Distributed Memetics, Part I
Ellul, Frankl, Havel, and what propaganda is and is not.
author’s note: this essay was originally written in March 2018 for a different, now-defunct platform — the text had been edited slightly from the original to reflect developments since then, and at the point of my moving all my writing to Medium in January 2019.
As of April 2020, I have further split this essay into two segments, Part I and Part II. This split was always a natural one and should probably have happened at the start, as a little over half the essay is theory, with the remainder application, but, as it was my first ever Medium post, I did not want to alienate readers, of whom I probably had none, by forcing them to read two pieces instead of one.
However, I believe I now have a large enough profile for this not to be a problem. The essay is in the form it should have been all along and ought to make for a better, more structured read. Part II is linked to here, and again at the conclusion of this segment, now renamed Part I.
Readers can also rest assured I have not edited the essay in any way since the republication in January 2019. In April 2020, I only restructured it, as described.
The idea of ‘propaganda’ probably makes us think firstly of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, where government control of media was both total and omnipresent. Authoritarian social control of such breadth seems almost a historical quirk, confined to precisely the twentieth century. Nowadays, information flow is barely restricted, or even possible of being restricted. And yet the spectre of propaganda lurks around every corner. We are told Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit are ripe with it. There is Brexit propaganda as there is EU propaganda; behind this there is nationalist propaganda and globalist propaganda. It could be peddled by the Daily Mail or Fox News, or the Guardian, the BBC or the EU itself. It emanates from part time bloggers and global superpowers alike: we are told the Russian government uses it to discredit opponents both domestic and international. But is this true? Is this propaganda designed to discredit the Kremlin? The lack of restrictions means that ISIS propaganda can be beamed to any smartphone in the world. The President of the United States claims it of cable news networks and highbrow newspapers, his opponents claim it of whatever his supporters read, and so on and so forth.
It is difficult to see what these have in common, assuming some or any of these claims are correct to begin with. Defined too narrowly, ‘propaganda’ becomes authoritarian mind control, practicable only by the likes of North Korea, and attempted in earnest, we are led to believe, by China and Russia. Defined too broadly, and it becomes any political message the accuser dislikes. It is more difficult still to reconcile the supposed persuasiveness of propaganda in an age of limitless information. I believe much of the difficulty comes from the fact that the very idea of ‘propaganda’ is inappropriately intertwined with that of ‘politics’. I do not believe that politics is the correct realm in which to analyse propaganda. We need to think in terms of media and culture. Politics, after all, is downstream of culture, and media is the force of gravity generating the current. To avoid the connotations of politics and better capture this curious abstraction, I attach an equally curiously abstract name: memetics.
By memetics I mean roughly the creation, distribution, and curation of ideas. I refer to different types of memetic systems to mean the technological and cultural tools that combine to form a coherent channel of idea creation, distribution, and curation. I will develop additional qualities of memetic systems as we go along to avoid overloading the reader with terminology from the outset. My aim is to develop the concept of ‘memetics’ to ultimately analyse the related concept of ‘propaganda’. This is as much a series of intertwined book reviews as it is my own thoughts. I use Propaganda by Jacques Ellul to analyse what kind of ideas constitute propaganda, and what memetic systems lend themselves to its dissemination. I use Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl and The Power of The Powerless by Vaclav Havel to elaborate on why these systems tend to be effective. I return to Ellul to try to pinpoint the role of mass media in a system of propaganda.
