Last post I introduced the concept of “botification” – a process part biological, part algorithmic, that can largely override the human thinking process. That discussion focused on how social media, AI, and machine learning are accelerating the deterioration of critical thinking in our society. It appears we are morphing into a society that will no longer be driven by education, knowledge, or humanistic thinking, but instead controlled and manipulated by the memeocracy. Let’s dig deeper into the idea…
There has never been a time in human history when it was easier to access knowledge. And I would argue…never been a time when people were less likely to access that available knowledge. We’re too distracted with superficial bullshit and too many people are unknowingly being brainwashed what to think by others. The narratives of our time are driven by memes – superficial (and usually misleading) hot takes in slide or video form that create public perceptions.
Former President Trump is exhibit one for this new reality. He was able to parley his soundbite, bumper sticker philosophy and 280 character ALL CAPS!!! demagoguery into becoming the most the most famous person on planet earth. The way in which he was able to capture attention, weaponize fear, drive the narrative (on a worldwide level), and dominate the news cycles for five continuous years has never been achieved before in human history.
You can love him or hate him but give Trump his due. In terms of capturing and mastering public consciousness, no other human being is even in the same conversation as him. Not JFK, Elvis, Hitler, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Michael Jackson, Churchill, or Oprah. I’d argue that the closest anyone else has ever come would be Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad, but they were lacking Twitter accounts. And Trump didn’t just put himself at the center of public awareness, he persuaded tens of millions of normal, rational people to disregard facts and reality and live in an alternate reality. (And if you need more proof, millions of his followers still don’t believe he lost the election, even though he lost the popular vote the first time around as well.)
Some believe Trump’s election loss was a repudiation of this principle-free, post truth world, but I'm afraid that’s wishful thinking. Many (myself included) would argue that Biden won simply because he wasn’t Trump. But to make the assumption that this means America has made a sudden about face and is moving back to intelligent discourse and critical thinking would be foolish and naive.
America didn’t elect Uncle Joe because they were fatigued from hot takes, snarky tweets, and owning the opposition. They were just fatigued from Trump’s brand of hot takes, snarky tweets, and owning the opposition. He was like the entertaining houseguest who stayed a few days too long. Just as we tired of Beatlemania, Fernandomania, Tebowmania, Tigermania, and Tiger King mania, we’re feverishly searching for the next hot trendy mania we can obsess over. And we certainly don’t want to trade in hot takes for measured thought, demonizing the opposition for intelligent conversations, or tl;dr for you know, actual reading and discernment.
America and the world have devolved into a memeocracy: a state where power will be held by whoever can best manipulate a simple-minded population through memes.
It’s self-defense really. Do we really expect citizen voters to read a $2 trillion infrastructure bill that is thousands of pages of lobbyist-written legalese? Even the fucking Senators who vote on that bill won’t actually read it. (When you hear a politician make a snappy debate quip like, “I wrote the damn bill,” what they really mean is their staff collated suggested language from the lobbyists of the organizations and companies that contributed to their last campaign.) How many people could even find Syria on a map, let alone sort out the geopolitical implications of the tragedy currently unfolding there? Can you imagine the general public watching a debate with Christopher Hitchens if he were still alive? He’d be cancelled in a New York minute.
No one needs more information today. We’re already overwhelmed by the quantity and complexity of what we have. It’s more data than any human could possibly process and intelligently act upon. What we desperately need is thought leaders who can sift through all the relevant white noise and interpret what is important to us.
For generations, we have entrusted a major portion of this process to the media. We knew (or believed) journalists had our backs and would comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. There was always some inherent bias, of course, but guardrails were in place to keep it from being hijacked by the lunatic fringes. In what passes for journalism now, the lunatics are driving the bus and the voices of reason are now the fringes. Journalism stopped being a public service and became a lucrative industry in its own right run by multi-billion-dollar media empires. These multinational corporations no longer function as news reporting or informed analysis, but are dependent on shock, negativity, and clickbait.
We used to have three major television networks that were expected to be part of the infrastructure of democracy, and they dutifully dedicated 30 or 60 minutes every evening to journalists like Edward R. Morrow, Walter Cronkite, and David Brinkley to facilitate an informed electorate. Even news networks don’t really have time for news any longer. We’ve filled the gap with provocative personalities like Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Kayleigh McEnany. And because the menu describes the available flavors well, so we can select to watch only the shows that pander to our worldview.
Newspapers used to break stories like the Pentagon Papers. Now we have to settle for reprinted corporate press releases, listicles on the biggest NFL draft pick flops, and their commitment to “dish the gossip” from Hollywood. Recently National Review published an essay suggesting that perhaps we should reduce the number of people who participate in the voting process. It’s likely William F. Buckley Jr. is turning over in his grave, but the fact that the publication he founded is having this discussion is telling.
A few days ago, Jackson Memorial hospital here in Miami created controversy by emailing social media influencers with announcing an "Influencer Vaccine Day" at the hospital.
"You would be invited to come (possibly with a +1) and get the Pfizer vaccine," the email reads. "We hope you will post about your experience and we will also have a videographer there and may do a short interview with you for Jackson's social media."
This is a brilliant idea to promote vaccine awareness. And a terrible idea for providing ethical medical care to the community. Debate it either way, but the situation vividly demonstrates what a different world we now live in. It leads us back to the issue of how public opinion, and now even the public thinking process (or lack of it) is being influenced by social media and our meme-obsessed society.
The average voter today is a functional illiterate (or at least a volunteer one) with the attention span of a gnat. And more and more of them are being hypnotized and botified into worker drones for the collective. The fastest and most effective strategy to manipulate them now is memes.
We’ve always followed people who could distill complex concepts down into simple explanations we could understand. Now the advance of technology has made that easier than ever, and like all tech, also allows many opportunities for those with ulterior motives to corrupt the process. Mind viruses that contain emotions travel and replicate exponentially faster than ones which don’t. As a result, memes of outrage, hate, and fear quickly smother the competing memes of peace, love and courage. The memes which are created to the lowest order of thinking for the simplest minds will ultimately prevail.
Millions of people are not operating out of conscious choice and free will, but have basically been co-opted by external forces and botified. The shockingly small number of people still capable of discerned thinking scares the fuck out of me. We have to get people thinking again and more importantly, then get them questioning whether what they are thinking is true.
I wonder whether we have reached a tipping point as a society where the search for wisdom now is less about seeking new knowledge and more about cleansing the self-destructive programming already infecting our thinking. I do know on the track we’re on now, the people and institutions that can best express hate, fear, and insecurity through base memes will control the world.
Unless we decide that they won’t.
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