Imagine this scene. A middle-aged man, sitting on his couch, next to him his similarly aged wife. Behind them you can see pictures of their little family. They have two kids, a boy and a girl. The picture is showing them at some birthday party, probably the girls’ birthday party. The wallpaper in the background is white, with a pattern showing little blue squares. Everything appears perfectly normal, other than the fact that you notice the couple are not really talking. The expression on their face is that of mild concentration. They do smile from time to time, and might be saying a few words to each other, but are both mainly staring away, towards a central location. They appear content in some way. You keep watching them and notice that they must have been sitting there for at least two hours. Whatever is capturing their attention must be very powerful.
No one can really sit still for that period of time without doing anything. I mean, unless they are in some deep meditation, otherwise it is pretty hard to sit still. People generally get bored and restless unless something is capturing their attention. Whatever this thing is, it must be pleasurable as well. Humans are constantly seeking pleasure and this couple appears to be receiving it. Could they be high on a drug?
The camera zoomed out and the scene has now expanded. The answer has become obvious. Yes, they are on a drug. A very specific kind of drug. They are being exposed to an electronic meme generator. A TV. Why do I call TV a drug? Well a drug is a physical substance that is able to modify your biochemistry. In this case, the TV is able to change your biochemistry trough rapidly changing patterns of light. Your brain is essentially being introduced to specific memes through your eyes. It is modulating your thoughts in real-time. Through this modulation, it can alter your view of reality.
As the camera zooms out further, the scene now covers an entire apartment block. You can see that in almost every flat, people are sitting and watching these meme generators. Of course they aren’t just TV’s. They are staring at laptop, phone and tablet screens. In essence, this means that all over this planet, people’s view of reality is being modulated by the memes that they are exposed to. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the relatively recent introduction of mass media has had a profound effect on how people view the world. As you are reading these very words, your view of reality is being changed.
This has to be taken seriously. The memetic lenses that you observe the world through does in some way define how you relate to yourself, other people and society at large. If you sit at home and watch an hour of E!, being exposed to how Kim Kardashian deals with her daily life, or getting updated on the most recent celebrity scandal, then those become the major memes that guide your life.
This aspect of modern living is in some ways hard to address because its impact is not immediately clear. It can be compared to smoking cigarettes. Having one or two cigarettes is really not going to do much damage to you, but over an extended period of time, it can become lethal. Although the exposure to memes can have a negative influence on your life, they can also be used to enhance it immensely. There is no debate that the advent of the Internet has advanced society in a way that was simply not possible in the past. I think of it as the great equaliser of memes, because it is able to give every meme a chance to propagate itself. The environment that the Internet has created for the free exchange of information, regardless of the content, is truly one of the hallmarks of our age. It has become a vital tool that can support and empower individuals to conquer ideas previously unchallenged. But of course, the darker side of this technology is found within its very nature. Because there is no discrimination on the quality and type of memes that are propagated, we can be exposed to negative and disempowering memes.
Because this technology is a new part of our culture, we have yet to evolve or invent new defense mechanisms to deal with the negative memes that it creates. These negative and low quality memes can range from cute puppies and kittens, to celebrity gossip, through to conspiracy theories, pseudo-science propaganda, including false and dangerous ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The negative memes (nemes for short) take advantage of our more primal and subconscious urges. They make use of our ‘lazy’ subconscious mind, as it tends to gravitate towards a simplistic view of the world and of complex issues. We urge for a quick answer, solution and preferably a picture instead of text. We even have shorthand notation for the fact that we just didn’t want to read a long piece of text (Too long, didn’t read – tl;dr). Our minds are naturally inclined to pay attention to negative information rather than positive information (for good evolutionary reasons) and this paints a picture of the world that is both dark and inaccurate.
Additionally, the nemes are very good at protecting themselves from being attacked and replaced by other memes. They appear to do this by latching onto a persons mind, and subsequently blocking the introduction of any facts that oppose the description of reality that the neme is producing. There are many examples of these nemes, but a particularly clear example is given by the anti-vaccine movement. Here we have a group of people who believe that vaccines are bad for a range of religious and pseudo-scientific reasons. Some believe that vaccines are OK, but that children are given too many, or that vaccines are not needed, because they do not see clear evidence that a certain disease will kill their child. Others mistrust the companies that produce the vaccines and think that the vaccines might cause other problems such as autism.
The problem here is not that these people have concerns about the drugs that their children might get, but rather they mistrust the facts that are presented to them. They seem to lack the defence mechanisms that cause other people to change their minds. The ability to think critically and evaluate scientific evidence is a very powerful tool that is used to filter out bad ideas, and these people seem to lack these tools. The anti-vaccine neme has exploited the weak mental defences that those people have and thus, it becomes very difficult to remove.
The problem that this neme has on the world is now significant. Recent outbreaks of almost extinct diseases have created a significant problem for the medical community. The problems caused by the propagation of nemes on the internet goes much further than this example, and includes the spread of radical ideas such as The ‘War on Drugs’, The ‘War on terror’ and extreme versions of religious and secular ideologies. The point to recognise here is that all these nemes have been both spread and countered by the availability of the internet, and the new media in general.
I think that it is important to protect ourselves from the nemes that are being spread around, and the first step in doing that is to actually admit that we are susceptible to their effects. It is very important that as you are reading this blog, you are able to take something of value from it. This means that you need to engage your conscious mind, and assess what nemes might have infected you. What beliefs do you hold that are very dear to you? Is your particular religion, scientific understanding and general world view accurate? Is your position on issues regarding your physical and mental health clear?
I am asking you these questions directly because they will undoubtedly affect the way you see and behave in the world. If your view of the general population is self-interested, hedonistic and immoral, then that picture of the world might be created by one or many different nemes. How confident are you about issues surrounding what is right and wrong, or good or bad? Are drugs bad? Is sex bad? Is gay sex bad? Again, if these questions cause you to jump to a conclusion, then chances are that you need to assess your reasons very carefully. Start by assuming that you are wrong. Then go from there.
Finally, as you spend your day surfing the web, going on Facebook and reading the news, make sure that you are aware of the impact that these memes are having on you. Be very critical of what you let into your mind, and try to gather as many positive memes (pemes) as you can. This means that in the same way that you go to the gym to stay healthy and exercise, make sure that you listen, watch and read content that gives your mind some exercise. You don’t have to be a scientist to watch lectures on physics, biology and chemistry. You can watch videos on how the universe is created, how consciousness might work and what some of the most intelligent people alive have said about life in general. You only have this very moment to be alive, and whatever you decide to expose yourself to, make sure it is worth it. Because in the end, your mind is all you have, so make sure you protect it.
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