This is page 2 of Meme capitalism.
- Page 1 starts from a recap to explain cultural capital and, downstream from it, economic capital.
- This page continues with social capital and wraps up with a conclusion.
Where we left off
Culture distributes money and status. Because cultural capital commands what we value, it's upstream from economic and social capital.
Previously, we looked at how memes move markets. Now, let's explore how memes create social pecking orders.
Social capital is goodwill currency other people are willing to spend for you. The more social capital you have, the more you can leverage personal networks to get what you want.
Social capital is a complex mix of overlapping quantitative and qualitative dimensions. Simplified:
- Quantity of relations — Followers, fans, professional relations, colleagues, acquaintances, friends, family.
- Quality of relations— Goodwill can emanate from friendship across depth, trust and stability. Goodwill in hierarchical relations comes in proportion to respect, admiration, idolisation, awe and fear.
- Social capitalisation of the other person — Well-connected relations can do more for you than more isolated ones. Their network extends yours. Their social capital compounds yours.
High social capital gets invitations, opens doors, builds bridges and attracts support. Your personal network actively helps you succeed. Low social capital is ignored, rejected or even shunned. You're on your own, or worse.
The sum total of social capital constitutes status. Derived from the Latin statum or standing, status is your position within social groups and society as a whole.
Our drive for status is deep-seated. Ever since humans started living in groups, they've competed for resources. From social competition emerges a pecking order. Status signals where you stand on the social ladder.
Historically, those at the top have been more likely to survive, thrive and reproduce. Natural selection has rewarded the genes of those winning status games. And so, even in times of abundance, we are evolutionary programmed to strive for status.
Mimesis keeps the wheel spinning. It takes a lot of self-awareness and self-confidence to check out of status games when everyone around you is playing. Leaning into what makes you different rather than giving it up to conformity makes you interesting in a way nobody else can replicate. It's what we call authenticity and it pulls social capital like nothing else. People who are truly great don't fit labels of what is "great"; they simply are great by virtue of their personal style and the feeling that way of being evokes in other people. It seems like you win status games by not playing them.
Memes of power
In first-principle terms, status is about power: your ability to produce desired results.
- Individually, power is bodily capacity: what you are capable of doing. It ranges from crawling to running to being the fastest human on Earth. Technology expands that power: it enables the body to do things it otherwise couldn't.
- Socially, power extends to what you are capable of getting others to do. Parents have power over kids. Employers over employees. Idols over fans. Kings over subjects. States over citizens. Gods over worshippers.
A shadow on the wall
Exerting bodily power over others is violence: you physically force others to your will.
But violence is limited. It's stories that rule minds at scale. Stories dictating who to fear, obey, fight for, pray to, celebrate, admire, respect, disdain, shun, love and hate. Stories of violence, heroes, enemies, wars, oppression, conspiracies, promised lands, revolutions, manifest destinies, kings chosen by gods, parliaments representing peoples.
“Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception.” — Niccolò Machiavelli
The best (most replicable) stories have protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains. By saying who is good and bad, stories trace social hierarchies.
In A Song Of Ice And Fire — known as Game Of Thrones on screen — royal court advisor Varys tells Tyrion Lannister a parable:
Varys: “A king, a priest and a rich man sit in a room. Between them stands a common sells-word. Each of the three bids the sell-sword to kill the other two. Who lives, who dies?
Tyrion: “Depends on the sell-sword.”
Varys: “Does it? He has neither crown nor gold nor favours with the gods.”
Tyrion: "But he has a sword, the power of life and death.”
Varys: “But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power?"
Varys: "Power resides where men believe it resides. It's a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow."
Status is the shadow on the wall; the reflection of power in the social realm; the position in the collectively imagined pecking order of people.
Hierarchy is a social construct, a story made real by the people abiding by it.
Kings sit on thrones because people they're the sons of their fathers, because they were chosen by God himself or because they've shown themselves the strongest. They sit on thrones because enough people believe the myths putting them there. And fall when those same people stop believing those myths.
