The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label memetics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label memetics. Show all posts

Friday, May 5, 2023

The Rise of Elly Schlein: How a Young, Woke, and Fashionable Politician is Shaking up Politics in Italy, and Perhaps Worldwide


Many times, Italy was a political laboratory that influenced the rest of the world. Just think of Mussolini and, more recently, how a government led by an obscure bureaucrat named Giuseppe Conte started the trend of nationwide lockdowns, then adopted everywhere in the world. Italy may be a backwater country, but it is a murky memetic pool brewing memetic microbes. Above, you see Ms. Elly Schlein, recently elected as secretary of the Italian "Partito Democratico," (PD) as shown in a recent interview in the Italian edition of Vogue magazine. I think you'll hear a lot about this lady in the future. 

When Elly Schlein was elected secretary of the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy, two months ago, I thought it was just a desperate attempt to revive a party that had nothing more to say in politics. But I was wrong. Elly Schlein is not the result of the convulsions of a dying organization. She is a major innovation in public relations, designed to revolutionize the Italian, and perhaps the world's, political landscape. 

Up to not long ago, politicians tended to project the image of the strong man, the "father of the country" whose decisions were always wise. That's past and gone, perhaps forever. The levers of political power have moved to the obscure lobbies that control governments, while the job of politicians is now mainly to maintain a semblance of popular participation in the governing process. In short, they all image and no substance. 

Ms. Schlein is part of this evolution. She is the tip of an innovative PR campaign launched by the PD and their sponsors, and she is using the same strategy that Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian PM, used for decades: it doesn't matter how many people hate you: what matters is how many people vote for you. 

So, Berlusconi targeted the least cultured sections of the Italian population with a personal image of a rich man who could do whatever he wanted. If you are poor, it is a figure that you may dream of imitating. Plenty of people hated Berlusconi for his image, but he consistently won elections over a political career of a few decades. 

Elly Schlein is doing something similar. She is not trying to appear to her potential voters as "one of us," but, rather, "what every one of us would like to be," at least for the target she is aiming at; that of young, left-oriented people in the West. So, she projects her image as young, independent, bisexual, globalist, feminist, and, more than all, a successful woman who can manage herself and her sexual preferences the way she wants. Among other things, she had no qualms in disclosing that she employs a "harmochromist" a sort of assistant buyer at Eur 300/hour to take care of the color combinations of the dresses she wears. In short, the perfect image of  "radical chic," now better known under the name of "woke." And the fact that she does not look like a fashion model shows that her success is the result of her skills, not her looks. 

The PR strategy of Elly Schlein has been very successful, at least up to now. Huge numbers of "leftists" rushed to their keyboards to defame her on all social media for betraying the working class because of her interview with Vogue, her fashionable dresses, and her harmochromist assistant. Remarkably, none of them realized that they were doing exactly what Schlein's PR managers wanted them to do. They wanted her to gain the attention of the media; and avoid repeating the mistake they had made with the lackluster former secretary, Enrico Letta. These good leftists didn't realize that they were making the same mistake they made with Berlusconi: the more they attacked him, the more they made him popular. Again, it doesn't matter how many people hate you; what matters is how many people vote for you. 

Of course, politics is not just a question of physical image; you have to have opinions, programs, and platforms. In this field, Schlein seems to have understood the critical point of modern politics. You may be criticized for what you said but not for what you didn't say. So, the skill of a modern politician is to be able to speak a lot while saying nothing. Schlein appears to have mastered this skill, at least from what we can read in her recent interview with Vogue Magazine. (excerpts in English). If you ever heard terms such as "cliché fest," "banality bonanza," or "vapid verbiage," consider this article as a good example of these concepts. It is all part of the image: it is the way politics works nowadays. 

So, I think we are seeing a trend. Note how Schlein's image is remarkably similar to that of the former New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden. 

Since politicians are a product, the industry that produces them (the PR industry) tends to imitate and repropose successful products. In a previous post, I noted how the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky adopted a dress code very similar to that of the Italian right-wing leader Matteo Salvini. About Schlein and Arden, note how both women have relatively elongated faces, a feature that is often associated with a "masculine" appearance. These ladies tend to produce an image of independence, self-reliance, and assertiveness. At present, there is no exact equivalent in the US political landscape, so far, although Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has some elements of similarity with them. Perhaps the US politician who looks like Schlein the most is Barack Obama, at least in the sense of being another expert in talking a lot without saying much.   

My impression is that starting from Italy, this kind of heavily promoted female political figures may soon spread all over the Western World. Not that anything will change; we'll just have "front persons" rather than "front men" at the top. And we keep marching toward the future, whatever it will be.


