaponized to control them and to mostly separate them from their money. But Q is also using them in a larger social movement to do stupid things like rush the Capital. And it worked. It happened. So you’ve got players like Steve Bannon and people like that who are more than willing to use those people.
The short answer I guess is as a cult is a group of people that are all willing to suspend disbelief towards a common goal. Scientology would fit that description. Christianity would fit that description. A Q fits that description. He’s just the newest player on the stage.