Monopolies of violence
Power protects its cultural shadow with laws and institutions; enforced through violence — or the threat (story) thereof. Institutions make memes into laws, tracing what is fair game and what is to be punished. Violate laws and the police puts you in prison.
Theorists typically define states as monopolies of violence in a territory. Within their borders, only their violence is legal. That, too, is a story established in law and enforced by institutions.
I expand on how social hierarchies extend to politics, laws and institutions in the next interlude: Memes of power (forthcoming).
The hero complex
Society integrates hierarchies of all levels and scopes.
As individuals, we're part of a myriad of overlapping social groups, each with their own status markers: best singer in church, best dresser at school, best player on the team, most beers in the frat, most reps in the gym, most books in the readers club. Rarest sneakers, flashiest supercar, biggest engagement ring, custom license plates.
Some of these examples will resonate with you more than others. That is the point: different social groups measure status by different markers.
The memes claiming most attention award who is cool, sexy and popular in a culture. At different times in different places, that honour has befallen hunters, fighters, ancient families, priests, knights, fecund women, obese people, actors, entrepreneurs, the young, the old — even animals like cats, cows and pigs.
Rich ⇄ Poor
Perhaps no macro theme illustrates how status trickles down from memes better than the perennial rich-poor duality.
A short history:
- Western medievals said some are rich and some are poor because God willed it that way. Nobility, clergy and peasantry were presented as head, body and feet of a body: existentially interdependent. Hard as their lives were destined to be, peasants were recognised for the food they produced in art and literature. Poems celebrated the "noble ploughman" who enabled intellectual work higher up the ladder.
- Christian memes did not connect wealth to moral worth. Goodness derived from the recognition of one's dependence on God and inevitable hardship guided peasants there. The highest man, Jesus, had been poor himself. The rich, in contrast, were more likely to fall for earthly pleasures and the delusion that contentment could be achieved without God. What counted was not life on Earth but what came after, and the poor embraced suffering so to arrive first at the gates of heaven.
- From the 1750s, memes increasingly vilified the rich. Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested that the rich take privilege not with virtue and talent, but plunder and deception. Society was corrupted by the rich so to make upward social mobility impossible for the poor — no matter their talent and hard work. Karl Marx put this outcry on seemingly scientific footing, presenting capitalism as a scheme of the rich to exploit the poor. Working men were to rise up against the rich because "they have a world to win and only chains to lose."
- In contrast to the communist meme of the rich as wealth extractors stood the capitalist meme of rich as wealth creators. People were to be judged by their effect on others. Selfish, greedy and decadent as they may be, the rich create opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship by spending. Adam Smith pointed out societal welfare depended on people's urge to amass capital and show off wealth. From Christian villains, the rich were redeemed as heroes for enabling the social classes below.
- The 18th century saw the rise of the meritocratic meme at the expense of the hereditary one. For centuries, positions were awarded along bloodlines rather than talent. And so societies were ridden with kings unfit to govern, lords unfit to manage estates, peasants and maids brighter than their masters and mistresses. Thomas Paine remarked that he'd never read a book because its author's father had been a good writer, and "I carry the same idea into governments." In agreement, Napoleon — himself self-made emperor— appointed ministers of modest origins, abolished feudal privilege, founded new titles attainable by all social ranks and opened public schools. Social legislation and meritocratic principles became the new norm. From equal opportunities was to arise a social order wherein everyone merits their inequalities; what they deserve through talent and hard-work.
- In a meritocratic world with equal opportunities, the poor were recategorised from unfortunate victims of a rich-rigged society to losers of the fair struggle for resources. Social darwinism posed that the rich were rich because they were naturally superior. In spirit of survival of the fittest, Herbert Spencer argued that the poor are to be marginalised for the greater good of society. Titans of industry were all too eager to see themselves as alphas of the human jungle — justifying their fight against socialist strikes and unions.
