The broken technology of ghost hunting

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Syracuse, New York-based small company K-II Enterprises makes a number of handheld electronic devices, including the Dog Dazer (a supposedly safe and humane device that deters aggressive dogs with high-pitched radio signals) – but it is best known for the EMF safe range. About the size of a TV remote, the Safe Range EMF detects electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, by measuring them with a matrix of bright LEDs that change from green to red depending on their strength. Designed to locate potentially harmful electromagnetic radiation from nearby power lines or appliances, the safe range has become popular for another use: ghost detection.

Since appearing on the show ghost hunters, where ghost hunter Grant Wilson claimed it was “specifically calibrated for paranormal investigators”, the Safe Range (commonly referred to as the K-II meter) has become ubiquitous among spirit hunters. Look it up on Amazon, and many listings will refer to it as a “ghost counter,” a must-have tool in the ghost hunter’s arsenal. It’s not alone among EMF meters: Of the top-selling EMF meters on Amazon, two of the top three are explicitly marketed as ghost meters.

Going through the various product descriptions and reviews, however, what becomes clear is that the K-II Safety Range is a relatively unreliable EMF meter. It works on a single axis (you have to shake it to get a good reading), and it’s unshielded, which means it can be triggered by a cell phone, two-way radio, or pretty much any type of device. electronic device that occasionally emits electromagnetic waves. Critic Kenny Biddle found he could trigger it with, among other things, a computer mouse and a camera battery.

Still, it’s precisely because it’s not particularly good at its primary purpose that makes it a popular device for ghost hunters. Erratic, prone to false positives, easily manipulated, its flashy LED display will light up any dark room in a hotel or haunted castle. Simply put, its popularity as a ghost hunting tool stems primarily from its fallibility.

The K-II isn’t the only consumer electronic device used by ghost hunters. Often it’s sold in kits containing other devices, such as a Couples Ghost Hunt kit, with two of everything, so you can build “confidence and lasting memories when the two of you are alone in a spooky setting-up.” , you look for confirmation. of your discoveries and your comfort! There are devices specifically designed for ghost hunters, such as a ghost box, which works by randomly sweeping FM and AM frequencies to pick up the words of spirits in white noise. But most of the time, ghost hunters use pre-existing technology: not just EMF meters, but also common digital recorders, used to capture Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. An interviewer records himself asking questions in an empty room, hoping that upon reading, ghostly voices will appear.

All of this technology, both customized and repurposed, works on more or less the same principle: generating lots of static and random effects, hoping to capture random noise and other transience. The ghost hunter, in turn, looks for patterns, momentary convergences, serendipities, meaningful coincidences. For the believer, that’s where the ghosts live: static, glitchy and blurry.

Ghost hunting was born out of a love of technological failure. In 1861, William H. Mumler, an engraver and jeweler, was studying the new craft of photography when the shadow of a young girl appeared on a plate he was developing. As described by Crista Cloutier in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, Mumler knew this was an error, the result of accidentally reusing a plate that had not been sufficiently cleaned from its previous exposure. But then he showed his curiosity to one of his spiritualist friends. “Not being very inclined to spiritual belief myself at the time, and being of a jovial temperament, always ready to joke”, he later admitted, “I concluded from have a little fun, as I thought, at his expense.”

He told the spiritualist that the image was genuine and no one else was there when he took the picture. His friend took the joke far too seriously, and before long Spiritualist publications had reprinted Mumler’s error as evidence of life after death. Mumler himself quickly changed his tune, saying he had discovered a “wonderful phenomenon that really needed investigation”, and began offering to take spirit photographs for good. For 10 bucks (normal sessions were about a quarter back then), he would take your picture, provided he couldn’t guarantee a ghost would materialize.

Mumler’s unwitting invention of spirit photography cemented a connection between ghosts and technology that endures to this day – and more specifically, how errors and mishaps in technology appear as manifestations of the paranormal. Consumer technologies, from photography and telegraphy to radio and the Internet, are almost always immediately seized upon by believers as offering further proof of the paranormal. In 1953, three children watched Ding Dong School one afternoon on Long Island when the ghostly face of an unknown woman appeared on the screen. The face would not dissipate, even after the TV was turned off, and their father was forced to face the TV against the wall “for gross misbehavior in scary little children”, as the New York Times reported. Television died completely a day later, but not before its paranormal nature made it a minor celebrity.

For Friedrich Jürgenson, it was a tape recorder. In the late 1950s, Jürgenson, painter and filmmaker, experimented with recording birds in his garden; when he listened to them, he heard voices on the tape that he believed belonged to his deceased father and wife, calling his name. After several years of refining his technique, he published his findings in a 1967 book titled Radio contact with the dead. A few years later, a Latvian psychologist named Konstantin Raudive developed and elaborated on Jürgenson’s techniques, publishing his own book on the science of recording the voices of the dead in 1971.

Raudive’s transcriptions included disturbing messages from beyond. A voice said to him: “Here are the brothers of the night, here the birds are burning.” Another reported: ‘Secret reports…it’s bad here.’ But Raudive confessed that ghosts don’t always speak so clearly. He claimed that the spirits spoke in multiple languages, sometimes in the same sentence. Sometimes they talked backwards. Deciphering EVP has become a matter of sifting through any acoustic anomaly that appears on a tape, however minor or inconsistent, and then torturing that noise into some sort of meaning.

Electronic voice phenomena have continued to be among the most important “evidence” of paranormal activity, it seems, precisely because humans are hardwired to extract meaning from chaos. Throughout evolution, we have long needed to discern the sight or sound of a predator despite its camouflage, which has led us to look for patterns where they might not be immediately obvious. The quirks and shortcomings of technology play directly into this biological need: to reject random glitches and noises that are ready to be transmuted into meaningful signals. Ghostbusters work through confirmation bias. Looking for proof of the paranormal, they will find it in anything, but most easily in statics, gibberish and errata – technological noise in which we are hardwired to find false positives.

The only thing that has changed recently is the proliferation of consumer electronics associated with ghost hunting. In the age of iPhones and Fitbits, Ghostbusters are just another niche market, releasing the latest and greatest gadgets for sale. But there’s a crucial difference: Most consumer electronics vendors satisfy their consumers by constantly refining them until they’re bug-free. Ghost technology works the other way around, actively engineering problems – the more the better.

These researchers can easily be considered mad and aberrant, but there is something paradigmatic about their use of faulty devices. The rise of the Internet and other new technologies promised a new information age, an age in which data, truth and knowledge were the new currency, where the future would be built on information itself. same. Twenty years later, there is an endless maze of conspiracy theories, fake memes, falsified statistics and fabricated evidence. Knowledge of the world is only a Google search away, but it comes to us inextricably linked with the bullshit of the world.

The 21st century media consumer is still struggling to sift through noise in search of signal. Whether it’s a cousin’s anti-vax Facebook post, Farmville’s endless demands that need to be filtered from a feed, or the colossal avalanche of half-truths and lies dismissed in this election , the main challenge for most people online these days is blocking the endless onslaught of static, trying to torture it into some sort of sense.

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