Monday, May 11, 2015

Mind War: Part One -- Mind Virus

I've been thinking a lot about viral transmission as an element of culture. I originally came across this idea in the highly recommended Snow Crash a number of years ago. It sparked both a strong interest in Sumerian mythology (which I've read on extensively and it is some amazing stuff) and a personal, if temporary, religious relationship with Inanna (who is very old and very interesting).

Hail, Lady of the Morning Star and Evening Star!
So when Gordon brought it up again in this post where he mentions that memes are "archonic retroviruses." I questioned this in the comments and my thoughts have been churning on the topic ever since. I honestly feel like Snow Crash might be required background reading for this post, as I was strongly influenced by it, but am not digging too deeply into the Sumerian stuff here. Besides it's a great book so go read it already.

I have borrowed liberally from the realms of biology, computer security, sociology, and mythology in the following. I have interest in all these fields, but am not an expert an any of them. So keep that in mind.

So, viruses...

Biologically, a virus is "a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of other organisms." There are lots of different types, but a primary classification is that a virus includes DNA and a retrovirus only contains RNA. For our purposes, the difference is that retroviruses have to turn the RNA into DNA within the host cell to start replication. This makes mutation much more likely and the virus much harder to fight. Influenza is a retrovirus, which is why there are new flu shots every year and sometimes they guess wrong about what will be the dominant strains. HIV is another retrovirus.

I think I'll name him Squishy!

Compare this to a computer virus, which is a small malicious program that replicates only inside of other systems. Computer viruses are well named, as they have the ability to replicate and spread. But computer viruses don't tend to mutate without deliberate human intervention.

Viruses have, by definition, an element of harm. Unlike bacteria, which can be helpful or harmful, viruses are by nature harmful because they destroy the cells that they use to replicate. While there are examples of viruses attacking bacteria or other viruses in nature, any benefit is usually a side effect that doesn't necessarily override the harm. Computer viruses are also by definition malicious. Computer viruses are typically created to do harmful things (like collect your personal information and send it someplace else). And even if they didn't have a nefarious purpose, the self-replicating aspect takes a toll on the system where the infection is. This is key. The fact that these entities have the ability to spread unchecked is the problem.

In order for a virus to spread, it requires some kind of network in order to move beyond infection of a single entity. For computers, this includes both local networks and the Internet. In humans, the network is society (which is what gets us living close enough to share viruses and bacteria and other things). So why don't we just disconnect our computers from the network (and ourselves from society)? Because we reap benefits from these networks far in excess of the risk they pose. In face, humans have evolved to be part of society to such a degree that for most people society is required for mental health and functioning.

So, since we need our networks and since viruses exist, what do we do? Well, use immunity and hygiene.

Humans have natural immunity (which depends on diet, exercise, and other lifestyle choices), which we augment with enhanced immunity through immunization. For computers, we install anti-virus programs to provide an immune system. Both systems work through pattern matching. When the virus attacks, the immune system looks for a match against known pathogens or programs. This is why you have to update your virus definitions on your computer and also how vaccines work.

Hygiene works alongside of immunity to keep us from getting infected in the first place. However while basic hygiene (clean water, doctors washing hands) has saved countless lives, too much hygiene can backfire. This is the hygiene hypothesis: by being too clean you rob your body of the chance to be exposed to things in order to develop appropriate immunity. Like never installing a virus checker on your computer because you don't have Internet access. They day that computer is exposed, they will be way more vulnerable than one that had been updated all along. Same with the human body.

So we have our host (the body, the computer), our network (society, internet), and our immunity (immune system/vaccine, anti-virus).

Turns out that thought works the exact same way:
  • We have our host: the human mind
  • We have our network: language
  • We have our immunity and hygiene: logical thinking, intuition, morality, meditation
  • And we have our viruses: harmful memes and ideas

Note that lots of things spread in a "viral" way that aren't viruses. This becomes very apparent when we look at how culture spreads in society. Cultural norms, ethics, mythology, and religion all spread through human networks to create what we consider culture.

In fact, that only difference between culture and a virus is the harm element. Those things that improve human society are elements of culture and those things that harm human society are cultural viruses. Helpful mythologies and religion versus harmful ones. Good technology versus evil. In fact, elements of culture can act as part of our immune system against harmful thought viruses.