These memes still brew in today's time - and headlines. Politically, meritocracy and socialism have found somewhat of an equilibrium in most Western societies, combining the best of both to make the pie bigger for everyone. Culturally, rich and poor (or anti-rich) position themselves with memes, brands, fashion and status symbols (all essentially the same thing).
Freedom of meme
Liberal states flying the banner of free speech leave room for nuance and opinions. Different memes can co-exist and cross-pollinate. Within the bounds of law, politics can evolve society through conversation, criticism and compromise. Conservatives defend, progressives challenge. New memes override established memes when they win over enough conservatives with utility and replicability.
In contrast, totalitarian states leave no room for interpretation. There's only good and evil, heroes and villains — nothing in-between. Because new ideas are not tolerated, there is no politics. Only violence.
When ruling memes can't be challenged by new memes, time stands still. There is no evolution, no change, no progress, no future.
Totalitarian states view themselves as conclusions of history: the past was the struggle necessary to establish the just order of things, which is then to last forever. The Reich is to last a thousand years. It's a state of intellectual coma the historian Timothy Snyder has called politics of inevitability.
For example, extremist interpretations of meritocracy and socialism clashed in World War II.
- Nazism agreed with social darwinism that biology is the only truth. Life is the struggle of races for resources and the strong are to dominate the weak. It was the Jews who corrupted humans to believe otherwise through fictions like empathy, morality and democracy. These had created a social order that violated the law of the jungle. Jews and their ideologies were to be exterminated so to restore the natural order of blood and soil wherein the German master race would inevitably triumph.
- Bolshevism subscribed to the Marxist version of history as the struggle of classes. The modern struggle was between those who owned factories and those who worked in them. Poor workers were to overthrow rich capitalists and their scheme of private property. This was the natural course of history and the Bolsheviks believed in violence (mass murder) to push it on its proper track.
Not all heroes wear capes
What do binge drinking, gym reps, supercars, engagement rings have in common with killing Jews and capitalists?
All are expressions of the human urge for heroism; to matter, to stand out from average, to feel special in the cosmic void. It is yet another version of Ernest Becker's thesis that man yearns to be part of a bigger story that outshines death.
Drinking the most beers makes you a hero in the frat. Pumping the most iron makes you a hero in the gym. Killing the most Jews makes you a hero in the Third Reich. In this sense, cultures across all levels can be thought of as hero systems, each with their own script to achieve immortality — be it magical, religious, secular, scientific or civilised.
Us vs. Them
It's important to remember that the heroes of one culture are villains in the other.
Bookish people look down on gym rats. Obesity and pale skin were once considered a sign of prosperity where today's role models are slim and tan. The same Nazis portrayed as evil incarnate today were celebrated in their society. The Bolsheviks mass-murdered to "correct" history.
These people were not naturally more evil than you and me, but subjectively programmed by radically different value systems and living in radically different realities. Nobody thinks they are on the wrong side of history. Even the people we think of as the most wicked of the wicked think they are doing the right, noble thing.
Heroism plays out across different levels, to be sure. We can't all be Caesars, Napoleons, Churchills, Buddhas, Hitlers, Stalins and Elon Musks.
Most narrow down their own little sphere for heroism own terms, with bigger cars, brighter children, better homes and bulkier bank accounts than their peers. Job titles, sneakers, paintings, Instagram followers, watches, plastic surgery, Pokémon cards, handbags, wine, memberships, Teslas, Cryptopunks and Bored Apes.
We seek these things for the prestige we think they'll shine upon us. In Latin, prestige not coincidentally translates to illusion or mirage. The shadow on the wall. The reflection of power in the social realm.
A tale of two selves
It is near-impossible not to care what others think of you — even if subconsciously. For human beings, to live in the physical world is to live in the social world. Personal well-being inevitably depends on how the rest of society values you, as scripted by ruling memes downstream.
We really have two selves:
- First-person self or simply self. Our subjective experience, created in real-time by the brain as it makes sense of reality from memory and imagination. Our feelings and thoughts. Who you feel you are.