Having developed this theory, I argue that we are undergoing one of the most momentous shifts in memetics in human history; previous waves of technological advance have served only to strengthen the existing memetic system by lending to centralized memetics an even stronger signal. However, the most recent advance in communications technology, the Internet, is disrupting the established memetic system in a way perhaps not seen since the printing press. I believe the cultural impact of the Internet can only really be brought into focus at least in part through the lens of memetics. I believe we are re-entering an era of distributed memetics, and we are only just beginning to see and understand the effects, of which the most notable so far has been the election of Donald Trump. Off we go …
Ellul On Propaganda In An Age Of Information
Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who is perhaps best known for his book, The Technological Society and his thought and writing about the impact of technology on society as a whole. In the aptly titled Propaganda, Ellul offers a fascinating and original interpretation of this phenomenon. The book is a theory in a classical sense: part polemic against the naïve but commonplace understanding of what propaganda is and why it exists, and part what is thought by the author to be the proper analysis. The popular explanation, Ellul contests, runs something like this: propaganda consists mainly of lies, is devised by a small group of people intent on manipulating the masses in the most effective way possible. The effectiveness is indicated by the change in opinion aroused or, better yet, the installation of an entire ideology, ultimately to support that group’s social and political power.
To Ellul, this is wishful nonsense. Rather, propaganda is not ideological lies that sets out to trick people (in fact it is far more effective if true) but is a pervasive tool of social control that is rooted in individual psychology — a definition we will use for now, but update as we go along. The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, the subtitle of the book, refers not to dastardly lies believed by few, but to vague truths socialized into almost everybody’s understanding of the world and required in a world this complex. The individual needs propaganda to truly feel part of a modern, technological, democratic society. He explains,
“No citizen will believe that he is unable to have opinions. Public opinion surveys always reveal that people have opinions even on the most complicated questions, except for a small minority (usually the most informed and those who have reflected the most). The majority prefers expressing stupidities to not expressing any opinion: this gives them the feeling of participation. For this they need simple thoughts, elementary explanations, a ‘key’ that will permit them to take a position, and even ready-made opinions. As most people have the desire, and at the same time the incapacity to participate, they are ready to accept a propaganda that will permit them to participate, and which hides their incapacity beneath explanations, judgments, and news, enabling them satisfy their desire without eliminating their incompetence. The more complex, general, and accelerated political and economic phenomena become, the more do individuals feel concerned, the more do they want to be involved. In a certain sense this is democracy’s gain, but it also leads to more propaganda. And the individual does not want information, but only value judgments and preconceived positions. Here one must also take into account the individual’s laziness, which plays a decisive role in the entire propaganda phenomenon, and the impossibility of transmitting all information fast enough to keep up with developments in the modern world. Besides, the developments are not merely beyond man’s intellectual scope; they are also beyond him in volume and intensity; he simply cannot grasp the world’s economic and political problems. Faced with such matters, he feels his weakness, his inconsistency, his lack of effectiveness. He realises that he depends on decisions over which he has no control, and that realisation drives him to despair. Man cannot stay in this situation too long. He needs an ideological veil to cover the harsh reality, some consolation, a raison d’etre, a sense of values. And only propaganda offers him a remedy for a basically intolerable situation.”
Propaganda is desired by the individual and is required to feel included in modern society. It is not a patchwork of lies that can be overcome with proper reasoning and access to the facts — it is more of an impression of what the facts ought to be that is malleable to any and every situation. This is maintainable because the facts in question cannot be accessed directly anyhow, but the impression can be directly provided. The most effective impression will be one that instils in each individual the feeling of belonging or of needing to belong to a group who all share it. The impression itself can achieve a kind of stability and security because everybody is reassured that everybody else will likely share it. Incorporating these thoughts, Ellul makes some left field claims that are certainly worth isolating for their prescience in some cases as much as their originality. Pre-empting social media filter bubbles:
“Propaganda suppresses conversation; the man opposite is no longer an interlocutor but an enemy. And to the extent that he rejects that role, the other becomes an unknown whose words can no longer be understood. Thus, we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly reviews his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others — a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks, and nobody listens. And the more one talks, the more one isolates oneself, because the more one accuses others and justifies oneself.”