As a further note, here is Schlein's adversary in Italy, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right. 

She is a more traditional kind of politician: a classical "populist." She is aggressive and outspoken, but overall she projects a more "feminine" image than Schlein, and it would be hard to imagine her employing a personal armochromist. My impression is that one of the purposes of the creation of Elly Schlein's image was to prepare an anti-Meloni memetic weapon. In my opinion, if push comes to shove, Schlein will easily trash Meloni by making her look like a fruit vendor in a provincial market. But that we'll have to see.

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Shanghai Lockdown: a Memetic Analysis

Despite evidence that the rise in the number of cases is stalling, the Chinese lockdown in Shanghai and other cities continues, with hundreds of millions of people forced into their homes or in quarantine centers. What's happening? I argue that the Chinese government may have acted -- and still be acting -- on the basis of a meme that has its origin in a military perception of the pandemic.  

A "meme" is a small unit of information that can easily move from one human mind to another. It is the virtual equivalent of a virus in the sense that it "infects" people and influences their behavior. To explain the concept, maybe the best way is with an example: how my grandmother was absolutely convinced that nobody ever should drink a glass of milk without having boiled it first. She was infected with a meme that we could describe as "boil the damn milk." It was simple and direct, but, unfortunately, completely useless in the 1960s, when pasteurization had become common. 

My grandmother was not stupid: she was simply applying a tested method to deal with things she knew little about. The problem is that memes can be (or become) wrong or harmful, and yet they are very difficult to dislodge. In the photo, you see Colin Powell, in 2003, showing a vial of baby powder while claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed largely on the basis of a meme that turned out to be completely false. 

The Covid pandemic is another case of a complex story that most people are unprepared to understand. We should be trained in microbiology, medicine, epidemiology, and more -- no way! So, we rely on simplified snippets to guide our everyday activities. "Wear the damn mask," "stay home," "don't kill granny," "flatten the curve," and the like. That includes our leaders, and even many of the so-called "experts".

But how can we tell whether a meme is good or bad? One way to decide is to look at its origin. All memes have a story. Sometimes they begin as sensible precautions ("boil the milk before drinking it") but, in some cases ("lock everybody inside their homes"), they have a more complicated story. Where does the lockdown meme come from? Its origin can be found in the evolution of the concept of "biological warfare." But let's go in order. 

The Militarization of Biotechnologies

Biological weapons have been around for a long time in history. Ancient writers tell us of cadavers of infected people shot into besieged cities using catapults. It must have been spectacular, but it doesn't seem to have been common or especially effective. The problem with biological weapons is similar to that with chemical weapons. They are difficult to direct against specific targets and always carry the risk of backfiring. So, in modern times, bioweapons were never used on a large scale and, in 1972, a convention was enacted that outlawed biological warfare. That seemed to be the end of the story. But things were to change.  

You see in  Google Ngrams how the interest in biological weapons started to grow from the 1980s, onward.


The Ngrams results are confirmed by an examination of the scientific literature, as you may see by using Google Scholar or the Web of Science. The figure shows the number of papers dedicated to biological weapons (note that in the figure years go right to left in the graph and that the 2022 data are still incomplete.)

The origin of this renewed interest lies in the development of modern genetic manipulation technologies, supposed to be able to create new, and more deadly germs. But they can do much more than that: what if you could "tailor" a virus to the genetic code of specific ethnic groups, or even to the DNA of single persons? That remains (fortunately) for now in the realm of science fiction, but there is a simpler and more realistic approach. You can direct a virus to harm the enemy while sparing your population. You can do that if you have a vaccine, and they don't (like the old Maxim gun in colonial warfare). Considering that biological weapons are also cheap, you can see how the idea of biological warfare has become popular, with China often believed to be a leader in this field. You can read an in-depth discussion on this point on Chuck Pezeshky's site.

Before going on, stop for a moment to remember that these are just ideas: they have never been put into practice. And you are discussing lethal viruses that can kill millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of people. What could go wrong? Nevertheless, the idea of a weapon that only kills your enemies while sparing your forces is an irresistible meme for military-oriented minds. Then, once the meme is loose in the memesphere, it starts acting with a force of its own. The increasing interest in bioweapons indicates that during the past 3-4 decades, military planners started believing that "genetic warfare" was a real possibility. At this point, strategic planning for a biological war became a necessity, in particular about what should have been done to prepare a country to react when targeted with bioweapons.

The diffusion of this meme generated a revolution in the views on how to contain an epidemic. Earlier on, the generally accepted view favored a soft approach: letting the virus run in the population with the objective of reaching the natural "herd immunity". For instance, in a 2007 paper, the authors examined a possible new influence pandemic and rejected such ideas as confinement, travel bans, distancing, and others. On quarantines, they stated that "There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza." 