- Third-person self or identity. The memetic projection of our selves within the larger intersubjective story we share with others. The network of symbolic labels assigned to us, e.g. husband, gay, Afro-American, Gen Z, Christian, single, woke, coder, gamer, crypto bro, Celtics fan, contrarian. Who people think you are.
Self-expression ⇄ status-signalling
The self is how the brain experiences itself in the present world through the network of mental models it learned from the past. As discussed in Part 5, it's a product of its mimetic environment: an integrated projection of everything it has paid attention to from the outside in.
In search of certainty, the self in turn seeks to validate how it navigates the world — its map of the territory — from the inside-out. The self expresses its story hoping others will recognise it — pay it attention. Through recognition, the story becomes shared: intersubjective. We become part of something bigger than nature: culture.
"We forfeit three-quarters of ourselves in order to be like other people." — Arthur Schopenhauer
Identity is the meme of your self; how others in the mimetic environment perceive you.
In attempt to be recognised by more, the self is prone to conform its own story with those of ruling memes. Because, the more the story matches values held in high regard with many, the more attention its meme attracts, the bigger we feel. When the self manipulates its expression to mirror ruling cultural values at the expense of its own, it becomes status-signalling.
Selves getting lost in crowds
Like its cultural and economic equivalents, social capital compounds through mimesis. Many instinctively turn their backs on loners with no friends, to then move mountains for a split-second of attention from famous strangers. In quantitative terms, the bigger the crowd the bigger its mimetic attraction — from Nazi rallies to Twitter mobs.
"Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd." — P.T. Barnum
It doesn't matter who these people actually are, what matters is how big of an intersubjective shadow they cast in group. Individuality and independent thinking are sacrificed on the altar of the greater good. People mistake trying to fit in with the tribe for following a moral compass.
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
The lone wolf dies, the pack survives
The self has historically played second fiddle to identity. It's identity that grouped early humans together in the face of danger and struggle for resources. To survive was to be accepted by the group. To thrive was to be liked, respected and admired. The bigger you are in the minds of others, the bigger your share of food, shelter and mates. Impressing others passes on genes. Nature selection designed us to subject how we feel on the inside to how we appear to the outside.
"It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. Psychopaths rally followers." — Nassim Nicholas Taleb
That genetic programming is hard-wired. Solving food and shelter has put no end to status hunger. The impulse to climb in social hierarchy is now all about the desire to be seen. It's common to think of society in terms of somebodies and nobodies. The somebodies feel recognised, respected, listened to, cared for. The nobodies feel unseen, ignored, dismissed and ashamed. Psychologically, the difference is day and night.
"No more wicked punishment could be devised than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof." — William James
Kaleidoscope of stories
We don't just have one position in one hierarchy, but many positions across many overlapping hierarchies. These are stories connecting us to others, most of which were inherited from genes and the environment we grow up in.
- Genetic — Physical traits: sex, face, height, weight, skin colour, age, bodily skill or disability thereof. Intersubjectively, these rank you within stories about gender, race, generations, beauty standards.
- Environment — Stories of the communities that bring you up: religion, ideology, ethnicity, nationality, neighbourhood, school, workplace.
This list is by no means exhaustive and the two categories of course overlap. The point is that your unique identity constitutes at the intersection of all the variables you're socially invested in by genetics, environment and choice. The latter is proportionally enabled by economic capital: the more money you have, the more you can afford to pick the communities that make you.
Here, it's worth citing Arvind Narayanan's work: he found you can identify every single individual on Earth through at most 33 of such variables.
Much like bank accounts store economic capital, identities store social capital — the aggregation of reputations you hold across various overlapping hierarchies, or simply how highly people think of you. There's quantity (e.g. number of followers) and quality (e.g. depth of goodwill) to it.
The same way purchasing power of your money varies in different markets, the social power of your identity varies in different communities. You're a king in some and a nobody in others.
As modelled in Part 7, reputation compounds as a function of how much your self-expression repeatedly resonates with others (proof-of-resonance). Social capital equates to your mimetic gravity in a community. The more you have of it, the more it is your self-expression that sets the tone for those with low social capital to conform with. Their status-signalling in turn validates your memes and associated identity.
