On the Assault of the Memeplex

On the Assault of the Memeplex

I was talking to my mom the other night about how weird it is to dimly remember the late 80s/early 90s and have grown up specifically through the period from when people didn't know what the internet was to now.

The world FELT different back then, and I don't think it's childhood nostalgia or just how the world felt "when you're a kid" because it shifted slowly from childhood -> adulthood in observable ways.

Ubiquitous cell phones have had an even bigger impact than the internet has had to accelerating this feeling. At least with the internet you had to sit down at a computer and "log in"--it wasn't just ALWAYS at hand.

It feels like you're always connected to all of these other people and images and ideas, whether you want to be or not, just to engage in day to day activities you kind of have to do (like check your email or your calendar).

You can't look at your phone without being pestered by ads, ideas, images, and people that you didn't ask for, didn't seek, didn't intend to see--it worms its way in somehow (even as memes from other people) no matter how aggressively you guard unless you go FULL luddite.

You can take a break, you can prune your garden, but you can't completely disengage from a constant assault on your attention and beliefs about the world that's aggressively injected by self-propagating ideas and people who want to take your money.

It's bizarre.

Humans feel simultaneously more available and less connected to each other and it's harder to create moments of shared bonding IRL, like reading out loud to one another.

Again, I don't think this is JUST nostalgia. It feels like we're losing something important.

Especially when you consider how much it changes our behavior and how we relate to each other and the speed of information acquisition compared to millennia of prior practice.

I don't really know how to feel about this, but it's vaguely "not good."

The fragmentation of online communities into self-sorted enclaves is great to help you find people more aligned with you (think about the late-90s Yahoo ads) but it heightens the distance we feel for our immediate community too if we don't guard against that feeling.

Look at how we even talk about "normies" around here. Normies are just people who don't fit in in smart weirdo Twitter. Making connections with people who appeal to you (finding your tribe is great) but you still want to understand and appreciate people who aren't like you.

And what's even weirder is that you can't really "opt out." Can't use your phone to call a friend or check email without being exposed on some level. In the 90s if you didn't want ads you could just turn the TV off, not pick up the magazine, and go to the library.

You can still theoretically do that, but not completely and not in ways that will make you seem unusual or difficult to reach or isolated from others in ways that will be difficult for people to understand and not sustainable.

The attention net is palpable.

And the weirdest part is that the totality of it seems totally outside of anyone's control. No one can turn it off, slow it down, or stop it.

It's bizarre. You'd have to almost create a parallel community outside of it with the intention to avoid it.

Even then you're under constant assault from it creeping in... So weird.

Anyway yeah. The future is a strange country.

Lots of cool and wonderful things, but also lots of things that make me tilt my head and squint and wonder how good they are REALLY for us. 😬

This neatly summarizes what I'm feeling, too.

You can't even intentionally create it any more. It's like trying to launch a mini-social-network that no one else will really buy into and you can't reach critical mass or maintain it.

Boomers will buy in. Some Elder Millennials too. But most people can't or won't.

I watched my ex-husband grapple with this for years when we returned to his hometown and it wasn't really the vision of togetherness he remembered from childhood and was trying to recreate--I don't think it was just us not having kids or the family issues. I think it's bigger.

This is what it feels like. Become one with the egregore or perish alone.

Also this is a good way to describe it I think.

It's making us sick in ways we don't really understand yet because it's only been 10-15 years of the cell phone era. It's the blink of an eye, even if it seems like most of your life if you're 15-25.

This is something I think about a lot, and it's a problem I want to work on (for selfish reasons if nothing else).

Need to think about this really carefully once I settle a little more.

I want to create more human moments. Make space for more genuine interaction in meatspace, and find ways to distance myself from the memeplex a bit without going full hermit.

I think a lot of my anxiety comes from this kind of constant attention assault and over-stimulation, and I don't think I'm alone.

A decade ago I was reading Robin Hanson and Tyler Cowen and thinking about memes and I wrote @eigenrobot a letter about how I was worried about the evolution of competing idea wars that eventually push out room for individuality and human flourishing.

Maybe hand-wringing. But maybe not.

I think we're witnessing the start of it over the last 5-10 years and unless we actually do something about it it's just gonna keep coming.

It's not ideal.

Saying "We have to do something about it" isn't enough. You, individually, and me, individually, have to make space and assert preferences for not-this in our own lives if we want to resist it.

I'm not quite sure what the best way to do that is... yet.

All I know is I hate THIS version of reality and I don't want it to accelerate. There's no room for individual human preferences or respect for the individual in this world. It's all just automated and aggressive idea insertion into meme hosts.

I hated this when I was 26 and fighting with my senior product manager about injecting more ads into our Expedia booking experience, I hated it every time that conversation repeated over the years, and I still hate it now.

Business demands it. Moloch demands it.

It's not even the WRONG decision from the POV of the modern world.

It's the only allowable decision.

And I hate it. We should be able to find ways to use tech to enrich our lives that don't look like what the modern tech and social landscape looks like. 😔

I think fixing this problem is squarely on the shoulders of those of us who grew up watching it. We're reaching our late 30s now. Most of us are in the prime of our lives. We feel it intimately more than those who come after us do. We see it in ways later generations don't.

If we just let this roll forward passively and don't try to fight it or solve it, I think it's going to look like a major error 30 years from now.

At a minimum, it's important to talk about it so people recognize it as a problem and understand that there is a DIFFERENT model for how to live.

And it's going to be hard to fight against self-preserving algorithmic interference.

It's in the best interest of the memeplex (for lack of a better word) to make it impossible to opt out (or to FEEL impossible to opt out) because a lack of awareness of other options is the first step of control. If it's "just how things are" you tend to accept it.

I don't think we have to accept it, though.

Gotta think more about solutions.