But when the military meme of biological warfare started emerging, things changed. A bioweapon attack is nothing like a seasonal flu: it is supposed to be extremely deadly, able to cripple the functioning of an entire state. Facing such a threat, waiting for herd immunity is not enough: the virus has to be stopped fast to allow the defenders to identify the virus and develop a vaccine. 

You can find several documents on the Web advocating an aggressive attitude toward epidemics. One was prepared by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006. Another comes from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2010, where you can read of a scenario called "Operation Lockstep" that described something very similar to what came to pass in 2020 in terms of restrictions. Possibly, the most interesting document in this series is the one written in 2007 for the CDC  by Rajeev Venkayya. The document didn't use the term "lockdown" but it proposed a drastic series of measures to counter a possible outbreak that leading nearly two million victims in the United States only. It proposed a series of restrictions on the movement of people and, for the first time, the concept of "flattening the curve." It had a remarkable influence on the events that took place in 2020. We'll go back to this graph later. 

Up to 2020, all these ideas remained purely theoretical, just memes that floated in the memesphere. Things were soon to change. 

The Wuhan Lockdown meme

In early 2020, the Chinese government reported the discovery of a new virus, that they labeled SARS-Cov-2, rapidly spreading in the city of Wuhan. The authorities reacted by enacting a strict lockdown of the city and a partial one in the province of Hubei. The lockdown lasted from Jan 23 to April 8, a total of about 2 months and a half. 

It was an extraordinary event that finds no equivalent in modern or ancient times. Of course, quarantines have been known for centuries, but the idea of a quarantine is to confine people who are infected or who have been in contact with infected people. A lockdown, instead, means locking down everybody in a large geographical region. It had been tried only once in modern history, when a three-day lockdown was implemented in Sierra Leone with the idea of containing an outbreak of Ebola. It had no measurable effect on the epidemic. 

Many people proposed elaborate hypotheses about how the Chinese government may have been planning the pandemic in advance for strategic or political reasons. I don't see this idea as believable. Citing W.J. Astore, "People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing." I think the Chinese government is not different. Governments tend to react, rather than act. They also tend to be authoritarian, and a drastic lockdown is surely something that they favor since it enhances their power. 

Seen in this context, it doesn't matter if the SARS-Cov-2 virus was a natural mutation of an existing virus or, as some said, it had escaped from the biological research laboratory in Wuhan. What's important is that the Chinese authorities reacted "by the book." That is, they put into practice the recommendations that could be found, for instance, in Venkayya's CDC paper, although, of course, that doesn't mean that they actually read it. The Chinese surely had their own recommendations on preparedness that we may imagine were similar to those fashionable in the West. They may have believed that the virus was a serious threat, and they may even have suspected that it was a real biological attack. In any case, it was an occasion for the Chinese leaders to show their muscles and, perhaps, also to test their preparedness plans.

Here are the results of the first phase of the pandemic in China. We see how the number of cases moved along a typical epidemic curve that started in January 2020 and went to nearly zero after two months, and there remained for two years.


There is no doubt that the Chinese government saw this result as a success. Actually, as a huge success. Don't forget that the initial reports had described an extremely deadly virus, of the kind that could cause tens of millions of victims. In practice, the deaths attributed to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in China were about 5000. Over a population of a billion and a half, it is an infinitesimal number, and the probability for a Chinese citizen to die of (or with) Covid during 2020 was of the order of 2-3 in a million. Infinitesimal, indeed. But was it was a success of the containment policies? Or simply the result of the virus being much less deadly than it had been feared to be? Whatever the case, whoever took the decision of enacting the lockdown also took the merit for its perceived success. It was a personal triumph for China's president, Xi Jinping. 

The apparent success of the Wuhan lockdown generated a new, powerful meme about the effectiveness of the drastic NPI measures based on lockdowns, distancing, cleaning, disinfecting, masking, etcetera. They seemed effective not just in terms of "flattening the curve", but also as methods to control the epidemic and arrive at a condition of "zero covid." Memes such as "stay home" spread to the Western governments, just as the SARS-Cov2 virus spread to Western countries. The memes of "flattening the curve" and of "zero covid" were remarkably successful, as you can see in these data from Google Trends: 

Initially, it seemed that the Covid epidemic in Europe would disappear after the first wave, thanks to the NPIs. European leaders may have been genuinely convinced of this. For instance, in November 2020, the Italian Minister of Health, Mr. Roberto Speranza, published a book titled "Why we will be healed" taking credit for the successful eradication of the epidemic in Italy. But shortly afterward the number of Covid cases in Italy restarted to grow, and Mr. Speranza hastily retired his book from bookstores and from the Web. It was as if that book had never existed. In no country in the West, the number of cases could be lowered to zero, nor the epidemic could be limited to a single cycle as it had been done in China. The comparison of two years of data for China and the US is simply dramatic:

Many Chinese people seemed to take this result as a demonstration that the Chinese society is superior to the Western one because of the better discipline and self-control shown by Chinese citizens. It is an opinion (another meme) that could be maintained as long as the epidemic was at a truly zero level in China. 