This is easy to imagine in terms of a small friend group wherein one seemingly does whatever they feel like, while others mimic. While social realities become vastly more complex scaling up, these fundamental dynamics remain pretty much the same: the more social capital the identity, the more attention others pay to its memes.
Your identity stores your reputation: your social capital.
Awareness of your position across social ladders comes with the stress of losing it: status anxiety. Pressure to conform with group ideals — status-signalling — drives a gap between our identities and our selves. This makes sense locally — because opportunities depend on your social capital in communities you belong to — but quickly becomes a trap.
"Your identity is borrowed from people who have no idea who they are themselves." — Osho
Whereas only you can debit money from your bank account, others can debit reputation from your identity. And so there's incentive to conform with others in order to protect our social capital, i.e. their investment in our reputation. We risk getting so busy upholding expectations of others that we forget who we really are.
The status paradox takes on nonsensical dimensions in a globally interconnected world. The third-person now feels subject to the judgement of the billions of people scrolling internet timelines. Many fall prey to a rat race, losing themselves in chase of validation from people that otherwise would never have the slightest impact on their lives. Blinded by likes, their identities come to mimic algorithms to please a sea of faceless strangers at the expense of their selves.
Yet we shouldn't fall for the fallacy of blaming tools for human problems. Technology is agnostic: it simply expands utility. Whether that utility harms or liberates us is up to how we use it. That said, scale and stakes have never been higher.
The internet has merged previously separate communities into one global village. Everything you do and say online is publicly recorded across Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok — in plain sight for everyone to see.
With such great exposure come great opportunities.
Online, you can leverage and build your reputation globally. Whether you photograph insects, blog about growing your own food, build aquariums, vlog with your dog, tweet wild McDonalds facts, restore old compasses, fold paper airplanes or design bathrooms: your memes only need to resonate with a tiny fraction of the billions of minds clicking around the web for you to feel recognised (social) and make a living of it (economic) — be it directly through advertising, partnerships or selling products or indirectly through second-order opportunities, e.g. job opportunities.
Retained attention stores reputation (social capital) as followers/subscribers into your online identity. That in turn compounds your reach, as modelled in Part 7.
High rewards come with high risks.
Because everything is public, everything you ever shared can be held against you. Just one ambiguous tweet suffices to make you into a villain. As the narrative takes off, millions frantically jump on the bandwagon. Most are nobodies — people with low social capital — hungry for a free status-signalling opportunity. They can feel like heroes by attacking the evil-doer without consequences.
In a destructive mimetic spiral, all the social capital you've spent years building is cancelled overnight. Not just with one community, but in all of them.
In the physical world, bad press takes time to travel from one social network to the next. Worst-case, you can move cities and start fresh.
In the global village, however, everyone sees everything at once. Reputation damage spills over from Twitter to Instagram to YouTube faster than you could ever contain it. Network effects invert: afraid to be caught in the storm, followers abandon ship. The user handle turns toxic, often irredeemably so.
Social media mobs are the internet's versions of angry villagers chasing down pariahs with torches and pitchforks. Kings are stripped naked, kicked down the gutter and crucified on the town square. Only now the town is global and the shitshow forever just a Google search away.
The Great Escape
Leveraged effectively, the internet can be our great escape from identity traps.
Our livelihoods depend on fitting in with local communities. Before the internet, there was little choice but to conform our identities to where we were born. On the worldwide web, we become unstuck from where we physically are and no longer need to forfeit our self-expression to local memes for well-being.
From the original 150 in hunter-gatherer societies, your self-expression now has a total addressable attention market of ~5 billion.
Socially, you get to choose your local, your tribe and your vibes. Where and with whom you work and play. All in a matter of clicks. For the first time in history, we can afford not to play status games and unapologetically express our selves instead.
