Several months ago, someone wrote to me for the first time in a few years. A week passed before I saw the message – they’d written to my old Google-hosted email account, and I’ve mostly switched to using Protonmail. So I wrote back using my current address … then heard nothing.
Encountering sudden bouts of radio silence is a common experience for many people in the modern world (I feel so bad for people using dating apps in major cities!), but this can feel particularly triggering for people with autism. Because my brain doesn’t always register social cues that other people notice, my early years were riddled with times when people whom I thought were friends suddenly (from my perspective!) decided that I was awful. I still approach disrupted communication with wariness, assuming that people are angry with me.
Later, though, a friend informed me that messages I send to him are often shunted to his spam folder – perhaps Google generally distrusts “@protonmail” accounts? So I used my old account to write to that first person and asked whether the same thing had happened to our correspondence.
At the beginning of a four-paragraph message, I included a sentence summarizing why I have a new email address: “I have mixed feelings about internet privacy – I worry that a lot of it abets tax evasion & the like – but I like email enough (and dislike the effect of advertising companies like Google and Facebook on our world enough) that I thought I should pay for it.”
This person decided I must be a conspiracy theorist.
The problem is brevity, of course.
With more words, it’s easy to show the harms caused by Swiss privacy laws (apparently a major selling point for Protonmail, which houses its physical servers in Switzerland). In The Hidden Wealth of Nations, French economist Gabriel Zucman calculated how much wealth is hidden from governments worldwide. As translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Zucman writes:
The following example shows it in a simple way: let’s imagine a British person who holds in her Swiss bank account a portfolio of American securities — for example, stock in Google.
What information is recorded in each country’s balance sheet? In the United States, a liability: American statisticians see that foreigners hold US equities. In Switzerland, nothing at all, and for a reason: the Swiss statisticians see some Google stock deposited in a Swiss bank, but they see that the stock belongs to a UK resident — and so they are neither assets nor liabilities for Switzerland. In the United Kingdom, nothing is registered, either, but wrongly this time: the Office for National Statistics should record an asset for the United Kingdom, but it can’t, because it has no way of knowing that the British person has Google stock in her Geneva account.
As we can see, an anomaly arises — more liabilities than assets will tend to be recorded on a global level. And, in fact, for as far back as statistics go, there is a “hole”: if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial securities are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars. It is this imbalance that serves as the point of departure for my estimate of the amount of wealth held in tax havens globally.
Obviously, including only the final sentiment – It appears as though a large portion of our planet’s wealth is owned by extraterrestrials! – would make Zucman sound absurd. But Zucman’s reasoning is sensible, and it’s awful that approximately 10% of our planet’s wealth – $7.6 trillion in 2013 – is held in secret bank accounts, abetted by various nations’ privacy laws. If that wealth weren’t illegally hidden, fair taxes would let us alleviate a lot of poverty, vaccinate many more people worldwide, build a more just and equitable world.
Brief statements like “Tech companies are siphoning personal data to mind control us!” or “Facebook & YouTube have shut down our functioning government!” would likewise probably sound absurd to someone who hasn’t read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism or similar reporting. Once upon a time, I liked Facebook – it was a great way to share pictures with friends – but I felt horrified when I learned about Facebook’s role in the election of our 45th president. I haven’t logged in to my account since November 2016.
Honestly, though, it’s my fault for assuming that other people have been following these stories. Just because someone is a left-wing academic type doesn’t mean they’ve seen the same news that I have (the personalized filter bubbles that we get stuck inside are yet another reason why I dislike Facebook & Google).
It felt sad to have someone assume the worst of me, but then my spouse cheered me up by rattling off other things I say that sound an awful lot like conspiracy theories when they’re phrased too briefly, like:
I only eat plants because I’m worried my planet’s getting too hot.
I rub this glop all over my face so starlight won’t mutate my DNA.
I put this plastic in my mouth at night to stop my teeth from wandering when I sleep.
The dishwasher won’t wash the dishes unless you wash the dishes before you put them in the dishwasher.
We need to tell kids THE TRUTH about Santa Claus.
So, I learned something. If there’s not enough time to explain an idea in full, it might be better to say nothing at all.
Header image from a prior essay about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and, yes, a Disney conspiracy to misinform children about the natural world. In brief (apparently I still haven’t learned my lesson), the people making Disney’s 1958 documentary White Wilderness wanted to show lemmings leaping off cliffs into the water, but lemmings don’t actually do this. So the film crew instead used a turntable to fling the little critters to their doom and claimed in a voiceover that it was natural footage.