Maybe, but a little more than two years later, things changed in China. The virus started spreading in the Southern areas of the country despite a new, drastic lockdown enacted by the authorities. Here are the most recent data available.


And you see that China went along the same path that several Western countries followed. After a lull in the spread of the virus, they concluded that the virus was eradicated. But then a new, stronger wave arrived. China didn't do so much better than the West, after all. 

The Memes that won

Up to March 2022, the China lockdown policy was seen as an exemplary case of successful containment of an epidemic. But the Shanghai lockdown changed everything. I argue that what we are seeing is a meme that got loose in the mind of politicians and led them to make several bad mistakes. 

The point, here, is to define success and failure in the containment of a pandemic. But what metric would you use? Let's go back to Venkayya's diagram in the 2007 CDC report, reproducing it here again. 

Do you notice what scam this diagram is? This figure is not based on data, has no experimental verification, no references in past studies. It is just something that the author, Mr. Venkayya, thought was a good idea. The problem is that the diagram cannot be quantified: it shows two nice and smooth theoretical curves. But, in the real world, you would never be able to observe both curves. Think of the epidemic in Wuhan: which of the two curves describes the real-world data? You cannot say: you would have needed two Wuhans, one where the restrictions were implemented, another where they weren't. Then, you could compare. 

Of course, in the real world, there are no two Wuhans, but there are 51 US states that applied different versions of the concept of "restrictions" during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economics Research went to examine how the different states performed and found essentially no effect of the restriction on the health of the citizens. There are other studies based that show how the effect of NPIs such as lockdowns, distancing, masks, etc., is weak, if existing at all. 

That leaves open the question of why the first lockdown in Wuhan was perceived to be so effective that it was replicated all over the world. The key, here, is the term "effective." If the virus had been as deadly as it was believed to be, maybe even a biological weapon, then, yes, you could claim that the Wuhan NPI had contained it. But later experience showed that the Covid virus was not much more lethal than that of normal influenza. Some data show that it may have been endemic before the outburst of 2020, so the immune system of the Chinese may have been already equipped to cope with it. That would also explain why the 2022 wave was so much stronger: the Chinese had not exposed their immune system to viruses for nearly two years, and they had become especially vulnerable to new variants.  

At this point, I can propose an interpretation for the reasons for the recent Shanghai lockdown as a good example of the power of memes. It is possible that the Chinese authorities were genuinely convinced that the Wuhan lockdown of 2020 demonstrated that restrictions work (in different terms, they remained infected with the relative meme). So, facing a new wave of the COVID virus, they reacted in the same way: with a new lockdown, convinced that they are doing their best to help Chinese citizens to overcome a real threat. 

If this is true, the Chinese authorities -- and the Chinese citizens, as well -- y must have been surprised when they saw that the new Covid wave refused to be flattened, as it had seemed to be during the Wuhan lockdown. The problem, at this point, lies with the stubbornness of memes, especially in the minds of politicians. A politician, in China as everywhere else, can never admit to having been wrong. When they find that some of their actions don't lead to the expected results, they tend to double down. Of course, a larger dose of a bad remedy does not usually help, but it is the way the human mind works. We may imagine that the leaders of the inhabitants of Easter Island did the same when they increased the effort in building large statues there. Incidentally, these statues were themselves another stubborn meme infecting a population.

Conclusion: a memetic cascade

Two years of the pandemic are summarized in a single graphic from "Worldometers." What you see is a series of seasonal peaks, one in the summer for the Southern Hemisphere, the other in winter for the Northern Hemisphere. There is no evidence that the various campaigns of non-pharmaceutical interventions had a significant effect. Every day in the world, some 150,000 persons die for all reasons. The graph tells us that, on the average, only about 7-8 thousand people died of (or perhaps just with) Covid every day. Even assuming that all those who died with Covid can be classified as dead from Covid (not obvious at all), more than 95% of the people who died during this period died for reasons other than the Covid. 

