Attention wars

With all the talk about culture, where does art fit in?

Objective vs. subjective

Earlier, we discussed how all objects can be thought of as media that project ideas.

A hammer broadcasts the concept of hammer. Thing is, that's not why hammers exist. They exist to hit nails. Hammer have utility, of which the value is objective: same for everyone.

An object is art to you when you personally value the ideas it signals. Books, paintings, music, films, GIFs and TikToks express, contemplate, challenge, play with cultural values — often in attempt to transcend them. They advertise ideas, concepts, meaning; valued more or less by each individual mind. Art has subjective value: different for everyone.

  • Objective value flows from the object's utility: what you can do with it.
  • Subjective value flows from your personal relation with the object: what it means to you.

Unshared art is not art

So, art objects are memes whose sole function is to be shared. They're products of self-expression, made real with skill so others feel amazed, understood, recognised, thrilled, powerful. To feel anything, really. The sharing part is essential. Unshared art is not art.

Ernest Becker would say art is how we tell the story of our selves. When others feel something at our self-expression, we feel seen. Recognised for who we are. That recognition gives meaning to our lives. While our bodies die when we stop breathing, somewhere deep down we believe we won't really be dead until the last person who knew us also dies.

“Loneliness isn't having no people about one, but being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” - Carl Jung

Whether at the level of family or history itself, sharing ourselves is culture. Our individual stories network together to live on beyond our bodies in the minds of others: they become intersubjective. We're not alone in the face of impermanence, but together as family community, nation, humanity. Part of a bigger story that lasts forever.

"Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he translates it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level." — Ernest Becker

To be seen

There's an artist in all of us. We all seek recognition for self-expression in our own ways. Painting, singing, tweeting, making TikToks, graphic design. All of it is self-expression stored in media meant to be seen by others.

What sets renowned artists apart is the scale at which they achieve recognition.

A mind invests itself in a story it recognises. The other story becomes part of your story. Or, to use the biological analogy: the other story infects your story. And from there goes on to infect other stories through your story — your self-expression. This reflexive infectious energy is what we've called mimesis.

"The artist takes in the world, but instead of being oppressed by it, he reworks it in his own personality to recreate it in a work of art." — Ernest Becker

Where most self-expression remains rather intimate, memes from Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Mozart unearth deep truths in ways many recognise. Such epic infection rates catapult replication: memetic force multipliers on steroids. Great works of art claim so much market share in the web of minds we think of them as culture itself.

Art imitating life and life imitating art

Recognition activates replication. We reflect someone's self-expression in and with our own self-expression. You tell friends, write articles, tweet, share photos, post YouTube videos. On and on it loops:

  1. Create — Artist creates. Da Vinci paints. Shakespeare writes. Hitchcock directs. Mozart composes. Ed Sheeran sings. Steve McCurry photographs. Ricky Gervais jokes. Elon Musk tweets.
  2. Consume — Beholder consumes. Watches, listens, reads, feels.
  3. Copy — Art self-copies through beholder: self-expression. A copy may be clone (retweet), fragment (GIF from movie), derivative (Ricky Gervais jokes about MacBeth), remix (Ed Sheeran on a dubstep beat) or simply inspire something new. Its concept (embedded ideas, values) may also rotate media, from painting to photograph to poem to tweet to joke to song lyrics.

A meme determines culture proportional to its copies. The more minds infected, the more programming power over social behaviour. Copies can appear as exact clone, something seemingly new and everything in between — but are always product of what came before. Every copy starts (creates) a new cycle.

Copy loops ripple out into culture
“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” — Salvador Dalí

Intersubjective economics

Memes feed on attention. It's the scarce resource they compete for in the web of minds. Attention leads replication multiplies potential for more attention: the self-compounding loop you'll be familiar with by now. Pay a meme attention and it intersubjectively inflates. Ignore it and it shrinks.

Culture is a market in which minds (demand) spend attention (capital) on memes (supply).

  • Memes are assets: ideas embedded in media.
  • Market size is the sum of all minds. Or better yet: the sum of all the attention they can spend.
  • Memes grow in value as they store more attention capital.
  • Your self-meme / ego / identity is composed by all memes you've paid attention to. An equation that subtly recomputes with every new meme consumed.
When you express an idea in media, it enters the intersubjective market where it competes for attention with other memes. The more attention a meme can retain, the bigger its intersubjective valuation.

Intersubjective economics scale as a function of media technology. Technology achieves more economic returns with less resources. From tribal to digital, media technology has expanded the total addressable market of human attention by slashing time-to-read and time-to-copy.

Attention wars

The memes that claim most attention in a society configure its cultural order. Because attention guides energy and thus behaviour.

For example, democracies live by collective programming of citizens with ideas like free speech, individual liberty, rule of law and fair elections. To take centre stage, these values first had to overcome ruling memes. As we've seen, new memes overcome established memes with superior utility and replicability. The best and most infectious ideas win the battle for attention and come to culturally program society.

