Culture represents a bundle of memes that evolve. Memes are units that carry cultural ideas, practices, and behaviors that spread through imitation from person to person. Similar to genes, they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
Our brains evolved to be meme machines, able to reproduce memes faithfully. Genes create the hardware; memes create the software. Genes and memes co-evolve. As David Deutsch, renowned physicist, puts it, gene evolution is finite; memes are unbounded evolution. There is no upper limit to the value of ideas generated; they are infinite.
Static vs. Dynamic Societies
Ape means both primate and to imitate. Indeed, humans are memetic creatures. In the majority of cases, their in-group conformity and faithful replication of memes ensure their survival. Whether it is learning to emulate their elders to develop tools for hunting, or in contemporary times, learning from others on how to navigate different facets of life successfully.
Paradoxically, our creativity is a double-edged sword; it is both the ingredient necessary for faithful meme replication, but also meme transgression.
Most people have the power to be creative, and some have it more than others. In a static society, our creativity spreads anti-rational memes, a sort of arms race to conform and be less innovative than other people. In a dynamic society, our creativity spreads rational memes, an arms race to transgress and be more innovative than other people.
Society alternates on a pendulum from static to dynamic. Static societies are filled with anti-rational memes that disable people’s critical faculties, whereas dynamic societies are filled with rational memes that activate people’s critical faculties. There is a continual societal and individual conflict between preserving and replicating memes faithfully, and reassigning and creating new memes.
Virtue Signalling & The Cult of Shallowness
Society can be rendered on two opposing parallel and cyclical histories of rational and anti-rational memes. Memes have the potential to powerfully escalate our hive minds on both the rational and anti-rational spectrum.
In a static society, status is lowered by transgressing norms, and increased by meeting them. The inverse relationship applies to dynamic societies. In dynamic societies, meme transgression becomes more valued when there are external threats and an opportunity to take real action. On the other hand, it is less valued in times of peace, because people will focus on social status concerns and virtue signaling whatever quality will get in-group approval.
One can recognize what society we live in by virtue of how people amuse themselves. Do people aspire to be social influencers or scientists? Do they focus more on how best to outcompete others on how to entertain themselves? The more entertainment and pleasure focused we are, the more our society is static.
In a static society, we drown in a sea of irrelevance and a feeling of nihilistic dread. We are caught in a captive and trivial culture. We glorify frenetic activity and the cult of shallowness. We live in false Babylonian unity, we pass our time looking at screens, doing bullshit jobs, fill our hours talking about nothing of significance, achieving nothing of significance, aspiring to nothing of significance, few of us rise above this plodding existence.
It is not too much of a leap to see modern democracy as paving the way to tyranny, a sort of totalitarian democracy fed by a new natural resource: data.
We live in panopticonic hyperrealities that are accelerated through technological charisma. Omnipresent surveillance and predictive data mold our motives, desires, and wishes, as a form of algorithmic obedience, leaving us singing in our chains while treated as a vacillating crowd of children, ruled by sentiment over sober reasoning. As a form of pacification, we are reassured by the narrative of “everything is taken care of” and providence no longer being necessary.
A useful heuristic for static societies is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable memes, but allow very lively variance within that small spectrum to ensure conformity and obedience. The freedom necessary for profound ingenuity is hampered by our institutional norms and regimented processes that, if corrupted, ultimately damage our society.
Innovation is a Bug in Memetic Code
Meme transgression is a bug in the cultural code that creates novel outcomes; some survive and replicate, while others are dismissed. Similar to the ancestral tree of humanity, small branches emerge, some become robust to create other branches, while others break from the windy storms. When memes become institutionalized, they create borders that confine our thinking within a monoculture.
Subcultures, countercultures, and fringe communities all serve as insulated social experiments and testing grounds that allow us to transgress memes and ultimately detect weak signals on probable futures. These probable futures already exist around us, and a minority of them emerge into the mainstream when the time is ripe.
Since the dawn of time, humans evolved in tribes, where meme transgression meant imminent death. Pioneers in human history have carefully attempted to allude the truth they have come to realize, for fear of persecution, while being ruthless intellectual opportunists with a close network of trusted allies.