The question that we face, then, is how was it that the world reacted with such extreme measures to a threat that, seen today, was much exaggerated. It may be still too early to understand exactly what happened, but I think it is possible to propose that it was a typical "feedback cascade" in the world's memesphere. A convergence of parallel views from politicians, decision-makers, industrial lobbies, and even simple citizens, most of them truly convinced that they were doing the right thing. 

I don't mean here that there were no conspiracies in this story, in the sense of groups of people acting to exploit the pandemic for their personal economic or political interests. Lobbies and individuals do ride memes for their own advantage. So, when the pharmaceutical industry discovered that they could make money with vaccines against the Covid, they pushed hard for the meme to spread. The surveillance industry did the same. And governments, of course, pushed for more control over their citizens. They are naturally authoritarian and the Chinese government may not be especially more authoritarian than the Western ones. 

But, overall, memes can be a force that moves infected people even against their personal interests. My grandmother had no advantage, just a slightly higher cost, from her habit of boiling her milk before drinking it. It is much worse for the Covid story. A lot of ordinary people fully believed the memes that the government's propaganda machine was pushing and they did things that were positively harming them, physically, socially, and economically. They still do, memes are resilient. Daniel Dennett said that "a human being is an ape infested with memes." and the Covid story shows that it is true. 

Fortunately, the number of cases in China seems to have reached its peak and from now on, it can only go down. But the recent news from Shanghai is worrisome. If the Western media are to be trusted, the Chinese government is engaged in fencing apartment buildings to keep people locked inside. It may still be way too early to say that the time of the requiem for an old meme has come. 

See also the work by Jeffrey Tucker, and Chuck Pezeshky.

Note added after publication. Latest news from China (May 9th, 2022):

"Our prevention and control strategy is determined by the party's nature and mission, our policies can stand the test of history, our measures are scientific and effective," the seven-member committee said, according to government news agency Xinhua.

"We have won the battle to defend Wuhan, and we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai," it said.

They have clearly realized that they made a huge mistake, but they cannot admit that and they cannot back down. The usual disaster. And, by the way, they completely confirm my interpretation that they really believed that the lockdown in Wuhan had been a success in eradicating the virus. ("our measures are scientific" -- yeah, sure.....)

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Twilight of the Narrative: Why the Truth will never be Revealed

 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.  Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? (John 18:38)

What is truth? We often have a "Hollywood" model of truth: we expect it to triumph at the end of the movie, when the bad guy confesses his crime and everyone agrees on what really happened. 

Reality is very different. Truth is multiple, fractal, hierarchical, a game of mirrors, never showing herself in full. Think of the pandemic: aren't we in the age where the "scientific method" gives us a rational, objective view of the world? And yet, the multifaceted aspects of a hugely complex story seem to be beyond our capability to process it rationally.  Truth is not coming. It may never come. (And you may also be reminded of another case whose 20th anniversary we recently commemorated -- there, too, the truth did not come out and probably never will).

In the post, below, Sheridan analyzes the structure of the memesphere and challenges at the core the idea that the "narrative (about the pandemic) is going to crack" any day now and that the "truth" will be revealed. He says, "There is no longer a unifying narrative that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there is now only a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed over them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, it's just dominant."

In essence, the memetic sphere has shattered into an infinite series of closed microspheres. The dominant macrosphere can no longer control them, despite its desperate efforts at censorship, intimidation, and obfuscation. But if the microspheres don't talk to each other, the truth won't come out, whatever it is.

Read this post: it is truly enlightening

The Twilight of the Narrative

by Simon Sheridan

November 27, 2021 (posted here by the author's kind permission)

Recently, I was visiting a friend’s house when a Michael Jackson song came on the radio and my friend said something interesting that I hadn’t really thought about before. He noted that, at the peak of Jackson’s fame, the releasing of one of his albums was a global event with a coordinated marketing campaign which meant that pretty much everybody in the western world and many parts of the non-western world would have known when a Michael Jackson album was released whether they liked his music or not. This is something the young people these days wouldn’t comprehend as they each have their own social media influencer or Youtube celebrity or whatever that they follow in much smaller sub-cultures than before. Even the most popular pop stars of today are only known to a subset of the population never the whole population like Jackson was. 

This observation got me thinking about a subject that I have been pondering for a while which is the impact of the internet on our culture. It seems to me this impact is not really discussed much anymore even though it is directly contributing to our current woes. One of the main changes wrought by the internet is the shattering of “grand narratives”. A Michael Jackson album release is one. But the pattern extends into other areas of the public discourse where its effects are far more important such as the narratives that hold countries together. As the corona event drags on interminably, there are those in the dissenter camp who still think the “narrative is about to crack” any day now and the “truth” will be revealed. 

