More Butterflies And Tipping Points: Memes

Internet self-publishing (blogs and personal web sites) has introduced a genuine element of volatility into the cultural/political/civilization system we all share. This happens as memes (A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. From the Greek meaning to imitate.) propagate throughout the web, and that information paradigm begins to affect how people see related information.

This can happen slowly over time, building and sustaining momentum or suddenly, almost overnight. However, it should be clear that Internet memes do not behave like ad campaigns, unless you consider viral advertising/marketing, but these are usually short lived.

Some memes are outright lies, intentionally spread on the ether in an attempt at propaganda to accomplish a specific goal. There are those who believe that these errors will be self-correcting in the long run, since it is too hard to maintain the lie with so many people looking.

One thing that is forgotten by those holding that opinion is that often lies are propagated not by individuals, but by worldviews or specific mindsets. Francis Schaeffer noted that people need not actually collaborate to achieve an end if their end is the shared goal of a worldview or a mindset, a shared approach or way of looking at a problem or circumstance. We are seeing that beginning to happen with Islamic terrorism.

A good example of one such propaganda meme, an outright lie, is that being spread by Truthers. That label currently applies to those who believe the lie that 9-11 was an inside job; the towers were brought down by demolition, and it was a missile, not an aircraft that hit the Pentagon. No matter how much analysis, evidence, scientific rigor is applied, they will not be dissuaded from the meme. One “but” in the midst of many certainties is all it takes to re-energize the premise. This is more than an urban legend, it is a meme because it has become a cultural idea sustained by constant repetition.

When we look at ourselves as Christians, we realize that our existence depends on trust and truth: trust in God and the truth of his Word and Intentions for us. But that also applies beyond God, it applies to all human interaction. Without truth and trust, we have nothing left. We are bereft of direction, purpose, or understanding. That is a problem, because the prophets have warned us that The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick;who can understand it? How do you trust that which is inherently deceitful?

One of the important characters in the Lord of the Rings story universe is Grima Wormtongue, the chief Counselor of King Theoden of Rohan, and deceitful liar. He examples many such counselors in our world. Where do these liars come from? Biblically, Jesus argued that the chief liar was/is Satan, whom he calls the father of lies.

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:44

Anyone who lies, who propagates untruth, the Wormtongues of the world, allies themselves with the devil and brings the condemnation of these words of Jesus on their head. That insight came out of a discussion with a group of Pharisees to whom he said, “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.” Those who embrace lies, who have become children of the father of lies, cannot bear to hear the truth. It destroys their meme, their understanding of the world they want to live in.

This is true of atheists who reject God (The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good.), or modern Pharisees who reject the plain truth of the Gospel in favor of their self-serving memes, whether of homosexuality, permissive sex, moral neutrality, or their own inherent godhood. They are condemned because “they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”

It is interesting to note that easy access to the information universe of the web has caused a proliferation of memes on the Internet, which is beginning to result in meme overload. When the medium was new and new memes were either a novelty or tied to disruptive moments (e.g. the 9-11 events), they were able to get traction and embed themselves in a relatively large portion of the populace, at least for a while. That is getting much more difficult. Even attractive memes seem to only hold our attention for a short period of time.

This difficulty is not due to the hoped for self-correcting nature of the webosphere, but because when the noise level increases (so many memes fighting for attention), something either has to be caught by our internal filters (our personal prejudices, likes, or dislikes, which are often remarkably transient in focus) or be rammed through by the sheer power or novelty of it all (which may carry a slightly longer attention span). But then tomorrow there are more memes demanding our attention, and the next day even more, and meme overload takes its place within the general information overload. Unless there is a compelling reason, what was so hot yesterday, slips below the surface and drowns in the noise. To use an old newspaper metaphor, it moves below the fold, then to the back pages, and finally it is only in the archives.

How is this related, you may ask, to tipping points? Well, it becomes much more difficult to build the momentum that tipping points need to reach critical mass. Distraction has that effect. It makes it harder to gather the force necessary to push an issue over the top. From the bread and circuses of ancient Rome to the entertaining ourselves to death of modern Western Civilization, the masses are too distracted to pay attention for very long. But now with the Internet, the information glut, the meme explosion, even thinking people are overwhelmed, unalterably distracted by the continuous onslaught.

Gone are the moments for reflection, discernment, or chances for thoughts to coalesce into meaningful paradigms. Instead we actually become addicted to the overstimulated information flow, which means nothing can hold our attention for very long. We have to check those emails, read that blog, check the latest score, stock ticker, headline news feed. That makes it extremely hard to produce real change, enable thoughtful growth, or to move successfully to what our ancestors called maturity. Maybe that is why we as a culture act so infantile so often these days.

Where is this taking us? Surely not to a wiser society or becoming better Christians, since the evidence of that is grossly lacking. We seem to be devolving into less, not more mature behavior. But, if we respond by trying to filter back, trying to limit the input, then we might miss something important, even life threatening…a real dilemma for someone trying to stay even reasonably on top of what is happening in the world, or trying to track things that might affect them.

What are we to do? Scripture tells us that knowledge will increase but wisdom will be lacking. Isn’t that what we are seeing? So, how do we free ourselves and instead grow in mercy and grace and maturity in the Lord? To use the question from Francis Schafer, “How then should we live?” I do not know the answer, and as I read back over this I see the effect of too much input even on the thoughts I have tried to develop. This is a major dilemma for thinking, committed Christians.

Dear Lord, give us the wisdom we need to deal with this, but first help us to find the time to hear you when you try to give us that wisdom. Hearing that still small voice in the midst of all this overload is no mean task. Have mercy, Lord, have mercy.