In Snow Crash, Stephenson focuses a lot on the 'me'. In Sumerian mythology, these are dictates from the Gods on both human nature and the elements of culture. They include everything from kingship to prostitution, terror, music, and crafts. Here is a partial list of the ones we know of from mythology. These me were handed down to Enki who got to pass them around to various cities. The interesting thing about the me in mythology is that they are physical objects that can be stolen and showed off to people.

In the book, me are bits of low-level programming language for your brain (like your mental assembly code). Me is how people know what do, how to feel, how to worship, and how to live. These me are viral in nature. They can be passed from person to person through example, imitation, or instruction based on a universal proto-language (ancient Sumerian). In the book, the power of the me is used to spread a harmful religions virus but can be inoculated against through a spell / hack / inoculation. The original inoculation took the form of the Tower of Babel, which invented acquired language and allowed people freedom to create and propagate their own cultures.

In the book everything is about language and acquisition of language, which I think is pretty accurate in terms of how we exchange both culture and cultural virus. After all, without the ability to communicate what is in our brain, we can't create culture. Language is one of our primary communication methods.

The modern equivalent of a viral thought form that spreads through the human network is also called the me... or rather the meme (call it a coincidence if you must). Memes are very much retroviruses in that they mutate rapidly and spawn out of control within the system. So in this regard I think Gordon is correct. However, I'm not sure that all memes are harmful.

First, I think a lot of memes are the equivalent to junk code. The meme is not itself harmful, however too much accumulation of viral memes tends to bog down the system (in this case your mind). This is similar to early experiments with helpful computer viruses (compression viruses for example). The program itself is fine, but it replicates out of control and takes up system resources. Spend a couple of hours obsessively hitting refresh on facebook or twitter or tumbler and see how terrible you start to feel. Lethargic and mentally bloated and slow.

Other memes are more overtly harmful, hate filled screeds and extremist opinions and unreasonable but oddly appealing conspiracies that rely on people being evil for no good reason. Even logical people can get sucked in by these things through emotional levers. After all, memes are experts at bypassing our conscious minds.

The most dangerous memes are those that disguise themselves as true facts or harmless myths. American exceptionalism is a common one. The honor of war is another. Hatred for the poor is another. These come packaged in all different ways, disguising the harmful idea as a more benign one. Biological viruses do this by replicating human proteins and computer viruses by appearing as normal programs or applications. Harmful memes are disguised in a number of ways:
  • Emotion (including patriotism and religion)
  • Stereotyping (including the omission of facts that counter the stereotypes -- why peaceful protests don't get press)
  • Misdirection (look, shiny!)
  • Lies, damned lies (and statistics)
  • Truth (the harmful idea is buried in ideas that are either objectively true or that "everyone knows" are true)
The problem with inserting net images into an article
about memes is being unintentionally ironic.
Why is all of this important? I mean practically important, not just interesting? Because for society to function it's got to be healthy. An infected system is an unhealthy system and unhealthy systems don't survive. Either the viruses kill the host or leave it so weakened that some other threat comes along and takes it out. Thought viruses are actually more dangerous than other types because they can kill the uninfected along with the infected (exhibit A, any war in human history).

Even if society is unhealthy, we don't necessarily need to be. If you can't change the world, you can at least change yourself.

Memetic hygiene

First, you need to regularly defrag your brain to deal with the ongoing accumulation of junk memes. The primary culprit is advertising. It seems that the number of ads we are exposed to is actually a pretty controversial topic. But let's just agree that it's TOO MANY and leave it at that. In addition to ads, if you do any Internet searching, you tend to accumulate cruft in the form of random facts, pointless bits of infotainment, endless lolcats, and "top 10" lists.

You can clean up your mental state through media blackouts, meditation, and certain philosophical reading (I like the stoics, but your mileage will vary).

Second, you need to practice good -- but not too good -- hygiene. This includes keeping out of places where harmful infectious thoughts flourish. The comment threads on CNN, and in fact most comment threads, are likely hotspots and I consider any Internet discussion on atheism vs/ theism or feminism to be completely off limits. You should also regularly limit your exposure to the kind of click-bait surfing that doesn't provide any useful input. Like sugar and junk food for the immune system, it's appealing, but too much of that kind of thing can wear you down and make you more susceptible to harmful infection.

