Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Say it with me: dumb ideas are dumb

There is a prevalent and dangerous meme rife in society today, and though some people may find the following offensive, judgemental or unfashionable, I believe it needs to be said. Your forbearance is therefore appreciated while I do so. ;-)

First, some axioms. These should be unarguable:

  • Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
  • Not everyone's opinions is as valid, useful or has as much merit as everyone else's in every single situation.
  • Nobody is entitled to their own facts.
  • You have freedom of speech, thought and association. You do not have freedom from criticism, freedom from offence or freedom from correction.

The problem happened where the first axiom (a healthy recognition that other people have different opinions) turned into the second and subsequent beliefs; that everyone's opinion is equally valid, and that contradicting someone in error is impolite, arrogant or somehow infringing on their freedoms.

One look in some Lit Crit classrooms will show you what happens when you aren't allowed to contradict or dispute someone else's opinions, and one look in a politicised fundamentalist church will show you what happens when you believe you're allowed your own facts, instead of just your own opinions.

And while people might enjoy studying Lit Crit or subscribe to fundamentalist religions, if they've got any sense they'll notice that people acting in either of these two roles have rarely done anything tangible to better the overall lot of their fellow man... unlike all those rude, elitist, judgemental, snobby scientists, engineers, geeks and other educated types (who instinctively recognise that ideas vary in quality and efficacy, and have therefore been quietly and industriously changing the world for the better for the last few hundred years).

The Western world (ably lead, as ever, by America) is learning the hard way what happens when you confuse recognition of existence of everyone's opinions with equality or worth of everyone's opinions. Moreover, while we mouth thought-terminating clich├ęs like "everyone deserves an equal say", we routinely disregard them in practice. Who seriously consults their toddler in the back seat on how to get home when lost in the car? Who leaves their neurosurgeon's office and seeks a second opinion from their local garage mechanic?

It's ok to judge and disregard things which demonstrably have no merit. We commonly all agree that "all people" deserve some sort of minimum baseline freedoms, protection, treatment and standard of living. And yet we still deny some of those benefits to those people who we have judged and found undeserving of them or actively dangerous (imprisoned criminals, for example).

We try to pretend that all ideas are equal, but it's not true - some ideas are brilliant, explanatory and useful, but some are stupid, dangerous or self-destructive. And refusing to judge them and pretending those ideas are harmless, valid or beneficial has much the same effect on society in the long term as refusing to judge dangerous people would have on society - internal chaos and developmental stagnation.

We don't have to ban stupid ideas or opinions, like we don't have to kill criminals. Instead we isolate criminals using jails so they can't damage society any more.

We can do the same with ideas, simply by agreeing they're dumb.

Refusing to publicly label a dumb idea "dumb" for fear of offending someone is - long term - as bad for our culture and society as refusing to lock away criminals "because their families might be upset".

Although it's unpopular to point out, sometimes people and ideas need to be judged for the good of society, even if it does end up upsetting or offending some people.

For the last decade or two - beginning around the advent of political correctness, though I suspect that was a symptom rather than a cause - we've done the intellectual equivalent of systematically dismantling the judicial system and all the courts and prisons in society. Now - in the same way if we dismantled all the prisons we'd be overrun with criminals - we're overrun with stupid ideas, unqualified but strongly-expressed opinions and people who act as if they can choose their own facts.

The only way you can help redress this situation is by not being afraid to offend people - if someone says something stupid, call them on it. Politely but firmly correct when people make erroneous claims. Question badly-thought-out ideas, and don't let people get away with hand-waving or reasoning based on obvious flaws or known logical fallacies. Yes they'll get annoyed, and yes they'll choose to take offence, but we don't free criminals because they or their families are "offended" at their having to stay in prison. They are there - largely - because they deserved and invited it, and because the world is better with them there. Likewise, dumb ideas deserve and invite correction, and the world would be a better place for everybody if more people judged and criticised them when we came across them.

Sometimes uncomfortable things do need to happen to people, and certainly if they invite them. There's no advancement without the possibility of failure, and removing the opportunity for failure removes the opportunity to develop. If no-one ever tells you you're wrong, how will you ever learn?