This mindset from the old, pre-internet world is no longer valid in the world we live. There is no unifying narrative any more that is going to crack and be replaced by a better, more truthful narrative. Rather, there are now just a seemingly infinite number of sub-narratives with a dominant narrative imposed on top of them. The dominant narrative is not necessarily truthful, just dominant. The emergence of the “conspiracy theory” label alongside the daily censorship that now happens on social media platforms are among a number of tactics that are now used to try and subdue alternative narratives in the hope of allowing a centralised narrative to form. But it never does for the simple reason that you cannot coerce people into believing a narrative. Narratives must evolve organically with a feedback loop between top-down and bottom-up. The increasing use of censorious tactics in the last couple of years reveals the underlying weakness of the dominant narrative. The powers that be have gone all out in attempting to hold together a narrative that itself doesn’t make sense as it is changed willy-nilly according to purely political considerations. 

It’s tempting to think the politicians are doing it on purpose with some larger objective in mind. But what if there is no larger objective? What if these tactics are simply what is required now to create any type of dominant narrative at all? What if these tactics are now the price you pay to create a narrative? If so, that price has gone through the roof. We can usefully call this narrative inflation. If you increase the supply of money, you get monetary inflation. If you increase the supply of narratives, you get narrative inflation. The price to create a dominant narrative has gone up for a number of reasons but one is that the internet opened the floodgates on the flow of information and allowed multiple alternative narratives to be created. This has created its own dynamic independent of the political and economic considerations that are also driving the trend. It may turn out that one of the consequences of allowing free and instant information is to destroy centralised narratives. There are good sociological and psychological reasons why this would be the case.

Eyewitness testimony has long been problematic for police trying to investigate an incident or crime. Even for something relatively straightforward like a car accident, where the eyewitnesses themselves have no personal stake in the story, accounts can diverge radically. Ten people witnessing a car accident can give you ten different stories of the crash. These problems are greatly exacerbated when the individuals involved have a vested interest in the case as often happens in criminal investigations. This eternal problem has been dealt with in numerous fiction and non-fiction works. The best non-fiction work I have seen about the subject is the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in which a school teacher is found to have child pornography in his home which leads to a series of events including him pleading guilty to sexually abusing some of his students. The documentary follows the motivations of those involved as rumour of the crime spreads in the local community creating its own dynamic as gossip and innuendo put enormous pressure of the family at the centre of the case. By the end of the documentary, we don’t know whether any of the official story is true as the lies and deceits create second and third order effects that distort the whole picture. 

This real-life account mirrors one of the best fictional representations of the problem, Akira Kurosawa’s movie “Rashomon”, in which a murder occurs in the forest but we hear radically different versions of the event told by the people involved (including, dramatically, the deceased). The philosophical question raised by both films is whether or not there can be found an objective standard of truth. This is a problem philosophers have wrestled with for millennia but it becomes a practical problem in cases involving crime where we want to see justice served and yet we have multiple, irreconcilable accounts about reality and seemingly no way to choose between them. At the end of the process, the system gives a verdict of guilty-not guilty and this is taken as the “truth” but is it really the truth?

With the internet, we have seen the same psychology applied to the public discourse and this has created practical problems for politics. Politicians love to divide the public where it suits their interest but it’s also true that they need to appeal to a foundation which unites the public. The process is similar to the justice system. Although there is disagreement and competition within the system, everybody must agree to play by the rules. The system itself is the thing people believe in. The public discourse which existed prior to the internet was facilitated through a system in which the media was known as the “fourth estate”. Its job was to hold government to account. Of course, this was not a perfect system but, as the saying goes, it seems it was better than all the others. It was certainly better than the system we have now where the media does not hold the government to account at all and is little more than a public relations branch of the government. 

Recently in the New Zealand parliament, Jacinda Ardern was questioned about $55 million her government gave to media with certain conditions attached about what could be reported on. In Australia, the government waived the usual licence fee for the mainstream media channels back in March 2020. This amounted to around $44 million in subsidies. The theory was that this was needed because covid was expected to reduce advertising revenue, a strange claim given that the whole population was about to be locked at home with every incentive to watch the news. That measure came after the Australian government famously held Facebook and other big tech players to ransom and forced them to pay money to Australian media companies for content. Whatever the ethical dimensions of these issues, what lies beneath is the fact that the media companies are no longer viable businesses capable of existing without government support. Because they are now reliant on government money, their function as the fourth estate that holds government to account has also all but disappeared. That’s a problem for them but it’s also a problem for the government. The “official narrative” is transmitted through the legacy media. If the legacy media goes away, so does the narrative. Governments know that if the media disappeared, so would a large chunk of their power. The government needs the media as much as the media needs the government.

