‘Actually, we were warned’: Marc Fennell says the horrors of the internet could have been avoided

“We don’t often talk about the history of the internet,” Marc Fennell points out. As someone who’s covered technology for most of his working life, he is well versed to offer such an insight.

“We talk about the present,” he continues, “we talk about the future – we rarely ask: ‘How did we get here?'”

Fennell’s new Audible Originals podcast series, This Is Not A Game, asks this question, dealing with the nascent days of the web and the birth of the first internet-born conspiracy theory, the legend of Ong’s Hat.

“In the early days of the web, there was this young engineer who started a joke,” Fennell explains. This was back in the 1980s, well before anything resembling the world wide web as we know it exists.

“This joke was that, in the middle of the New Jersey forest was a shack, and in the 1960s, a bunch of renegade scientists went in there and built — or at least attempted to build — a portal to another dimension.”

At the time it was understood this was a joke — “everybody who was online was already kind of a nerd,” Fennell reasons — but what the young engineer, Joseph Matheny, couldn’t have predicted was that, eventually, the majority of the world would get online, and a number of them would find this story and not realise it was a joke – and would, in fact, take it very seriously.

“Now, normally at that point,” Fennell reasons, “a normal person would go: ‘All right, let’s just be honest with people, and tell them it’s a joke, and let’s bring them up to speed’.”

As you can guess, Matheny didn’t do this.

“What he actually started doing, is he started feeding it,” Fennell explains. “And he really started to enjoy being a puppet master, and so he would start to put witness testimony of people that had crossed to the other side, and real science alongside fake science, and real scientific discoveries alongside fake scientific discoveries – to the point that people couldn’t tell what was real and what was not, and eventually it got massively out of hand  – and when he did try and shut it down, it went horribly, horribly wrong.”

Fennell wanted to tell this story, in part, because of the cautionary tale it offers up.

“We know that the internet is a trash fire,” he explains. “We know that it’s never given us more reason to distrust what we see, what we hear, to argue with each other – and it struck me, as we started looking into this story, that actually, we were warned.

“That this has happened before. This was a cautionary tale, and there was a sort of inflection point in the history of the web where we could have made a more civil internet. We could have made a different culture, and we kind of just missed it.

“As much as it’s about just an incredibly weird story — where I’m like I’m out in the woods and following conspiracy theorists around — there’s also a story that helps make sense of the web we have today.”

The understandably reclusive Matheny agreed to talk to Fennell for the podcast, the difficulty of which could almost be a six-part series in itself.

“Because he’s had this really full-on experience, he won’t give out his home address – unless he knows somebody for two years,” Fennell laughs.

“So we had to arrange to interview him at this neutral location, in a slightly dilapidated studio somewhere in the middle of regional Oregon.

“You get out there, and you set up the microphones, and it’s like a shack, right? It’s nice, but it’s a shack – and you sit there, and you’re just like: ‘I hope this guy’s gonna turn up.'”

Matheny did show up; an older, gruff guy in an Extinction Rebellion t-shirt. “You sit down and go, ‘I don’t know how this thing’s gonna go’,” Fennell recalls.

Luckily, Matheny was “super gregarious”, and willing to put it all on the record. Despite having done the odd media interview over the years, he struck Fennell as “someone who just wanted to divest themselves of the story,” pointing out the whole saga started before Fennell was even born.

“It’s a story that’s followed him around for decades, and I think he wants to put it to bed,” he said. “When he sat down with with me, he did say, ‘This is the last time I’m ever gonna tell this story. I’m gonna tell it in full, and finally.'” In researching this story, Fennell drew similarities between the way people latched onto Ong’s Hat, and the way that QAnon conspiracies catch fire.

“Partly why they get taken in is because it’s not just handed to them,” Fennell suspects of the followers of such web-born theories. “They’ve got to go looking for crumbs. They’ve got to go looking for pieces, and when you have to do a bit of investigating yourself, you feel a sense of ownership over the information  – and I think he pioneered that with Ong’s Hat, and that same playbook has been employed for things like QAnon, and a whole host of other conspiracies over the years.”

This Is Not A Game is Fennell’s fourth Audible Originals podcast, and this long-standing relationship with the company will see the behemoth’s studio arm Amazon MGM adapt his podcast Nut Jobs into an eight-part, one-hour drama series, to be steered by Suits’ executive producers Aaron Korsh and Rick Muirragui.

“It had been discussed for so long that I actually wasn’t sure it was ever gonna happen,” Fennell admits, “and obviously it’s still in development – so who knows what happens from here?” Fennell actually suspected the writers’ strike had “killed it” and was shocked to receive and email from Amazon earlier this year saying they wanted to finally announce the project.

Quite a few of Fennell’s projects have been commissioned for series, which he says is exciting, but uncertain.

“I guess, to be honest with you, I’m as interested as anyone else is. I don’t have the answers, nor do I have some glowing prediction about where it goes,” he said of the TV adaptation.

“I just know that it’s lovely when stuff that we’ve worked hard on, people recognise and go, ‘There’s another life in this.'”

Fennell is used to balancing a number of projects at various stages of completion. The secret, he says, is staggering the different jobs.

“I’ve always had this situation, where I like being in pre-production on something, production on something, and post on something – all at the same time.

“That’s how I sort of generally approach my work. And that I find it actually helps me creatively.”

Fennell explains he spent a portion of last year overseas filming the second season of his ABC documentary series Stuff The British Stole, which saw him hit 11 countries as he filmed and directed the series.

“At the same time, every night I was signing off on edits and sound mixes for This Is Not A Game. We were also looking at edits for The Mission, which is a three-part art heist series I did for SBS that came out late last year.”

Fennell stresses that he is just the most visible member of a number of hard-working teams, which helps with the balancing act.

“On a pure creative level, there’s something really helpful about, at night, listening to a sound mix or watching an edit for something going,  ‘Yeah, wouldn’t it have been great if we’d shot it like this?’ The beauty of that is, the next day, I’m back out on location, shooting something and I can take those ideas and I can apply them.

“Some people think it sounds discombobulating to be in pre, post, and production all at the same time, but I actually find it creatively invigorating. I feel like it it stops you from being stagnated. Each project can infuse each other.”

 Listen to This Is Not A Game here.


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