Watching a bunch of Netflix and Hulu today while on a nostalgia jag for old TV shows, I was struck by a thought that’s recurred more than once over the last few years: Someone ought to investigate how everyday human behavior has changed in response to the technological innovations we’ve seen over the past fifty years or so. I’m not talking about the very very obvious things like the savings in time we get from using email rather than the old pen-and-paper letters sent via snail mail, or the way cell phones have freed us from the physical limits of landlines, no, I’m thinking about the subtle long term effects of old memes of human culture becoming outmoded by all the fancy toys we have and what they’re capable of.
A meme, if you’re not familiar, is “a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena,” as Wikipedia so succinctly defines it. A lot of people have the mistaken idea that humans evolve noticeably over time. They don’t, simple as that. Humans today are exactly the same as they were a hundred years ago, or a thousand. The only things that do evolve are the technologies available to us, and the memes we use to pass along cultural phenomena.
It’s easier if you examine individual examples to get an idea of how insidious the changes in memes can be. To give you an idea, while watching an episode of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker speculative fiction show from the mid-1970s (is that one from left field, or what?), the question of who one of the fathers of modern psychology was is put to a robot, who answers right away: “Wilhelm Wundt.” So, what’s the big deal? Well, Wundt is someone who I consider one of the bad guys in history, he was the psychologist who bears much of the responsibility for pushing the awful Prussian-inspired coerced public education I’ve written critically of before. His name was surely not inserted into the show’s script by chance, I think it may well have been done by someone who wanted to help cement Wundt’s name into the public’s conscience in a positive way, one tiny little trick to casually reinforce the image of public education as a good thing.
Watching other shows, I saw a lot of this sort of thing, recurring buzzwords that reinforced common ‘everybody knows that‘ concepts that have been shown to be either distortions or outright falsehoods, as pointed out by many modern revisionist historians. This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, influencing and ‘guiding’ public opinion in ways that I think have been useful to those wishing very intentionally and cynically to keep that public controlled.
I wonder, though…can those responsible for such manipulation get away with it more efficiently in today’s digitized, accelerated age by hammering viewers with those misleading concepts more frequently than ever before? Or is it just the opposite, with the wealth of information available on the internet at one’s fingers, is it more difficult for propagandists? I honestly don’t know, but I think it bears watching.
I can think of plenty of other examples of how radically some memes have changed, but I’ll leave that for another time. I feel like I got my meaning across, and I’d enjoy hearing what others have to say on the subject.
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One of my favorite movies of all time is the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix, released in 1999. I recently watched this film again for the umpteenth time since it has been on my mind of late. If you’ve read any of my recent work, you know that a good deal of my writing has centered around my fear that the human race is accelerating into a dystopian abyss, the likes of which we’ve never before seen in history. Some readers have commented to express their own thoughts on the subject, always a welcome thing in a healthy discourse. Many agree to one degree or another with my observations that there is something wronger than usual not only with our country, but with the world in general.
The upshot of all this is that when you distill all the factors surrounding this idea, one thing stands out above all the others: We are being manipulated, to one degree or another. All of us, myself included. Some are blissfully unaware of this manipulation, others are more conscious of it. It’s nothing novel, of course, there really is nothing new under the sun. But if there’s one thing my half a century on this planet have taught me, it’s that this manipulation is real. I assure you it is, and that’s why I’m forever in debt to the Wachowski Brothers for giving us an easily understandable allegory for understanding it. For many years, the concept wasn’t understood or even known of by most people, since its discussion was pretty much limited to students of philosophy talking about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave among themselves, but now anyone who saw the movie could get at least get an inkling of this important concept.
I find myself rolling my eyes when I read some of the reviews and analyses of the film. A lot of people have spent a lot of effort feverishly explaining their highfalutin’ views of why the movie is an allegory of religion, or why it’s an allegory of liberals versus conservatives, or the completely opposite view that it’s about conservatives versus liberals. Some are downright incoherent, decipherable (I suspect) only by the people writing them. I think these folks mean well but are overthinking things.
That great American sea story Moby Dick, hated by so many for having been forced down their throats in school, has been dissected, analyzed, interpreted and digested ad nauseum in much the same fashion, and to my mind, this has been mostly wasted time and effort. Moby Dick is a pretty good and entertaining sea story, whose main lesson is that hubris can be a very bad thing when taken to an extreme. That’s about all. Likewise, The Matrix is a pretty good speculative fiction story whose main lesson is that your environment can be used to shape your opinions and beliefs. To me, it’s simply a good allegory for our world.
I’ve been a voracious reader all of my life and when you absorb pretty much everything you read, see and watch over the years you notice certain patterns of thought begin to solidify as constants after a while. Call them beliefs, knowledge or opinion as you please, the point is that they don’t just appear in the mind, it takes time for all the data a person takes in to accrete into these constants. Everyone’s different, of course, and their beliefs, opinions and knowledge will vary wildly from one person to another. I’ve always been fascinated by how different people understand the world. Now, I learned long ago that there is no such thing as absolute Truth to be found, but some peoples’ ability to at least get a pretty good idea of what’s going on around them is impressive.
