Friday, August 26, 2016

Memes and Ma'at, and Magical Thinking, Part I

     As an assurance to all who are waiting patiently, The 026 Deck of the Starphin-class Frigate will post this weekend.

  Once again, RocektFans, I am succumbing to the siren call of Trans-sophont world-building and thinking about the universe from my
Stargosy series of stories.  The trigger this time was discovering my nano-fic O'Neil Cylindehad been included on the Atomic Rockets website.  So I re-read it, and then had to re-read all the other ones because I really like my stories and will read them over and over again.     Part of the process of getting back into that universe's frame of mind has been exploring the reasons that adding Egyptian mythological elements felt so right. It's not just that Egyptian mythology was badass and cool, I kept finding parallels between life on the River Nile and life inside a space habitat.  And of course, the Khemetic divisions of the soul were quite useful...
     But a lot of what follows is influenced by the (insert neutral adjective or noun here) that is the 2016 election cycle - specifically the antics of Donald Trump.  Trump is an excellent example of the emergence of what is being called the post-fact society.  The disconnection between the veracity of  a statement and the amount of time, discussion, and respect the statement gains has possibly been wider - I just have no idea when, exactly. We live in a time when the Presidential nominee of the party of Lincoln was able to garner widespread support by making untrue statements that his supporters know to be untrue.
     Why?  Because memes.  I'll explain.
     Memetics has been much on my mind recently, both because of the election coverage and because of my former academic work in biology, microbiology, and the emergency medical protocols for disease outbreaks.  For those rare few reading this that only know of  memes as witticisms added to photos of cats or the Minions, a meme is an idea that spreads like genes in a life-form or a virus.  Ideas are infectious, contagious, and capable of spreading along the same vectors as biological pathogens.  This is why you used to see Hari Krishnas in airports; like the flu, fringe ideology spreads more easily to tired travelers with weakened immune systems.
    What does this have to do with post-fact society?  It's really quite simple: facts are also memes.   Now, part of the paradigm shift in our culture as the internet went from PC, to laptop, to tablet to phone, as that mass exposure has come to dominate and supersede all other vectors for meme transmission.  And the communicability of a meme has nothing to do with its factual content - often, it seems, facts are at a distinct disadvantage compared to other memes.  Facts just aren't catchy.  In the world of the Internet, a meme seems to be most communicable when seen on Facebook in a single image with some words, like the aforementioned Minions, In a world where the problems facing us are increasingly complex and difficult to resolve, the facts are presented as they've always been, in papers published in academic journals presented by people who have a hard time being understood It's as if the rhetoric of factual discourse and the comprehension of the meme-infected population are presenting a language barrier.   Compared to scientists that often leave the public cold, the simple, easy meme is far more appealing - and contagious.  Build a wall. Leave the EU, Drill, baby drill.
They'll like you, anyway...
        Those among us who are into hard SF, or hard science, or science in general, are predisposed to give weight to memes that have basis in fact.  I cannot speak for everyone, but the reason I like Hard SF is that the more the factual the "sciencey" parts are, the easier it is for me to suspend disbelief.  So, I look favorably on factual memes.  But if I try to communicate this to people I know who are not as enamored of fact as I am, I can usually see the point where they turn off and stop listening.  Or perhaps worse, stop listening because they think they know what I'm talking about, when they so obviously don't.
     And worst of all, my wife catches me doing the same thing from time to time.
     The point of all this is not that I'm getting sick of seeing facts be treated like opinions by people who can no longer tell the difference.   Nor is it how I'm becoming more and more convinced that we who respect facts on their own merits are going to lose the memetic war as long as we continue to treat it as a conflict between fact and fiction, instead of a conflict between opposing memes.
     If we evolve into a post-fact society, how the hell will we survive living in space?
     One can handily ignore that question by simply pointing out the depressing likelihood that we will not live in space, not in any significant numbers. That's a story for another post; what I'm interested in is how the decedents our Internet culture will handle living in such an unforgiving environment, and how they'll raise kids out there.  That's a big one - how do you pass on the essential knowledge any person needs to survive in a hostile environment to kids that even read yet, much less understand the ins-and-out of CELSS, pressure differentials, radiation levels and breathing mixes?  I propose we will educate these future toddlers the same way we as humans always have, the way Bedoins, Nomads of the Gobi, the Inuit, and the suburban tribes of WASPs teach their children even now.
    We'll lie to them.
    Now, when I say "lie" I am thinking along the lines of what the late Sir Terry Pratchett, with help of Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, refereed to as " lies to children", the simplified explanation of complex subjects.  As memes go, these no-quite-facts are among the most enduring and resilient.  For example, I know that the Vikings established settlements in New Foundland and further south, because the archaeological evidence is there and I believe facts. That being said, I can still hear the old rhyme, "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." in my head when ever the european age of exploration is mentioned.  Most people imagine atoms as having at least some passing similarity in style and substance to the atomic symbols we've all grown up with since the late Forties even though such a model is wrong in every particular.
But it's usefully wrong!
   These lies to children are only some of the most recent, ones we can still see the effects of today.  Another branch of meme that would qualify as a simplistic explanation to a complex concept is that branch of explanatory mythology.  The idea that the myth of the Minotaur, who lived in a labyrinth under the palace of Knossos caused all the earthquakes in the area, is an example.
     I mention this because, for some reason, we often seem to assume in science fiction that we as a species will leave religion behind when we move into space.  Part of this, I believe, is practical - if you don't mention religion, you won't piss off religious people as badly - and part of this is surely the growing secularization of cultures in the industrialized world.  But religions, and the myths, parables and revelations they are founded upon, evolved for a reason.  Any of you who have children have probably noticed that explaining to them why doing something is insanely dangerous does not necessarily convince them to avoid doing said thing.  In fact, at certain developmental ages, it almost guarantees the little...darlings will try to do that very thing.  Sometimes, the only way to actually get a kid to avoid doing something dangerous is to, well, put the fear of God into them.
     In space, there are a lot of insanely dangerous things you can do...

     In Part II of this post, we'll discuss how the society of the Third Gleise Monarchy came to adopt the Gods of Khemet as their mythological framework, why they did so, and how cool I think it is.  For now, however, I've gotta go draw some deckplans...

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