And on the cultural banality of mass consumerism, now prevalent seemingly everywhere but originating in America, and, again, prescient identification of ‘advertising’ as playing a key role in American propaganda:
“The sociological propaganda in the United States is a natural result of the fundamental elements of American life. In the beginning, the United States had to unify a disparate population that came from all the countries of Europe and had diverse traditions and tendencies. A way of rapid assimilation had to be found, that was the great political problem of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. The solution was psychological standardisation — that is, simply to use a way of life as the basis of unification, and as an instrument of propaganda. In addition, this uniformity plays another decisive role — an economic role — in the life of the United States; it determines the extent of the American market. Mass production requires mass consumption, but there cannot be mass consumption without widespread identical views as to what the necessities of life are. One must be sure that the market will react rapidly and massively to a given proposal or suggestion. One therefore needs fundamental psychological unity on which advertising can play with certainty when manipulating public opinion. And in order for public opinion to respond, it must be convinced of the excellence of all that is ‘American’. Thus conformity of life and conformity of thought are indissolubly linked.”
What we see at work in both cases is the use of ideas that inculcate in each individual the need to belong to a greater group, ultimately to motivate an action that is not clearly in the interests of the group or its constituents. We also see a kind of positive and negative reinforcement simultaneously at play. The reward, a psychological high of inclusion, and the equivalent fear of exclusion, which operate at both a personal and interpersonal level.
Propaganda does two things in these situations: it reframes the stakes of the issue as inclusion or exclusion — regardless of whether this framing is really relevant to the problem at hand and often despite it clearly being irrelevant — and it provides clear answers to the question of what will lead to inclusion. It hence circumvents for the individual the possibility of there being an incomprehensible enormity of potentially relevant information. It prevents uncertainty and the associated stress.
It could be thought of as changing the meaning of the problem at hand. The situation means something entirely different to the believer of propaganda than perhaps it does in reality, or that it would have meant otherwise. It is essentially psychological abuse. The individual has an unhealthy psychological desire for exactly these kinds of ideas, despite them doing no actual good beyond satisfying the desire that the ideas themselves created, and more often than not motivating a behaviour not directly in that individual’s interest, but in the interest of the initiator of the propaganda.
And so, for example, being recipients of the idea of what it means to ‘be American’, individuals engage in mass consumption in order to conform to this idea and feel included. This behaviour benefits the individual insofar as this desire is fulfilled, but the consumption itself benefits the advertisers — the initiators of the idea. The complicated question, Do I really need to buy this?, for which an incomprehensible wealth of information could potentially be relevant, reduces to, am I living an American life?, to which the answer is simple. Do I want to consider this person’s ideas?, becomes, Should I be tempted by evil?
Our definition, a pervasive tool of social control that is rooted in individual psychology, can be updated. The individual psychology is the desire to be included in a group. The emotional stakes of this inclusion are substituted in for whatever substantive issue would otherwise be up for reasoning and decision and which could otherwise be affected by more information than could possibly be comprehended. Also, social control need not be nefarious; it is simply any way of influencing behaviour. Let’s now run with the following working definition of propaganda: a set of simple ideas that purport to provide answers to a variety of social questions that are far more subtle and complex than the idea set could possibly address, but which shield the believer from this realisation by the desire for group inclusion and the fear of group exclusion, and the belief in which are designed to cause a specific social outcome.
The outcome may be in the interests of the believers. It is possible that buying a given product is a great idea, and the idea to refuse to consider is truly evil. The motivated action does not need to harm the individual who has succumbed to propaganda, but nor does it need to benefit them. This realisation is perhaps a good antidote to the reflex that propaganda is necessarily bad or evil. It certainly can be, but this is arguably contingent on the action motivated; the connotations of ‘propaganda’ are, for most people, the motivation of indisputably evil actions.
That this is, however, a clear possibility, merits further exploration into the mechanics of the personal and interpersonal reinforcement that propaganda seems to offer. For this I will turn to, respectively, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel.