Economically, the web enables you to live off your self-expression. In a market where every mind on Earth is just a mere clicks away, there's an audience for everyone. At the intersection of your self, curiosity and skills is a niche nobody else can compete in. You just need to figure out how to signal it in a way the market finds valuable.
- You're a unique mosaic of all the experiences you've ever lived. Lean into your differentiation.
- Learn what about you resonates most with others by self-expressing in the open. Tweet, write, record, design, code, build, publish.
- Iterate on quantitative (engagement) and qualitative (comments) feedback to memetically package your self-expression in a way that stands out of the noise.
One is your mental model, the product of your self. The other is the medium, how it appears to others. Self-expression and communication skill together create memes of your self that can claim the attention that leads social and economic capital. Business model is how you convert attention into income.
The creator economy
Stories about math geeks, spreadsheet nerds and armchair historians making millions online abound. But you don't need to be a unicorn to make a more than decent living:
- Substack bloggers with 500 subscribers paying $10/month earn $60,000 annual income.
- 1,000 people buying your $50 course nets you $50,000.
- If not directly in dollars, keeping an online portfolio (LinkedIn, Dribble, Instagram, Twitter, personal website) still pays in opportunities. For example, I still get DM'ed weekly for posts I wrote years ago.
To find and scale your personal product-market fit online, check out this excellent course by Jack Butcher (not affiliated).
Digital identities are no longer bound by how we physically appear by nature. Age, weight, height, face, skin, sex, disabilities don't matter on the web if you don't want them to. Across username, avatar and shares you have full agency over your online identity.
In the metaverse, you can name and show your self however you like. Be whoever you feel like. Or be nobody at all. From fiat identity (official name, social security number) to anonymity, you position yourself on the continuum of pseudonymity by sharing more or less identifiers. When you (or others) reveal your fiat identity online, you are doxxed.
- Facebook famously started as the digital reflection of university campus. You'd dox your real name and face, then share offline pictures, life events, relationship status etc. Associated social capital is bridged from offline to online, where it continues as followers and engagement. Similarly, LinkedIn digitalises the reputation (resume) and network tied to your offline identity so you can extend its leverage online.
- When people adopt new usernames and avatars on Twitter/Reddit/Fortnite, they fork a new identity with no past and a future of its own. From there, the identity's social capital builds and breaks as a function of its expression in posts, gameplay or whatever form it takes. This happens independently of other identities, as long as the links remain unknown.
- On platforms like 4chan, there are no identifiers at all. Users are identity-less: anonymous. There are no reputations, no traces across interactions. Only memes.
From identity to anonymity, reputational risk/reward stakes decrease to zero.
Celebrities tweet, post and stream from their known names to leverage accumulated social capital across platforms. Risk exposure builds symmetrically: one awkward tweet can burn down the whole social supply chain. Using the sAme name everywhere creates one centralised attack vector: a hit on your name in one place is a hit on your name in all places. And so high-profile individuals with a lot to lose (like NBA star Kevin Durant) seek refuge from the mob in burner accounts: anonymous identities from which they can self-express freely.
On 4chan, anonymity decouples memes from their dealers. You can't get cancelled when there is no name the attention drawn by your memes can fire back on. There is no attack vector at all, but also no store-of-reputation.
Hiding in the faceless crowd, 4chan users share memes they would otherwise not. No faces to save means no values, morals, ethics to uphold. 4chan is a lawless jungle where pure memetic struggle rules all. Because nothing draws attention quite like the offensive and outrageous, 4chan culture infamously reflects the darkest corners of the human soul.
The sweet spot: pseudonyms enable you to store reputation without painting a target on your real name. When you tweet, write, speak and earn under different pseudonyms, one name can get compromised without spilling over to the others — let alone onto your real name. Identity contagion decentralises from systemic to isolated.
Much like financial portfolio diversification, you no longer have all your eggs in one basket. Of course, it's key that the links remain publicly unknown. In this sense, adversaries use doxxing — exposing personal information — as an attack strategy.
