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Toxic Memes
Alex Steffen, 25 May 04

"Thought is an infection. In certain cases it becomes an epidemic."
-- Wallace Stevens

We are never as good as we ought to be at seeing the world clearly, but we are especially near-sighted these days, when our society is all in flux. This is why futurism exists. Good futurism acts like corrective lenses for the temporally short-sighted. Most people think futurism is about saying wacky shit about the future, but really, good futurism is about saying wacky shit about the future that makes us see the present in a new, sharper light. "The victorious futurist is not a prophet," writes Bruce Sterling. "He or she does not defeat the future but predicts the present."

However, predicting the present moves us in odd directions, and in this work, our ally is the strange. Finding weirdness is good, when you're looking through the lens of an imagined future. Weirdness shows you're thinking new thoughts. Jamais Cascio's Transhuman Space: Toxic Memes is crawling with weirdness.

Let's get the conflicts of interest out right up front: Jamais is not only my colleague here at Worldchanging but a friend. That said, I have already recommended Toxic Memes to other friends, so I feel no guilt plugging it here. It's also a role-playing game. Games are the red-headed stepchild of the science fiction family, which itself is considered a poor relation by serious futurists. Which is too bad, as sometimes great provocative ideas emerge from the world of gaming. Even if, like me, you have very little interest in role-playing games, Toxic Memes presents a future worth encountering.

Imagine the world in 2100. The "Fifth Wave" of nanotechnology and artificial inteligences has arrived, though not the Singularity; bioengineered people are the norm; the rich and poor are still divided, stoking the rise of "nanosocialism" and triggering competition to build the first Earth-to-orbit elevator (or "beanstalk"); climate change and heavy weather are facts of life; and the biggest political fights are over intellectual property, between those who believe information wants to be free and those who believe information needs to get paid. That's the world of Toxic Memes.

Memes are the genes of culture -- chunks of ideas that float through our society, replicating themselves like DNA. The greater the amount of communication, the more awash in memes a society becomes, and, as the book says, "In a world filled with memes, only the catchy survive."

In 2100, savvy marketers, evangelists and revolutionaries engineer memes the way we engineer soybeans today, using software to spread the infectiousness of their ideas ("You appear to be starting a religion," prompts the a help window in the game's ParadigmMaker2.1 software. "Would you like help with that?"), using multiple vectors of rumors, media and "tippers" (charismatic people paid to spread the word) to expose target groups as quickly as possible ("Amateurs talk content. Professionals talk populations."). The result is a world in which, as Yeats would put it, all coherence is lost. Mere conceptual anarchy is loosed upon the world.

As a result, the future-shocked inhabitants of this year 2100 believe all sorts of wild shit. That secret cabals run the world, that the Singularity has already happened and that the machines are keeping it a secret from us, that the static on their screens is full of secret communiques, that we are certainly headed for utter disaster. They stagger around amidst the "cybershells," and "informorphs," the "uplifted" dolphins and the fried-out spacefarers, struggling to hold on to a distinction what is real and what the Powers That Be want them to believe.

What makes all this more than amusing hand-waving, what makes it inform our lives today, is that Jamais does a skillful job of weaving into his stories today's trends, actual technologies and quotes from real thinkers. Burning Man tribes roam the Earth. Computer viruses go wildfire. People like Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR, actually say scary things like (in regards to propaganda) "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country." He makes it clear that Toxic Memes isn't really about the future at all, and that you and I may already, today, be infected.



"A hundred years ago, thinking "long term" meant thinking about the next five years; 50 years ago, it meant thinking about the next 20 years; today, we are told to think about the next century. I would argue that even that is painfully short-sighted. With the technology at our fingertips, we could live for millennia – one hundred years is but a blink of the eye."

    – Marie Gustav, Long View Report: 2089
The possibility of living immensely long lives via ghosting or other technologies is a double-edged sword. Those who currently hold positions of power and influence simply by not dying will likely maintain that position for far longer than ever before, perhaps even further consolidating their hold. But the certainty of continued existence for even centuries means that plots and intrigues have far more time to unfold. From this latter perspective, victory goes not to he who holds power now, but to he who is able to plan for a longer campaign.

Langzeitgesellschaft (LZG) is an advisory group dedicated to the promotion of long-term thinking. Based in Vienna, LZG was founded originally in 2043 as a center for developing techniques for very long term planning. Consulting with LZG was a business fad in the 2050s, but the group's fame soon faded. Since around 2060, LZG has maintained a quiet existence, publishing an annual trend study called the Long View Report, and occasionally consulting with large businesses and government agencies. LZG members, about 100 strategic planners and memeticists, exclusively comprise SAIs, ghosts, and people with anti-aging biomods, almost all European.

This consulting work is largely a front. Langzeitgesellschaft partners have slowly developed plans to extend the organization's reach, with an ultimate goal of having political dominance over human space within the next 1,000 years. Careful investments, cautious behind-the-scenes promotion of various political and ideological groups, and a subtle memetic engineering campaign all combine to gradually build their influence. For at least the last three decades, the advice it has provided to corporations and government bodies has included seemingly-innocuous elements that further advance this agenda. LZG has no military force, no coercive might of its own — all of its power comes from its supposed ability to influence the present in ways that lead to the future it desires.

This plot has little to do with power and much to do with foresight. LZG members firmly believe that the human family, including SAIs, is too often driven by short-term considerations to be able to construct a long-lasting civilization. Without farsighted leaders, the next 10,000 years of human existence are likely to be a series of conflicts, retreats to the edge of chaos, and slow reconstruction. LZG wishes instead for humanity to enjoy a world of perennial social harmony, sustainable technology, and political wisdom. In short, it wants to remake human civilization to be an idealized version of modern Europe.

Whether the rest of humanity would go along with this is irrelevant — by definition, the rest of humanity is too short-sighted to see its real interests clearly.

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It's a great book, as is his other TransHuman Space book, "Broken Dreams".

Like Alex I should make the disclaimer that Jamais is a good friend of mine. That said, the entire TransHuman Space series is exceptionally well thought out and plausible, and I highly recommend them to gamers and non-gamers alike. You can look at the game characteristics as simply metrics to compare entities in the books, if you like.

Posted by: Howard on 25 May 04

Steve Jackson Games is a shelter for particularly bright red headed stepchildren.

I haven't read either Toxic Memes or Broken Dreams, but GURPS Transhuman Space is a fascinating document; a space role playing game that shed the whole hoary legacy of Golden Age SF, in favor of something new and rich and strange and sometimes awful.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 25 May 04

Stanislaw Lem's _The Futurological Congress_, a SF novella from the '60s; directly addresses most of these themes. (No wonder he griped that American SF of the time was childish and pathetic. :-) )

By making this observation of "earlier publication" I am in no way diminishing Jamais' achievement. Art needs context, continuity and history. It's an important defense against the kind of confusion being parodied in the art under discussion!

Posted by: joe on 26 May 04



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