Frankl On Meaning and Happiness
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist born in 1905 and living in Vienna for all of his early life. He studied depression and suicidal tendencies as part of his final training before setting up a private practice in 1937. As a Jew, however, his professional and social standing was gradually stripped following the Nazi annexation in 1938, culminating in his being sent to Auschwitz for three years in 1942. Here, he was able to hone his psychoanalytic theories as focusing on depression by watching and interacting with men in the most utterly desperate of circumstances. Man’s Search For Meaning is partly a memoir of his observations in the camp, and partly an introduction to the psychoanalytic school of logotherapy he founded after 1945. Frankl intended this name (logos is Greek for meaning) to capture the essential idea that neurological issues such as depression and resulting suicide are often caused by a person failing to find meaning in their life. Frankl believed that happiness is a product of, if not equivalent to, the pursuit of meaning.
What exactly Frankl means by ‘meaning’ is an important, if amusing, question. I suspect that philosophical pretension unaided by translation resulted in this phrasing, when really achievement or the potential for achievement would be more appropriate. In reflecting on his own psychological states and observing his campmates, Frankl came to realize that those who remained psychologically healthiest had clear goals they wanted to achieve if or when they were freed. For Frankl, it was to see his wife and parents again. For others it was professional attainment, or an interrupted charitable cause. But Frankl believed, and believed himself to have observed, that those who fell into depression were those who did not have any goal to strive for and hence did not believe the horrors of the camps were worth resisting. Their surrender was self-fulfilling. Those who did strive, Frankl observed to his surprise, could even be said to be happy. Once the brutal reality of the camp set in, these men would joke and play and engage in incredible acts of kindness.
Frankl believed that free will was at the root of this psychological phenomenon. It is crucial that no matter how little we can control about what happens to us, we can always control our reaction. My favourite quote from the book captures this perfectly:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
And hence giving in to our circumstances — the depression of many of the inmates — is a choice that can be avoided. We can choose to find a goal, choose to strive for it, and in doing so choose to cause our own happiness.
I found this to be genuinely inspiring when I first encountered it, but I think, however, that there is a dark side to this theory that Frankl did not examine. If we require a meaning to be truly happy, then any meaning that reliably makes us happy will be intensely guarded against attack. The merit of the attack will be irrelevant; this is a reaction to the false idea that what is really under attack is our happiness.
If you have ever unwittingly argued with somebody zealously religious or political, there is a good chance you have uncomfortably experienced this. You will think you are innocently bouncing ideas around, when your conversant will suddenly seem to be unreasonably defensive and angry. You may not have intended to say anything personally insulting, and may not even have believed whatever the triggering idea was — you may have been playing Devil’s Advocate. You will therefore be confused by this sudden turn. But to the recipient, challenging the ideas forming the meaning around which they build their happiness may as well be challenging the legitimacy of their happiness; in some sense it is an attack on their personhood. The merit of the idea is skipped altogether.
The best propaganda relies on this effect. If propaganda can attach itself to a meaning that reliably generates happiness, it can create a positive feedback loop for suffering individuals; scratching the itch for propaganda will make them happy, which will make the propaganda all the more effective the next time the itch is scratched. It will also be extraordinarily resistant to competing ideas, since they will be treated as attacks on happiness and not as ideas at all. Ellul suggests that ‘inclusion’ will reliably satisfy this condition, and I think this lends weight to several of Ellul’s other arguments.
Firstly, that a key function of propaganda is to eliminate uncertainty, regardless of the catastrophic loss of real information this entails. Meaning cannot be based on uncertainty, and happiness therefore cannot be based on uncertain meaning. A political prisoner liable to starve to death or be executed at any moment cannot kind of want to see his family again, or maybe want to return to a charitable cause. They must desire this with every fibre of their being to have any hope of deriving happiness from the thought. Secondly, propaganda is rarely if ever an outright lie — it functions far more effectively as either carefully chosen truths or claims that are in principle unfalsifiable. While people certainly have the capacity for cognitive dissonance, this capacity is not infinite. Facing clear evidence of the falsity of a once-thought-meaningful claim has the potential to be disastrous for happiness and could even have repercussions for the propagandist, whom the individual may come to blame for this sorry episode of delusion. Vaguer ideas that cannot in principle be wholly disproven are far more effective. In sum, there is a very high threshold of contrary evidence that is required to challenge this meaning, far higher than for the average believed idea.