Two examples that make the point:
- Antonio Garcia Martinez is a successful writer, tech entrepreneur and product manager — all under that name. He was hired by Apple in 2021, only to be fired shortly after under pressure of employees. Martinez was cancelled over opinions he expressed in Chaos Monkeys, an autobiographical book detailing his career in the tech industry. Publishing under a pseudonym would have enabled him to speak freely without collateral career damage.
- Centralised institutions can't cancel Bitcoin because it's decentralised across nodes. They also can't cancel creator Satoshi Nakamato because he/she/they is pseudonymous. Neither the meme nor its dealer has an attack vector, neither the ball nor the man can be played. As thing stand, Bitcoin is shifting deep-rooted paradigms and none of it would have been possible without pseudonymity.
In liberal democracies, freedom of speech shields you from institutions coming after you for your opinions (on paper). It does not shield you from the social mob.
Crucially, pseudonymity allows freedom after speech so your social capital and livelihood itself are not caught in the crossfire when people don't like what you have to say.
Defining yourself in terms of external social labels rejects your own uniqueness. It comes with anxiety because it subjects your self-worth to the judgement of others.
"We must not allow other people's limited perceptions to define us." — Virginia Satir
The solution to status anxiety is to close the gap between your self and your identity. Status independence means you are the the same person at work, at home, with friends, and across communities. It means that you navigate the world from the perspective that there are no people better or worse than you, only different. And when we're all different, judgements don't matter. You are in your own category — one-of-a-kind.
Competing only with yourself, you can take on life with nothing to prove and nothing to hide. In a sea of people anxious to prove and hide, this type of inner freedom typically earns the most attention over time. It's what people call authenticity: being who you are. Authenticity attracts status by checking out of status games.
Civilisational pyramid ♺
Economic and social capital are overlapping expressions of upstream cultural capital. Intersubjective realities gain economic and social value in proportion to the attention they claim from minds.
- Economically, attention guides money. The more minds subscribe to the story about a scarce asset, the higher its market price.
- Socially, attention guides goodwill. The more minds subscribe to the story about a self (identity), the higher its social influence.
Behaviour follows where attention is paid. The intersubjective realities are made real by people spending economic and social currency on some at the expense of others. And so attention moves markets and shapes societies.
It's memes that differentiate economics and politics in distinctively human fashion.
All animals engage in economics — the struggle for scarce resources — and all animals living in communities engage in social hierarchy and politics. The human versions of economics (e.g. money) and politics (e.g. democracy) so differ from nature because of the cultures and technologies we have constructed through mimetic thought sharing. Many animals have culture too, but only humans go beyond the intimate kind between family and friends to cooperate at epic scale with strangers through stories and values — shared through memes.
Through culture embedded in technology, memes have exponentially scaled the complexity of civilisation — birthing what's been branded as the Technium by Kevin Kelly.
“This global-scaled network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, institutions, laws, calculators, sensors, works of art, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand system of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a very primitive organism-like system.” — Kevin Kelly
- Human politics and economics take place within culture: they express the collective consciousness in collective behaviour like an individual body is moved by its brain.
- Technology amplifies the power and control of that behaviour over its territory — on a micro-level for the individual, on a macro-level for humanity.
Politics and economics precede human thought and history, and only became specifically human when culture and technology extended their complexity to build civilisation.
“Our intellect does not draw its laws from nature, but imposes its laws upon nature.” — Karl Popper
Navigating the real world through memes reveals the actual socio-economic utility of its underlying map and, counterfactually, blind spots. The collective consciousness culturally selects its memes from the socio-economic costs and benefits fed back to it by the territory — other than from replication. The result is civilisation, and its movement in time is history.
How capital dances
Cultural, economic and social capital move pyramidically across reflexive feedback loops. While culture is at the head, politics and economics still feed real-world consequences bottom-up. Within culture, economic and social capital interface on somewhat equal entangled footing.
- Social capital buys economic capital. Knowing the right people gets you jobs, promotions, speaking gigs, invitations to parties, seats at tables and access to funds. It furthermore lands you in the company of more right people, compounding your social capital to be leveraged. These power circles uphold themselves through reflexive backscratching: capital is strategically shared to protect each other's interests. They make backroom deals, fund each other's campaigns and put each other on company boards. In politics, social and economic capital combine into political capital: influence over political decisions.
