Archive for November, 2014

Meme contagiousness

Some viruses are transmitted via secreted body fluids. If these viruses cause people to cough or sneeze, they are much more likely to spread.

If you come into contact with a viral meme, you might want to share it (sneeze or cough) or you might ignore it (asymptomatic).

Viral cat videos are basically only shared by people who enjoyed the viral cat videos. They have a relatively short infectious period (cough/sneeze for a few hours), but the really good ones are fairly contagious. People might see the video, think it’s cute, immediately share it with a few people, and not think about it much after that.

The most viral in-group / out-group, social, political, religious memes have long infectious periods, make people who agree with the message symptomatic, and, crucially, make people who disagree with the message symptomatic. This can only be accomplished by memes that distort, exaggerate, and simplify. Factual, nuanced messages cannot have the same impact.

The freedom to exaggerate and simplify gives the writers of the memes the ability to place boundaries between groups wherever they want — highlighting perceived differences between groups by exaggerating them. The group that the meme favors bonds with each other – “we are so good and they are so evil and this is the ultimate proof of that.” Thus, the in-group gets infected and wants to sneeze in the faces of their tribal members.

The distortion in the message trolls the out-group. With cat videos, people who don’t like cat videos have little interest in sharing them. However, emotionally-charged political memes that are unfair to the other tribe infects the other tribe. If people are making your tribe look bad by lying about it, you will want to debunk it. You end up coughing on your tribe in the form of “look at the outrageous lies that the other tribe tells. They have bad character and are ignorant and this is the ultimate proof of that.”

A good example of these elements is in the trailer to the movie God’s Not Dead. It plays to the in-group by arguing that ignorant atheist professors are trying to stop good, Christian students from believing in God – not because the professor is wiser, but because the professor is angry with God for something bad that happened. It hits on all of the elements of us against them. It trolls atheists by seriously straw manning their arguments.

Simple messages that are only loosely based on facts that distort differences between groups make for very fit memes. They lead to bonding behavior (which is coughing/sneezing) within the tribe that it favors and within the enemy tribe. On the other hand, complicated policy analysis with a lot of nuance, caveats, and questioning of assumptions is hard to remember, lacks emotion-triggering language and images, and weakens perceived boundaries between groups. It doesn’t make people symptomatic. They can be used as medicine or vaccines against the outrage porn memes, but they are expensive and difficult to distribute to the infected populations.

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Sarah’s excellent essay on cultural evolution quotes philosopher John Gray arguing against social/cultural evolution. Gray wrote one of my favorite books, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (the cover photo of this book hangs on my wall). So it bothers me that he would argue that cultural evolution is a myth. I decided to see what he has to say about it in his latest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths.

In all of Gray’s books that I have read, he has one primary focus: destroying the myth that humans are a special kind of animal that can make moral progress. Quoting from The Silence of Animals (Ch 1):

Science and technology are cumulative, whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas. Whatever they are called, torture and slavery are universal evils; but these evils cannot be consigned to the past like redundant theories in science. They return under different names: torture as enhanced interrogation techniques, slavery as human trafficking. Any reduction in universal evils is an advance in civilization. But, unlike scientific knowledge, the restraints of civilized life cannot be stored on a computer disc.

Further, he argues against human uniqueness (a sacred value):

In a strictly naturalistic view – one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm – there is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with their own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

The idea that science and knowledge can march us towards utopia is one that is commonly held. To cite a couple of examples, David Deutsch argues this throughout his book The Beginning of Infinity (a book I highly recommend, despite my disagreement with his optimism). Steven Pinker argues that humans are becoming less violent and learning to overcome war.

What does this have to do with cultural evolution? Well, Gray seems to primarily be arguing against people who think that society evolves in the direction of progress (towards an end point or goal):

The myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world[…]has been renewed in a garbled version of the language of evolution. There is little in the current fad for evolutionary theories of society that cannot be found, sometimes more clearly expressed, in the writings of Herbert Spencer, the Victorian prophet of what would later be called Social Darwinism. Believing the human history was itself a kind of evolutionary process, Spencer asserted that the end- point of the process was laissez- faire capitalism. His disciples Sidney and Beatrice Webb, early members of the Fabian Society and admirers of the Soviet Union, believed it culminated in communism. Aiming to be more judicious, a later generation of theorists has nominated ‘democratic capitalism’ as the terminus.
As refined by later scientists, Darwin’s theory posits the natural selection of random genetic mutations. In contrast, no one has come up with a unit of selection or a mechanism through which evolution operates in society. On an evolutionary view the human mind has no built-in bias to truth or rationality and will continue to develop according to the imperative of survival. Theories of human rationality increasing through social evolution are as groundless today as they were when Spencer used them to promote laissez- faire capitalism and the Webbs communism. Reviving long- exploded errors, twenty- first- century believers in progress unwittingly demonstrate the unreality of progress in the history of ideas.

It is very clear that what bothers Gray about social evolution is the claim, by some, that it is evolution towards progress. But then he appears to make the logical error that not evolving towards progress means that social evolution is a myth. He points out that there is no identified unit of selection, unlike DNA in biological evolution. However, DNA is itself a product of evolution, just like stars and other complex energy systems. There is direction in evolution (see discussion of attractors). For example, membrane-like things co-evolve with channel-like things, regardless of whether the things have DNA. Even if we did identify a unit of selection “through which society operates,” it would not imply that we evolve towards improved humanity.

While some people have conflated social evolution with advances in civilization, I see no reason to do so. I agree with Gray that increased knowledge necessarily leading to increased humanity is a myth that requires faith. Cultural evolution requires no such myth.

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Lottery loophole

No purchase necessary to play is generally a requirement for sweepstakes, otherwise it’s lottery and illegal.

But there appears to be a loophole. You can just make it so any donation results in a large number of chances to win the contest (figuratively, many tickets in the drum), but a no purchase entry results in just one chance (one ticket). For example, if you want to be a guest on The Daily Show, you can pay $10 for 100 chances, $50 for 500 chances, etc. Or you can do the no purchase necessary option and get 1 chance. At the bottom of the webpage is some legal language:

NO PURCHASE, PAYMENT, OR CONTRIBUTION NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. Contributing will not improve chances of winning.

Contributing will not improve your chances of winning?!?! What they mean is essentially that they won’t give people who contributed *additional* advantages over the already huge advantages that they stated. I guess.

You could imagine a sweepstakes where, if you pay $10 you get 1 million chances to win (or 1 trillion, or a googol), or if you enter without purchase you get 1 chance. People who don’t purchase essentially have no chance relative to people who purchase, but the law isn’t technically violated. Or is it?

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