As Goethe in Faust writes: “But who will dare to speak the truth out clear? The few who anything of truth have learned, and foolishly did not keep truth concealed, their thoughts and visions to the common herd revealed, since time began we've crucified and burned.”
In a fortunate turn of events, mankind has miraculously charted a course where meme transgression is permitted enough to snowball into the world we experience today.
Society is built upon creativity from the past, from meme transgression that became the norm. It is the nonconformists who bring new ideas, creations, and ways of living that produce a dynamic society.
Patterns of innovation are derived not from the existing culture, because to replicate what exists is to replicate what has already been built. We need to draw a vision of the future from the study of the past and the present.
It seems that disorder is a key ingredient in complex and dynamic societies, whereas a lack of variance, brings stagnation in human ingenuity. One has to only look with themselves to realize that to do something original and do it well, regardless of whether people appreciate it, is what being human is all about.
Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, innovation is rhizomatic, behaving like the surface of a body of water. It spreads towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way, it favors a nomadic system of hybridization, growth, and propagation.
Scientific Innovation Above Potemkin Villages
The insulation of scientific innovation leads to its demise and stagnation, whereas exiting this insulated dark room and academic silos can lead to more interesting alternative discoveries. Creativity and cross-pollination are the only faculties that create scientific innovation.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the emphasis is on bringing tangible, valuable solutions into the world, as opposed to getting hung up on theoretical perfection and regulatory hell.
As Balaji puts it, formerly the CTO of Coinbase and General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, you want to release code that is functional and tested in the market. The same applies when developing novel solutions to tackle COVID-19.
Institutions that will survive will have to run at the same velocity as the virus. This time, we have a direct metric to measure performance: mortality rate. It will differentiate the competent from the incompetent.
While institutions might try to punish anyone that provides counter-narratives and facts, certain agents will still be incentivized to transgress norms and cut through red tape to spread rational memes; their life depends on it. Think of the healthcare workers at the front lines of this pandemic.
Institutions that fail to act quickly or make bad decisions come as a result of misaligned incentives. This is usually caused by a lack of accountability to the public and to the market, mixed with harmonization and anonymization of individual actors when decisions are made, which allows them to hide from incompetency—successfully spreading anti-rational memes.
What will become clear from this pandemic is which institutions and organizations are more of a Potemkin village, i.e., whose sole purpose is to provide an external façade to a system that is faring poorly, making people believe that it is faring better, although reality would state otherwise.
We have seen many countries avoid or delay proper and rigorous testing in part because they don’t have the capacity to do so, but also to hide the widespread infections in the population and signal to the populace that they have things under control to avoid widespread panic or to signal to other countries strength in the face of threats.
As they say in engineering, inventing is the mixing of brains and materials. The more brains you use, the fewer materials required. Let us use the brains of our best talent in the world. Their time to shine is now. Let us not have credentialism and excess institutional red tape get in the way of innovation. While these serve as breakers to protect, they can become corrupt or ineffective. The situation requires urgency over complacency.
A Call for Dynamism
The porosity of ideas creates infinite possibilities. We need to judge society—a system that creates the human world—as having the primary function to create dynamism.
We need a global transformation of society and a fundamental shift of paradigm. If we want to influence and modify the world, we need to influence the action of this system of processes.
Dynamism works when it creates a journey as desirable as the destination. The primary function of society is to allow its members to adjust all the small processes such that individuals and communities more effectively create dynamism, and ultimately, allow for larger order systemic changes.
Symbiotic and societal equilibrium is a dynamic, not static state. Rather than flattening and harmonizing society, we need to appreciate the asymmetrical balance, which demonstrates our capacity for dynamism. Dynamism encourages the eye to explore.
The pandemic has revealed our great societal stagnation: we focused on bits over atoms in the last decades. Now it is evident that we need to invest in the world of atoms that hold the promise of tremendous future development. We may have forgotten to look for real dynamism today, all around us, because we have been too obsessed with systemization.
COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal. Humanity will be facing existential risks during the 21st century larger than the current pandemic, it is in our control to end these risks today through innovative results-based development of solutions and a better alignment of incentives.
We face a choice between ignorance or knowledge-seeking, compromise or synthesis, wrong or right, death or life.
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