Friday, December 09, 2016

When Memes Fail You

p2pfoundation |  I know this has been a rough time for a lot of you, and I hope you are doing well. In brief: Yes, there has been a major electoral upheaval, and it seems there are many confused people out there working under some pretty strange assumptions. But no, this isn’t as much of a shift as it may seem.

If anything, this is the legacy of the 20th Century coming back to haunt us. In an effort to counter the propaganda of our political enemies, American social scientists (Bateson and Meade, to be exact) proposed a world of screens they called “the surround.” Their idea was that if people had the experience of choosing different things – or of looking at whichever screen they wanted to – they wouldn’t care so much that all the choices were for essentially the same thing.

In short, looking at a screen – any screen – was more important than what a person learned or came to believe, other than that he or she was experiencing real autonomy and choice. That was supposed to be America: the land of choices. The supermarket offers us fifty different laundry detergents to choose from – even though they are almost all the same, and are distributed by the same two or three corporations. You can choose whichever one you want, as long as you choose (and pay for) one of them.

An array of TV channels gave us a similar experience of choice. But Bateson and Meade probably never imagined a world with quite as many screens as ours now has. Or as much of a direct connection between our experience of screen choice and that of democracy. American Idol and other reality programs made the connection discrete. And thus Donald Trump’s migration from reality TV to electoral politics was seamless. Social media and smart phones took screens to the next level of illusory user-control, while they simply reduced the array of possibilities to a narrow beam of sensationalist, algorithmically assembled, self-affirmation.

But the underlying techniques for influencing people through all those screens? That’s magic. Or at least the approach to magic practiced by Hitler and his propagandists in WWII, before it was utilized by the British and American advertising agencies after the war. It’s the subject of the graphic novel I released last week – Aleister & Adolf – about the occult war between Aleister Crowley and Adolf Hitler at the end of WWII. I hadn’t meant it to be quite so prescient, but it’s a great way of understanding how we got where we are. The social media landscape is the ideal space for sigils and memetic engineering because we are utterly untethered from grounded experience. Those who succeed at these techniques are the ones who successfully tap into existing hidden agendas in popular culture. They just jump into the unacknowledged standing wave of society, and it carries them along for the ride. It’s not the subject or surfer that matters so much as the wave itself, and one’s willingness to surrender to it entirely. That’s why celebrities or candidates who adopt this strategy end up seeming to have no coherent goal.