Utility is about the idea itself, replicability about how the idea appears and replicates: media technology. Regardless of how useful ideas, attention wars are won by whoever can spread them faster in media as memes.

Meme replication rate computes two inputs:

  • Meme technology — The medium broadcasting the idea. Slow media are economically expensive to replicate (e.g. by hand). Fast media multiply at the speed of light (e.g. internet media).
  • Communicative skill — The ability to express ideas in media in a way that commands attention and thus replication. Great communicators say a lot with little. Great writers and speakers capture big ideas in few words, leaving many inspired. Great artists capture deep truths in single impressions, leaving many moved.

Part 7 expands on how technological features interface with expression to determine memetic replication.

Memetic warfare

The interplay between media technology and skill it leaves us with four prototypical strategies to fight attention wars:

  • Monopolise meme technology. The Catholic Church ruled medieval cultural order because only monks had the time and skill to copy books by hand. The printing press subverted that hegemony by cheapening meme distribution, revolutionising Europe's cultural order.
  • Fight with superior weapons. Ideas spread by internet media will always beat out those spread by books because they reach more minds faster. Because they are faster-to-read and faster-to-copy. Example: in the 2008 US election, Barack Obama's iconic Hope meme spread like wildfire on social media while his opponents were still fighting with public speeches and flyers.
  • When weapons are equal, the best communicator wins. For media technology, that means leveraging form, function and incentives for maximum idea replication. Example: in the 2016 US election, (1) Donald Trump's sensational tweets and (2) fake Russian news headlines mapped perfectly onto social media algorithms, programmed to maximise engagement over truth. Outrageous Russian fictions spread faster than boring truths by preying on users' worst biases and fears. It's a stark warning of how media incentives shape reality: if clicks equal revenue, truth can't win. Outrageous fictional stories planted by Russian bots virally multiplied through users' worst fears and biases. As people fail to distinguish what is true from what they want to hear, culture is torn apart.
  • Burn books and people. Totalitarians abuse monopoly on violence to remove contrary memes (Nazi book burnings, China's Great Firewall, and Russia's recent Internet disconnect in the Ukraine war) and their meme dealers (Catholic Inquisition, Stalin's Purge, China's Cultural Revolution) from the intersubjective pool altogether. State truth is the only truth and dissidents gets punished.

In first-principle terms, memes are culture and technology in one. Ideas within media. You can win attention with effective expression of resonating ideas, but it's media technology that wins culture wars. In that sense, spreading ideas physically (books, paintings, flyers) in digital times is the media equivalent of bringing a knife to a gunfight or fighting nukes with tanks.

As this series further explores: who rules the memes, rules the world. Communication skills matter but ultimately obey memetic rules set by the technology and its owners. Churches (manuscripts), states (tv/radio) and Facebooks (internet) rather than you and me decide which memes get attention. They inevitably manipulate meme replication in their own cultural and economic interests.

Kissinger and Streisand

Ultimately, stories cannot be controlled because they live in the minds of people.

Media are but objective carriers that enable stories to jump from one mind to others. To completely kill a story, you'd have to kill all the minds it infected. Not only is that an undesirable prospect to even the most fanatic authoritarians (who'd be left to rule over?), it's also self-defeating: censoring memes only draws more attention to them. Like a basketball, the deeper you try to push memes under water, the higher they jump back up.

Information asymmetry

When criticised for arrogance, Henry Kissinger once said he only appeared arrogant to those who didn't have as much information as him. His point: the higher you are on the ladder of power, the more you have to hide.

You gain power by knowing things others don’t and keep it by maintaining that advantage. A position of power also gives you early access to new information and so your advantage compounds. Hence, to stay in power you protect the informational asymmetry that got you there, through memetic manipulation and censorship.

Banning memes only makes them more infectious because it injects them with the lure of power. People want what they can't have, precisely because they can't have it. What is the story that those in power do not want you to know? It excites our curiosity, the evolved instinct to find out more about our environment to survive and thrive. The chase of the forbidden is really the chase of freedom and power, propelled by the rushes of adrenaline that come with it.

“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” — Mark Twain

Burning books only makes them more worth reading and retelling. The stories don't die but move into whispers, backrooms and illegality where they fuel resistance and revolution.

Genie in a bottle

Today, the causal relation between meme censorship and replicability is known as the Streisand effect. It was named after the American actress who tried to hide a picture of her house only to draw greater attention to it.

Once people become aware something is being kept from them, the motivation to find out skyrockets and the story explodes. Where central state control of print, radio and tv used to make it hard for forbidden memes to spread at scale, there is no stopping the billions of decentralised smart devices transmitting bits at the speed of light. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it can't be put back in.

The Streisand effect is perhaps the best demonstration of how memes are autonomous gene-like entities immune from human control.

Next page

Interlude: Death by press

How the printing press murdered God.

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