Memetic infection treatment

While Googling, I found this very interesting blog post on memetic inoculation. The author's premise is that our self-concept as rational, reasonable beings works against us in identifying memetic infection. We're so invested in being consistent and logical that we go through great trouble to rationalize our infections as conscious choices and thoughts. His advice it to practice rational self-reflection in order to recognize infection and in fact to assume that we are affected. This is good advice to treat existing infections, but I'm not sure I'd call this inoculation. Inoculation is supposed to keep us from getting infected in the first place.

However since we probably are already infected, treatment is a good idea. In addition to the hygiene suggestions, I recommend a conscious process of examining the sources of our beliefs in order to identify memetic infections. For example, you could take a political alignment quiz and then for every answer, ask WHY you believe as you do. You could also work through various ethical dilemmas in order to probe your thoughts.

In order to treat infections, you might try one of the following:
  • NLP
  • Visualization / Guided meditation
  • Meme / Anti-meme treatment (finding memetic counter-examples)
  • Self-hypnosis
The memetic immune system

You need to also develop your own mental immune system. Like biological and computer immunity, this is based on pattern matching. For example understanding a bit about fallacious arguments can help keep you for falling for them. And being able to recognize the ways that harmful messages are hidden inside benign ones will help you identify the risk. When you mentally identify a meme as harmful, then you'll be able to recognize that meme from then on. You also have to keep updating your virus definitions. The same crappy ideas keep coming back in different guises so you need to keep an eye out.

However, identifying memetic viruses isn't enough. You can't just not believe the meme, you also have to avoid engaging with it in an emotional way. You can't battle an idea by being angry at it, it just drains your reserves. There are ways of engaging with viral memes that don't have such a personal negative impact (see the section on inoculation below).

Finally, your mental immune system it naturally tightly linked to your physical and spiritual immune systems. If you aren't doing the good things you need to stay physically healthy (eat right, sleep enough, exercise) it will be much harder to stay mentally healthy.

Memetic innoculation

I also think it might be possible to use the form of the meme to inoculate against infection. Just like we used Cowpox to inoculate against Smallpox.

So you can have memes that inject helpful thoughts in the brain that then help protect against dangerous thought infections. This can be problematic because once you release the meme, it can mutate out of your control or be cooped by harmful forces. However memes that are pointed and that are managed closely can be incredibly useful at changing not only our own thinking but the discourse in broader society. The question authority meme is a great example. It is in and of itself a simple rubric, unhelpful if followed slavishly. However when administered this thought vaccine helps insulate against other viruses that come from authority figures.

You can improve the immunity of the entire system by shoring up those elements of existing culture that fight against the harmful virus. So against the virus of the Prosperity Gospel, you use the example of the poverty and charity of Christ. Strengthening the helpful elements of human culture act the same as herd immunity conferred by mass immunization. The whole system becomes more resistant to bad ideas. And when new, better memes take hold (like the meme of the 99%) they can adjust society's thinking in a better direction.

We can co-opt the tools of memetics in order to pass along ideas that encourage questioning of the dominant paradigms. For example, infographics and charts. Adbusters is a tour de force of this genre. They have a whole book on redefining economics using memetic tools. Download your free copy here.

I'm only just scratching the surface. There's much more to memetics (I'm particularly intrigued by memetic engineering) and it's critical to understanding the way the world works - - or doesn't work as the case may be. I've wondered for a while now whether our evolution might now be entirely mental rather than physical. I mean, I don't see us growing gills and going back to the waters any time soon. If so, understanding how our minds work and keeping them healthy may be the only opportunity to take control of our destinies.

It's a mind war, and your first priority is to keep yourself off the casualty list. 

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At May 14, 2015 at 10:30 PM , Anonymous Andreas said...

Here's an interesting take on a similar subject:

At May 16, 2015 at 8:36 AM , Blogger Ivy said...

That is interesting! It really draws the connection in my mind between a meme and a Black Swan -- no one would have predicted such a sea change in gay marriage rights, it had a huge impact on our culture, and we are prone to justifying our change in opinion in hindsight.

I tend to judge opinions on social issues based purely on whether the result is good for society or not. I honestly think that marriage has a stabilizing influence on society, particularly when it comes to the care of children, and that it's good for families economically. Therefore I want as many people as possible to be able to marry.


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