What fossil fuel has done to the natural environment, memes and other social media behaviors may be doing to our social environment.
Since first becoming aware of the detrimental effect that memes (digital macro images shared across social media) are having on human social and intellectual patterns, I have written a number of critical essays exploring these issues directly and indirectly. You may want to read those as well to get a fuller picture of my critique.
In order to view the destructive nature of memes I have created a new metric, or perceptual filter, from which to examine them. I call it Universal Simultaneous Behaviors (USBs).
A USB is a behavior in which a relatively high number humans across the globe are participating in at any given time.
Throughout most of human history there were only a few of these, and they all were directly related to our survival – eating, drinking, sleeping and sex.
The industrial revolution introduced new ones that were indirectly related to our survival – working a job and driving.
The digital revolution has introduced a few new ones, which are not related to survival in any way, except indirectly to our social needs – being online (social media) and making/sharing memes.
The USBs adopted during industrialism have been at the very heart of the damage humans have inflicted on the natural environment. Not necessarily because they are indirectly related to survival, but because they demanded dependence on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels can be seen as the fuel of the industrial era and of it’s USBs.
The fuel of the digital era which powers most online behavior and the entirety of memes is reductionism. Reductionism cripples our capacity to think critically and replaces complexity with over-simplicity. And just as fossil fuels have been disastrous to the natural environment, reductionism may be doing the very same to our social environment.
Consider the re-emergence of white supremacy and nationalism, both of which are predicated on reductionist ideas about the world. How did all of the progress we made in these regards take such a massive step backwards in such a short time? How did dormant and dying ideas make such a quick comeback?
It is not because they are good ideas, that is certain. And it is not that people are just totally rotten, which would be a cop out. To truly understand how this happened it is important to understand the environmental context in which these ideas re-emerged, which is likely the virus-like reductionism which plagues social media and the memes and tropes it has reduced itself to.
Human beings do have social needs, to varying degrees for each individual. Another issues of memes and rehashing tropes is that it buys social currency with almost no effort. When ones social needs are met too easily, they become less valuable. When social standing is paid for in clicks, those clicks become less meaningful over time, which means that the people dependent on them will need to click more to get the same effect. Eventually their entire social life becomes predicated on getting more low-paying clicks to feed their addiction. And during this time the individual stagnates and perhaps even regresses from the heights of their potential.
And this is what has allowed us to move backwards in time to revisit the authoritarianism and bigotries of our past. The human regression you can see on the nightly news in the developed world is not some accident. It is a direct result of digital era USBs.
I know how incredibly unlikely that seems, but in the words of Marshall McLuhan – “The medium is the message.” And in this case the message is reductionism, delivered by a highly addictive but low grade substance.
One of the great dangers is that, because it seems so unlikely, it is hard to convince people that they are participating in a dangerous behavior. And the more the participate, the less likely they are to understand the complexity needed recognize the danger for themselves.
If you share this article in social media I can almost guarantee that at least one, if not many people, will comment with a meme. And in doing so will have the smirk of satisfaction befitting a bratty toddler, while believing that theirs was an act of defiance and rebellion. However since the meme behavior is so pervasive, there could be nothing less rebellious or status quo than meme-ing.
While the problem is clear, the solution is not. How do we get billions of people to stop engaging in a behavior that provides dopamine hits and gratification of their Id, especially when they are in denial and the behavior itself digs them deeper into the pit?
We are on the precipice of a social and intellectual crisis, that if unchecked, will beget even more serious existential issues for humanity in the coming years.
If you think that my warning is mere hyperbole, test it. Step back from memes for a week, a month or a year. Do not create, share or ‘like’ them. See if after doing so my warning doesn’t make more sense. If you are unable to take a break from that behavior to test my hypothesis, then you will have evidenced the truth of what I am saying.
Memes are both the fossil fuel and the opiates of the digital world. Can you quit?