I wanted to know how those people managed to have a better handle on assessing the world when so many others seem doubtful or confused. What determines success or failure at this? I’m thankful for my schooling, from early childhood through high school, I was exposed to teachers who were usually more interested in helping students think for themselves, a big difference from too many modern ‘educators’ that are more inclined to focus on following some bureaucratic diktat about how best to indoctrinate them into accepting the status quo.
Something most of them had in common, whether focusing on art, philosophy or science, was the notion that to succeed in learning the discipline for any of them, even something as subjective as art, the scientific method that yields predictable and repeatable results was the best strategy. With the arts or philosophy, this mostly means discovering those works or beliefs that are the most true to your own ideas, but when dealing with science or facts in general, if you’re not seeing predictable and repeatable results, there’s a break in your chain of logic and you shouldn’t be satisfied with that. That’s where The Matrix is so smart: Most people think logically to a degree, even the ones whose brains do it on autopilot.But what if people are kept from seeing…or more significantly, trained not to see certain things at all, things that would likely radically change the way their logical brains drew conclusions about their world? In the movie, it’s a computer generated simulation of reality masquerading as reality that’s forced into everyone’s brain from infancy. They can’t see they’re actually in pods providing the thermal and bioelectrical energy for the dastardly sentient machines that now control everything.
I maintain that this is happening and has been happening in our 3-D world for a long time. The illusions aren’t shot directly into our brains, thank goodness, but we are surrounded by all kinds of input from infancy. We bathe in it, we eat it and drink it. Many years ago, a lot of it was simply the pressure of community mores, as well as the more devious and intentional propaganda distributed to influence people. In more ancient times, given the relatively small sizes of communities, even cities, it wasn’t that hard to influence peoples’ opinions to your advantage if you were a manipulative ruler. If you belonged to the ruling caste, a big part of your education was learning how best to do just that, court historians were always on hand to pass along your father’s and your father’s fathers’ tricks of the trade and tips they’d picked up over many generations about how best to keep your subjects in line and extract all of the goods and/or productivity you could from them without destroying them in the process and while preventing them from getting together and realizing just how badly they were being used.
The twentieth century and certainly the beginning of the twenty-first has seen a massive increase in the ability of the rulers to propagandize the ruled, first by using the then-super high tech invention of radio and later and more effectively by television. For many, the latter became almost a substitute for the real world, a Matrix-Lite if you like. Howard Beale’s famous diatribe against The Tube in the provocative film Network illustrated how insidious a thing this could be for me. For many years the collection and dissemination of data was entirely in the hands of the major TV broadcasters. Only in the last fifteen years has the internet grown in popularity to the point it’s at now, whether its influence will end up being good, bad, or indifferent remains to be seen. One fact stands out from the rest, and gives me some hope: The internet is interactive for everyone. Even the humblest person has a voice that can be heard, and even if they only use that voice to make semiliterate, badly typed comments on YouTube videos, they still have a sense of being able to talk back to the thing that’s communicating to you. It’s the mother of all paradigm-changers. As usual with these significant events, there’s a hazard to balance the benefit.
I’ve had an interesting vantage point for the last several years, an inadvertent result of my becoming disabled. The day I had to stop working was very much like stepping off a merry-go-round for me. When you’re riding it at speed, you can clearly see its parts but the world outside it is a blur. I ceased being a part of the healthy world and my life was arrested in time when I came down with multiple sclerosis, and I watched that world go speeding off. For a while I was sort of in between each place, I spent the better part of the first year after being diagnosed with trying to get back to work, and later when the disorder had progressed enough that this was no longer possible, I was busy for a couple of years trying to prove to the government that I was the genuine disabled article before their indifference killed me.
These days I’m not consumed with the need to obtain income…disability income isn’t that hot and the disability itself ensures that I don’t enjoy my life much, but there’s a certain measure of freedom in no longer having anyone I need to impress. I also find that I study the world outside more objectively than before (at least I think I do) and my biggest impression is how loud and compelling a lot of that world has become…and how so many seem to be affected by it to a large degree. People have always been susceptible to being driven to emotional extremes throughout history, but lately larger numbers seem prone to extremes of emotion in distinctly polarized areas.
I’m very leery of strong emotions shared by large groups of people, especially when these emotions rise abruptly…it smacks of artificiality. Think of some things you both really love and that you despise…why precisely do you feel so strongly about them. Are they things you’ve always felt, or are they perhaps a product of more recent events that might…that just might…have been ‘adjusted’ by someone with something to gain from producing a stronger response? Ask yourself the old question, cui bono? Who benefits? and
With that in mind…I’ll ask two questions of you myself, world:
What is it that all the bullies, tyrants and sociopaths hate the most, and always have?
Next, contrariwise: (Who is the) “One more trustworthy than all the Buddhas and sages?” (I must give credit where it’s due for this one, to the late great Robert Anton Wilson)
Think about those questions, my fellow Coppertops , perhaps discovering the answers will prove to be your own Red Pill.