Conspiracy Theories from A Bird’s Eye View

Graphic by Laura Padilla-Castellanos

In 1837, Louis Daguerre finished his first prototype for the humbly named daguerreotype and incidentally birthed the medium of photography in the process. In 1885, George Eastman’s invention of photographic film slashed the cost of photography, making the medium significantly more available to the average consumer. From there, developments in camera technology took many forms: from Kodak to DSLRS to phone cameras. Today, the smallest cameras are the size of a grain of sand. Cameras 2-8mm in size are publicly available—about the diameter of a pigeon’s eye.

Cameras shrink every year. The OmniVision OV6948 currently holds the world record for the smallest camera at 0.575 x 0.575 x 0.232 mm. While the majority of cameras this size are not available for consumer use, it is no surprise that certain sectors, such as medicine or the U.S. military, have access to the technology before the public. But even in the consumer sphere, prices for cameras are significantly lower than they were historically. In 1999, the ePhoto CL50, a 1.3-megapixel camera was $525. Today, you can purchase something like Sony’s DSC-W800 20-megapixel camera for only $99.99. The point is: cameras are getting smaller, cheaper, and better.

Cameras are so cheap, in fact, that if the U.S. military were to buy a Sony DSC-W800 for every U.S. citizen, it would only cost them 4.3% of their budget. That’s only slightly less than the percentage of food stolen from fellow birds by your average frigatebird! But of course the U.S. military already does purchase cameras en-masse––only these cameras fly… like a bird. 

In 2019, the DOD requested approximately 9.39 billion dollars for drone and associated technologies. According to the U.S. Army, their drones are equipped with 1.8 gigapixel cameras  capable of tracking people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet. For comparison, an eagle can only spot a rabbit from two miles away. 

Seeing how history has treated the development of the camera, it wouldn’t be outlandish to expect drones to also become smaller, cheaper, and better. Who knows? In a couple years, one might look up and think a bird is flying overhead, but it’s really a U.S. surveillance device equipped with a 2 gigapixel camera tracking your every move from four miles in the air. This rapid advancement of camera technology, along with growing government distrust, has paved the way for a new conspiracy movement, coined “Birds aren’t real.”

On the surface, “Birds aren’t real” is dedicated to uncovering the truth about our avian friends, proposing that the government engineered drones that look like birds, with tiny cameras where their eyes would be. Although it’s doubtful anyone unironically believes that birds are spies, several online communities touting this claim have been slowly growing over the past few years. Since its conception in 2017, the subreddit r/birdsarentreal has amassed 342k subscribers. Why are people flocking to these groups? What drives people to endorse theories they know are false? 

Conspiracy theories are often created by people upset with the status quo, who see some sort of unfairness in the world around them and villainize those they deem responsible with outlandish stories. Unlike most conspiracy theories, people that support “Birds aren’t real” don’t literally think that the crow outside their window is trying to spy on their personal lives, but they know that by telling absurd stories they can draw attention to real issues and point out genuinely bizarre trends in a format we aren’t already desensitized to. We’re used to talking about the 4 megapixel camera in our pocket, but when someone points out that you can buy a camera that could fit within the pupil of a pigeon for less than $100, we are removed from the context of the technology we use everyday and forced to see the world changing around us.

Perhaps “Birds aren’t real” is a form of tame protest, a way of pointing out what our society is capable of and the dangers that come with technology. We laugh at “Birds aren’t real” because we know it isn’t true, but it forces us to consider the possibility before we dismiss it. And through this consideration, perhaps we can learn to be more conscientious of the side effects of progress.

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