I would argue that the public also needs the media. It needs the media to act as its representative. That was the whole point of the Fourth Estate arrangement. The public paid for the media and that meant the media had an incentive to represents the readership’s interests. But that is all gone now. Some people think the public doesn’t really need the media. For almost any event, we are able to watch live video online now. Once upon a time we needed the newspaper to tell us the facts, but we simply don’t need that anymore. You might think that’s a good thing. We remove the middle man and allow the public to see events for themselves. But that introduces the same problem you have with eyewitness accounts which is that you get as many versions of the “truth” as there are people. The discourse becomes fragmented and the checks and balances that once held disappear. It’s a bit like having a crime investigation without a detective. “The system” can no longer control the discourse the way it previously could. This is not a trivial matter. It leads us back to one of Plato’s most dangerous ideas which is the Noble Lie. The idea goes that society cannot exist and justice cannot be served unless there are a number of lies which bind society together. Lie is, of course, a very strong word. We could soften it by calling them myths or ideals but the effect is the same. The myths and ideals are the glue that holds things together and, according to Plato, without them society will disintegrate.

Our post-internet public discourse provides some evidence for this assertion. It has become completely detached from reality or, to put it another way, it represents only one version of reality: the one that comes from the top-down. This process is especially advanced in the US. It hit a fever pitch with the Trump presidency and has not relaxed since. There are now at least two mutually incompatible narratives going on in the US meaning that agreement about the fundamentals which hold society together is called into question on an almost daily basis. It’s quite common to hear somebody on either side of the debate label somebody on the other side as “crazy” or “insane” and that is one manifestation of the problem. Within this new world, the idea that the “narrative is about to crack” doesn’t make sense. The dominant narrative is held in place by power, not by truth. By definition, the only thing that can “crack” it is another source of power. This was Trump’s genius. He hijacked the entire machinery that generates the narrative and turned it to his own purposes. But I think Trump was the end of the road. They got rid of him but in doing so they removed any last pretence that the narrative was “fair” or “truthful”. You can’t just delete the sitting President and then go back to normal as if nothing happened. As a result, a large proportion of the population no longer has any faith whatsoever in the system. That holds true no matter who is in power. The dominant narrative is now nothing more than the story told by those in power.

In Australia and much of Europe and Canada, we are just now catching up with the US. Here in Melbourne, more than a hundred thousand people marched against the government last weekend. The Premier’s response was to write them off as “thugs” and “extremists”. It reminded me an awful lot of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” moment. When politicians no longer feel like they need to accommodate the interests and opinions of a substantial proportion of the population you know the narrative is already fractured. Andrews may or may not get away with that politically for now but the protestors represent a new group in Australian public life; the ones excluded from the narrative. The same goes for the demonstrators in Europe who are simply ignored by the mainstream media. Because the public discourse no longer pretends to reflect reality, nobody really believes in it including the people who nominally go along with it. Deep down they also must know that it is fake. 

We are entering a time when even the idea of a centralised narrative is no longer believed in. If Plato was right, this fact alone is an existential threat to the state and it is understandable that the state would strive to fix the problem. But it’s almost certainly too late. All of the censorship and victimisation in the world won’t put humpty dumpty together again. Going forward I expect we’ll still have an “official narrative” but nobody will really believe it. That’s what is implied by the falling revenue numbers of the mainstream media channels. Will that lead to the disintegration of the state? Plato would have said yes. We may be about to test that theory.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Memes that Kill: Witch Burning and Other Extraordinary Popular Delusions

A modern interpretation of Anna Göldi, executed in 1782 for witchcraft in Glarus, Switzerland. She is said to have been the last witch killed in Europe, at least as the result of a formal trial. The story of the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries remains a mystery in many respects. What caused this folly to take hold of the minds of the Europeans? And what caused that folly to abate? It turns out that evil has a natural cycle of growth and decline. It is possible to accelerate the decline of a killer meme if good people get together in rejecting it.

In 1841, Charles MacKay published his "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds." It was a milestone: the first study in the field that today we call memetics, a term coined by Richard Dawkins for how ideas ("memes") spread in the collective human consciousness. MacKay was perhaps the first to state publicly that the great witch hunts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were a form of collective madness. Not even Voltaire (1694-1778) had touched on that subject, despite his criticism of all kinds of religious superstitions

As exterminations go, the war on witches was not the worst on record. In Europe, it caused about 50 thousand victims over a little more than a century. But it was so shockingly cruel in targeting mostly helpless women that it is remembered to this day as a form of collective madness. With us, the expression "witch hunt" is even proverbial. 