But most important of all, while judging people is unfashionable, can be dangerous and should largely be left to trained professionals, don't ever be afraid to judge ideas.

Internet memes are not without purpose

Internet Memes get a lot of stick - they're usually considered mildly amusing at best, and sterile, content-free, mindless, bovine group-think at worst. However, both these assessments are incomplete - they fall into the trap of judging memes as "good" or "bad", instead of asking "why they are" at all.

Memes aren't just jokes - they're the way we form bonds and generate shared context in distributed virtual communities, just like "living near" and "saying hello every day" were the ways we formed context and social bonds in physical, centralised communities like villages, and "chatting around the water-cooler" and "bitching about the boss" are ways we form social bonds and shared context at work.

Part of the problem in society is that as we centralise in huge cities with too many people we don't know we lose the feeling of belonging to a distinct community, which is why city life can be so isolating for some, and others fulfil the need elsewhere (churches, sports teams, hobby/interest clubs, etc).

The only difference between this and the kind of people who make up the core of communities like reddit, Fark or 4chan is that instead of physically going somewhere to interact with other community-members, we're geographically separated and typically a lot more diverse in terms of outlook, age, race, physical appearance and interests.

This means that - for a community to form - we require shared context and some way of differentiating between people "in the community" and those out of it. This is where memes, references and in-jokes come it... and it's also why we have terms like "redditor" or "digger", instead of "people who read reddit" or "people who read Digg".

You can even compare different kinds of communities, and memes seem overwhelmingly to arise where other, more traditional forms of shared-context-building are unavailable or inapplicable:

  • At one extreme, memes rarely arise in traditional physical communities - it's pretty rare where a village - say - gives birth to catchphrases or memes, because the community already has plenty of shared context from living in the same region, sharing the same culture and language, sharing largely the same core beliefs and seeing each other regularly.
  • TV shows pioneered the way, where catchphrases and quotes (though typically only a few per show) could be used to find and bond with like-minded individuals when we encountered them, even though we didn't necessarily live near them, or see them regularly.
  • Moving online, sites like Facebook are still largely clustered around groups of people who have some real-world relationship, and though people occasionally make use of imported memes from other communities for the purpose of humour, for this reason these sites still rarely give birth to new memes.
  • More frequently, memes arise from forums (fora?) or social news sites like Slashdot, reddit and Digg. These are sites with a strictly limited ability to share context - their communities are culturally, socially and intellectually extraordinarily diverse, and stories are posted (and disappear beneath later submissions) so fast that there's no guarantee that any two individuals will have seen the same news or read the same content from one day to the next. Practically all that these sites offer in the way of shared-context-building is the ability to recognise the usernames of other users when they post, which - with the sheer number of users - is a wildly inadequate method to generate strong social bonds.
  • Most clearly of all, 4chan is a website which is prolific in the generation of new memes - indeed, many memes which users of other sites assume originated there in fact originated on 4chan. 4chan is also unusual in that it does not enforce uniqueness of username, but instead assigns a deeply unmemorable number as the only guarantee that a given "Bob Smith" is the same as a "Bob Smith" whose comments you remember reading previously. In fact, 4chan even allows completely anonymous posting, and in 4chan's most famous meme-originating boards (/b/ and others) the overwhelming majority of posters post anonymously. This means that users are literally bereft of any way to reliably recognise each other or establish a sense of community, and they're simultaneously the most prolific creators of internet memes.

You can see from this trend that memes are a distinct method of community-building, almost unknown in human history, which has largely evolved in the last few decades in response to the increasing isolation of modern life, with its lack of traditional ways to build shared context or easily encounter familiar individuals.

When you get right down to it we're social monkeys, who are usually happiest in a tribe of one kind or another. Due to lifestyle and technology how we form and maintain those tribes is changing, even in the last a few years, and if we can resist the temptation to dismissively complain about this emergent behaviour it can teach us a lot - both about ourselves and about the new kinds of communities we are forming.