- Economic capital buys social capital. With the optionality that comes with money, you get to choose your mimetic environment: where you live, what you do, who you work and play with. From there, you can craft the memetic projection of your self through status-signalling or check out of social competition altogether by leaning into authenticity through self-expression. The less wealthy, however, can't afford these choices. Stuck in their local environments, they need to be whoever communities and employers need them to in order to be socially accepted and pay their bills.
- Influencers gain followers (social capital) as a function of how much attention their memes claim and retain (cultural capital). Advertisers pay influencers economic capital in proportion to follower count and engagement metrics. Influencers can in turn invest this economic capital to claim yet more eyeballs for their stories, e.g. production, partnerships, advertising. In a striking example, YouTube creator MrBeast invests millions to produce videos that repay themselves through the views, subscribers and advertisers they attract. He achieves this like no other because of the ubiquitous goodwill his authentic persona consistently evokes. The attention sticks.
- How much something is valued flows partially from who did the work. Earlier, we modelled how resonating self-expression builds reputation — social capital. People look up to artists in proportion to the cultural value of their work. Reputation commands more attention for future work — songs, shows, videos, paintings, poems, books, tweets. Reputation also feeds back into price: the work becomes economically more expensive because more people value it highly. Out of two paintings, the one from the famous artist is by default many times more expensive from the get-go. Out of two consultants with similar skillsets, the one with the more impressive resume gets paid more.
"You meet rich people and you hang around with them, and one night they've had a few drinks and they say 'I'll buy it!' Then they tell their friends, 'You must have this person's work, darling,' and that's all you need. That's all it takes. Get it?" — Andy Warhol
As expressed in the idea of socio-economic status, economic capital almost inevitably reflects socially. Rich or poor is an identity in itself. While poverty confines identity, riches enable many more. Through suits, Teslas, Fitbits, wines, Whole Foods groceries, oat milk lattes and art pieces the rich can afford to appear fashionable, green, healthy, sophisticated, organic, hipster and culturally educated. They have larger mimetic footprints and therefore more sway in culture.
"Financial independence is upstream of individual independence and ideological independence." — Balaji Srinivasan
Rule the memes, rule the world
Meme rulers rule the world because they rule what/who is socially and economically valuable. Whether you drink Pepsi or Coke, wear Nike or Adidas, invest in Tesla or Gamestop, play basketball or chess, vote Trump or Biden, drive Tesla or pickup. Where you go on holiday, who you want to be when you grow up, who you follow and cancel. What you believe to be right and wrong.
If code scripts machines, media scripts human beings. — Balaji Srinivasan
Unfree markets for memes
Throughout history, that power to choreograph culture has been held by caesars, kings, Churches, nation states and corporations.
On the internet, culture is run by Facebooks who manipulate meme distribution for maximum profit. They claim and mine user memes for attention, to be sold off to advertisers for economic capital. In exchange, meme dealers/creators get to keep followers (social capital). but only insofar as they play by the rules: it can all be taken away at a moment's notice.
These meme markets are not free nor meritocratic. The memes that come to dominate culture are not those most useful to navigating the world (truth) nor the ones that resonate most with our selves (art); but those that make network owners the most money. More often than not, these are outrageous, sensational and made up — the opposite of what builds inclusive, cooperative societies with vibes and tribes for everyone.
Facebook incentives do not align with those of humanity.
Free markets for memes
We can do better.
Blockchains are open networks without rulers, decentrally owned by all participants. Participants are rewarded for giving the network what it values.
For example, meme dealers can mint non-fungible tokens to capture the cultural capital of their memes. The more minds in the network infected by the meme, the higher the value of the token representing it — economically denoted in blockchain coin, like ETH.
Meme dealers own their memes and benefit economically other than socially in proportion to the impact their expressed mental models have on culture.