The extermination of the European witches generated plenty of studies in modern times, mostly concentrated on the causes of the phenomenon. Explanations are many but, in general, it is agreed that it was related to the stress generated by the Reformation and the associated wars. Apparently, torturing and killing women was a form of stress release. The human mind must have plenty of serious problems, evidently, but this much we know not just because of witch hunting.

In any case, it happened, and we should be happy that it didn't last more than it did. But this generates another question: what made the hunt cease? It is a fundamental point: if we could understand what makes people stop believing in killer memes, we might stop them earlier. 

But few of the studies examining the war on witches make a specific effort to understand why the hunting ceased. The general idea seems to be that when the conditions that caused the hunt disappeared, things returned to their normal state. Sometimes, it is also proposed that the enlightenment movement put an end to the killings. Lesson and Ross (1) proposed in 2018 that:

"The seventeenth century, however, was the time of the scientific revolution, whose effects may have eventually eroded popular belief in witchcraft, eroding popular demand for witchcraft prosecutions along with it until witch trials could finally be easily abandoned by religious producers. "

Not to disparage a study that's excellent in many respects, but this interpretation seems to me completely wrong. The death penalty for people found guilty of poisoning or harming others had the aspect of a rational response of society to a threat that, at the time, looked real and documented. During the 16th and 17th centuries, science had little to say about whether or not it was possible to poison people using herbal concoctions or other methods.

As Chuck Pezeshky says, "truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network." In some cases, this social representation coincides with the scientific views of the matter, but that is not the rule and it is not even common. 

Finding witches and killing them was not just a job for inquisitors. The book by Trevor-Roper "The European Witch-Craze" (1991) tells us how widespread was the belief, and how intensely it was believed that killing witches was a social duty for everyone, to be done for the good of everyone else. A leader who didn't engage in witch hunting was seen as a bad leader. In some regions, expressing doubts on the idea that killing witches was a good thing could be dangerous. 

If truth is a social concept, then we need to understand witch hunting in a social context, in the form of the entities that we call memes. What makes memes live and die? Charles MacKay gives us an interesting hint when he says, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” As I said, MacKay was a great innovator and this sentence, in itself, is a correct statement of how memes propagate. They behave exactly like physical pathogens in an epidemic: you are infected by others but you recover by yourself. 

Indeed memetic infections can be described by the same equations used in epidemiology, as we showed in a 2018 paper together with my colleagues Perissi and Falsini. Epidemics are the result of internal feedbacks that, in turn, are the result of the networked structure of the system. This internal structure generates typical "bell shaped" cycles. Witchcraft trials are probably the first historical case of a memetic cycle for which we have quantitative data (from Leeson and Ross, 2018 (1)).

The model tells us that the diffusion of the memetic epidemic is a collective phenomenon due to people being infected by others. Conversely, the epidemic declines because people become "immune" to the meme. The concept of "herd immunity" holds not just for physical epidemics, but also for virtual ones. It is what makes society eventually resistant to these killer memes. So, the first step to fight one of these memes is to reject them individually.

There is an even more fundamental point about the decline of killer memes here, well expressed by Trevor-Roper:

Third rank intellectuals and officials started saying that the craze was unjust and irrational. And what they said was taken for granted. Then came the intelligentsia, showing that what it said for two centuries was wrong because of some minor detail in the interpretation of the scriptures. And that was the end of the process.

This statement marks a difference between physical and memetic epidemics. A physical epidemic doesn't care too much about human hierarchies: a king may die of the plague just like any commoner. But, in a social network, the propagation of memes is affected by the hierarchical structure: people tend to trust authorities more than other sources of information. Trevor-Roper hit a profound truth with his statement: witch hunting declined because ordinary people ("third rank intellectuals and officials") started realizing that the meme was evil and that they (or their wives, sisters, or mothers) risked being burned at the stake. And they stopped believing in the official truth as spoken by the leaders.

So, it seems that if we want to stop evil memes, we have to do that starting from the bottom. We can't put too much hope in laws, tribunals, treaties, and lofty principles: they are all under the elites' control and can be bent, transmogrified, or ignored. The leaders, typically, have an interest in maintaining alive memes that are profitable for them. But the memetic war is fought at all levels of the social network. People may be dazed for a while by the "Shock and Awe" treatment they receive from above, but in the long run, they understand. We cannot expect to be able to stop evil all of a sudden but an evil meme cannot last for long when good people get together to fight it. If history is a guide, evil is surprisingly fragile.

An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

 Bertolt Brecht 


1. Peter T. Leeson, Jacob W. Russ The Economic Journal, Volume 128, Issue 613, 1 August 2018, Pages 2066–2105,