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Friday, February 10, 2012

Orwell's Big Brother in Your Pocket

Criminals implicated in deforesting Central Africa (Nature)
Modern communications like Twitter, Facebook, email, cellphone, etc. offer a bounty of mechanisms to convey our thoughts and feelings to others, our spouses, friends, family.

But I think that there is a new and darker side of this: conformity memes.

First of, for those who do not know, a meme is a word meaning "idea" or "thought".  It was created by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and described in a book called "The Selfish Gene."  Dawkins used it to describe how things like the idea of an "arch" in building is transmitted across time and culture.  In today's world its seen more like something which is almost alive or takes on a life of its own, e.g., global warming, the destruction of rain forests, the evil nature of George Bush, that sort of thing.

Typically a meme enters our culture inadvertently but spreads as those who associate themselves with the underlying idea spread that idea.

For example, Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" and its relationship to world wide interest in global warming and its consequences is a good representation of the meme "global warming is killing us."

The idea is simple - CO2 pouring out of man-made devices poisoning our world.

As I wrote in my series of posts on Kahneman the "System 1" portion of our mind can grasp this simple threat and brings it to the forefront of our consciousness, e.g., "the sky is falling."  We really cannot help this.

Now even fifty years ago, prior to widespread communications, an idea like this or a movie or even a book, in order to get general traction in the mind of the public, would have to find a means to do so.  Certainly Al Gore could have made this movie fifty years ago and its content, which does not rely on anything really current other than the notion of man using fossil fuels, would be just a relevant.

However, there were far fewer societal mechanisms that would allow these ideas to propagate.  For example, movies by-and-large only showed up in movie theaters or on commercial network TV.  Yes there were public television stations and 16mm movies at the local Rotary Club but to reach even these "markets" the movie would have to cross a significant line: cost of duplication of film, getting the movie into the right hands, and so on.

Save for 16mm black and white "stag" films from that era there were probably no other types of movies that made it on even a semi-regular basis into peoples's homes.

Similarly for audio.  Virtually all audio was "manufactured" and "distributed" either via records and record companies or via the radio (AM, FM, shortwave).

The world was divided into "news" - facts like the "Cleveland Plain Dealer" farm report or editorials.

Notions of "the sky is falling" had to beat out necessary news, more immediate fears like the "Cuban Missle Crisis" and nuclear proliferation, and so forth.

There was a high hysteresis level that screened out all but the most important news.  (And during this time news, being reported on FCC-licensed radio frequencies, was required to be "balanced.")

But over the last fifty years the "cost" of getting a "sky is falling" meme launched has gone from tremendous (both in terms of real dollars as well as the "cost" to overcome the media outlet hysteresis for such stories) down to basically zero.

But there is more.

In the 1972 Olympics eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were kill by a terrorist group known as "Black September."  This was remarkable to me because, prior to that, you could really only read about these types of events in newspapers or watch "second hand" B/W news footage with Walter Cronkite. 

However, in 1972 the Olympics, which held a large sway on the public's imagination, brought this event directly into our homes via live "TV" coverage.

Terrorism as a "meme" moved from abstract black and white newsprint to color video.

With each new step in the "media" capability of the public - VCR, home video cameras, YouTube, cellphone video - this "meme" has made its way closer and closer to our very own pocket or purse.

But there is another effect here which also interesting.

As the meme of "terrorism" has spread and multiplied via media the very "definition" of what terrorism is has "flattened out" as well.

In 1972 "terrorism" required a "nation" or "nationals" to conduct it - it was done with guns or maybe bombs and airplanes.

But over the years the notion "flattened out" to include much more.  For many years in the 1980's, for example, while you might be able to carry a bomb onto an airplane due to lax security, you always thought twice before making a "bomb" joke that someone might overhear.

Columbine brought "terrorism" to our schools and with it metal detectors.

Today metal detectors are common fair in public buildings of all sorts including many high schools.

And the "defense" against terrorism is the vigilant pursuit by the "authorities" of anything that Big Government considers such: jokes, comments, writings, and so on.

So by casting a very wide net the idea is to capture terrorists before they strike.

And because terrorists are now prevalent in our very pockets via smartphone videos we all "know" the cost of it.

Or do we?

According to this you are 390 times more likely to be killed by an automobile wreck than an international terrorist attack.  In 2010 some 32,708 people died in automobiles according to Wikipedia.  This leaves some 83 or so annual deaths of US citizens due to international terrorism per year.

A number dwarfed by lightening strike deaths in the US (some 750 deaths per year).

Yet today even Tweeting about "blowing up an airport" in general, i.e., tweeting to someone else in anger over a delayed flight, can get you arrested, at least in the UK, as a terrorist.

Meme's in this form are not limited to "terrorism."

Another case is the "deforestation" meme.

We all know what this is: giant corporate loggers chainsawing down huge, old-growth rain forests to install strip malls.

In the 1970's the term was only used in reference to things like Agent Orange and Vietnam.

But today the "destruction of the rain forest" is drilled into every 6 year old's head at daycare, on TV, on the internet.

Today "deforestation" is a meme that can include, well, even primitives living in ancient hunter-gather societies as well: see this Nature article.

Really, early African humans (some 3,000 years ago) "deforesting" entire swaths of central Africa?

Fifty years ago this was heralded as progress by a primitive society to pull itself from the "stone age" into modern times.

But no more - the meme of "progress" is today evil and outmoded (save for preventing terrorism I suppose).  Much better to have those ancient Africans in the Nature article living in squalid, primitive huts dying young of disease and starvation than have them "deforesting" the central African plane.

And the Nature article describes this discovery as "implicated" - implicated like "I was implicated in a terrorist plot" (never mind the silly "science" described).

No, these are ancient peoples trying to live a better life through smelting iron and farming.

Not terrorists or common criminals implicated in some Ponzi scheme.

The new communications models mean that merely thinking outside a commonly accepted meme like airport terrorism or deforestation can cause big trouble.

These new memes are very powerful because modern governments act on them (such as in the Tweeting case I mentioned above) against citizens.

And you can bet that the "discovery" of those evil primitives implicated in deforesting Central Africa millenia ago was also government funded research.  No doubt these primitive folks (pictured above) are contributing substantially to Global Warming as well - burning fires, smelting iron, chopping down forests.  Perhaps they will be implicated in a vast African "global warming conspiracy" and have to pay reparations for their acts.

If your thinking does not "conform" to what these meme's stand for you are in trouble.

Before our very eyes George Orwell's 1984 is being implemented right in our own pockets.

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