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Bundling and Evangelism
Reaction Against Button-PushingI've been meaning to write this essay for a while, but I didn't know where to start until I ran into the following sentences in Consciousness Explained.
Our meme-immunological systems are not foolproof, but not hopeless either. We can rely, as a general, crude rule of thumb, on the coincidence of the two perspectives: by and large, the good memes are the ones that are also the good replicators.
This last statement strikes me as completely backward. In this essay I want to present the opposite idea: by and large, anything that's a good replicator is a bad meme, and should be avoided.
For lack of a more concise name, I'm calling this idea “reaction against button-pushing”. The kind of button-pushing I'm talking about is well-described in Virus of the Mind.
These four feelings are wired so directly into our brain that, civilized though we may get, we experience from time to time something or someone “pushing our buttons”—saying or doing something that generates one of these basic feelings in us. The phrase is usually associated with anger, but we've got buttons for fear, hunger, and lust just as big and just as pushable. As civilized human beings, of course, we know we don't have to give in to impulse and act when our buttons are pushed, but it's very, very difficult to avoid paying attention when it happens. And where there's attention, there are memes.
I'd generalize to include more buttons (e.g., greed), but that's about all I'd change.
This is all pretty abstract, so let's look at some examples.
First of all, the book Virus of the Mind itself is a good example. When I first saw the book in the bookstore, I picked it up because I was interested in memes and the mind. However, although it did look interesting, I almost didn't buy it, on account of its tacky and attention-getting cover. It wasn't until years later that I realized I'd been seeing my own mental immune system at work. It makes sense, though. If a book needs to use such overt tactics to get itself read, then the ideas it contains probably aren't valuable in themselves. In other words, a thing that in itself is a good replicator is likely to be bad.
Here I need to make a small clarification. Whether or not a meme (or any other replicating entity) is a good replicator depends very much on its environment. If everyone was like me in reacting against button-pushing, then the memes that would spread would be ones that didn't push buttons … would those memes, as good replicators, then be bad memes? I don't think so. The sign that a meme is bad is not that it's a good replicator, but that it pushes buttons, that it's strident, let's say.
Although my thesis is now that strident memes are bad memes, I still disagree with the idea that good memes and good replicators are the same thing. I'll admit that some good memes (how to do arithmetic, say) are good replicators, but there are plenty of strident bad memes that are also good replicators. In other words, I'd say that people aren't (yet?) discriminative enough to damp out the propagation of strident bad memes.
I like the biological analogy, here. Good memes are part of the infrastructure, like the genes for proteins that catalyze metabolic processes. They aren't strident, and don't tend to cause their own immediate replication; instead, they perform useful functions in concert with other memes, and are only replicated as part of a large, passive body of information. Bad memes, on the other hand, are literally like viruses. They're strident, tend to cause their own immediate replication, and don't do anything useful.
Continuing the analogy, we can for example recognize advertising, a particular category of strident meme, as a disease that humanity has contracted. Perhaps, as suggested in a throwaway line in Holy Fire, we will one day attempt to cure ourselves by banning it.
I've digressed a bit; let me go back to finding examples of reaction against button-pushing. How about the sweepstakes letters one gets in the mail? Or the advertisements one sees featuring pretty women? Or all the boring books that have sexy words in their titles? I'll give most people credit for being aware of the button-pushing that goes on, but that's not enough—it's also necessary to react actively against it, to make yourself not open the letter, not read the print in the advertisement, not examine or buy the book. Only then do you benefit from your awareness.
The other thing that's necessary is to apply the rule more broadly, to recognize the less obvious forms of button-pushing. The idea that I'm missing out on big money in the internet economy, for example, really pushes my buttons; perhaps the idea is prevalent not because it's true, but because it's strident.
As a final example, suppose I ran advertisements to get people to visit this site, pushing buttons by, say, making it seem mysterious. Wouldn't you then have to wonder why I wanted you to visit the site? Wouldn't it imply that the payload was somehow faulty or suspect? (“Payload” seems like just the word; it sounds like the nasty inside part of a virus.) Come to think of it, if I know that pushing buttons would make the site suspect, can you trust me if I'm not pushing buttons?
Anyway, as I said in The Good, my intent is to propagate good ideas … good passive ideas, I'd say in this context. In other words, I'm trying to provide a new replication mechanism for the large, passive collection of good memes, perhaps a mechanism that will be capable of including some good memes that seem to slip through the cracks using the standard mechanisms. It's interesting, by the way, to try and identify the standard mechanisms (e.g., school) and their flaws.
Classification of Functions
Do I Push Buttons?
Environment Free of Distraction
Liking What You See
Not All Memes Are Viral
Picking Up Trash
Rule of Correspondence, The
Urgent vs. Important
Variation in Form
What Would Memetics Look Like?
Why I Hate SUVs
o March (2000)
@ August (2000)