We can bulk out our working definition of propaganda: a set of deliberately vague and selectively true ideas that purport to provide answers to a variety of social questions that are far more subtle and complex than the idea set could possibly address. These ideas shield the believer from this realisation through the meaning provided by the overbearing joy of group inclusion and the instinct that competing ideas are not really ideas at all but direct attacks on this joy. These ideas are designed to cause a specific social outcome on the part of believers.
If propaganda relied only on personal reinforcement, however, there would still be the danger of only the psychologically weak being susceptible. The strong would brush it off, and could perhaps even vaccinate the as-yet unaffected. The most effective propaganda generates interpersonal reinforcement, which Vaclav Havel masterfully captures in The Power of the Powerless.
Havel On Fear And Obedience
Havel was a writer and political dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia, who would go on to become the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. The Power of the Powerless is arguably his magnum opus, if not the magnum opus of twentieth century anti-Communist political writing.
It describes life in what Havel calls a post-totalitarian world, which he takes pains to emphasize does not mean that it is no longer totalitarian, but rather than the totalitarian essence is no longer revolutionary but is normalised and exists as a kind of ‘secularised religion’. This is a good point to introduce the idea of a memetic system being either ‘centralised’ or ‘distributed’, meaning quite simply that either there is only one source of the the ideas that emerge within the system, or that ideas may emerge from anywhere. For our purposes, I think it is fair to paraphrase Havel’s claim about post-totalitarian societies as, centralised memetics is so pervasive that the centralisation is no longer noteworthy. Havel explains how this process may have required a burst of revolutionary zeal in a merely totalitarian society, but that in a post-totalitarian society it becomes self-fulfilling in a manner I describe as interpersonal reinforcement.
To do this, he uses the iconic image of anti-Communist political writing; the sign in the greengrocer’s window. The image is returned to repeatedly, but its introduction is worth quoting in full,
“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology. “
I do not presume myself capable of explaining these ideas more clearly or strikingly than Havel, and so I will simply draw some connections between Havel’s presentation and my own so far. Clearly the sign itself is propaganda, and displaying it is clearly not in the greengrocer’s interest for its own sake. The greengrocer puts it in the window in order to try to belong and for fear of what will happen if he does not belong. The propaganda offers a very straightforward idea in answer to the complex question of what to do, not just as relates to what to put in his window, but to his entire life: he should conform.
“The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquillity and security.”
Whatever semblance of internal struggle the greengrocer felt is lost on all others in the end, since all they see is his sign. Just as all he sees is other signs, which make his own decision all that much clearer in the first place. Effective propaganda relies on and generates interpersonal reinforcement: the desired effect of the propaganda relies in part on the fear of exclusion, which will be enhanced by witnessing the inclusion of others. But others almost certainly will have faced this struggle too, and so there will be a threshold above which successful propaganda is self-fulfilling. The affected will propagate the propaganda on their own, solely because everybody else is doing it too. And they will not propagate anything contrary to the propaganda — even in the sense that doing nothing at all is not neutral but is hostile. As with the heightened personal threshold for belief of anything contrary to propaganda, there is a heightened interpersonal threshold to propose anything contrary to propaganda.
We can introduce an additional characteristic of memetic systems here, in addition to the extent to which they are centralised or distributed. As well as the source of original ideas, we can capture how ideas flow around those within the system. A ‘one-to-many’ system is one in which communication only flows one way, whereas a ‘many-to-many’ system is one in which communication can flow in every direction. This may seem similar to the centralised/distributed distinction, but consider for example that a system could have a central source of new ideas, but could allow communication of existing ideas between everybody. I will leave it to the reader to consider the other combinations.
For our purposes, another way of capturing Havel’s critique of the vastly heightened interpersonal threshold is to say that many-to-many memetics is rooted out. It may exist, but only in covert secrecy and total trust. In the public space, which is not at all secret and in which nobody can necessarily be trusted, all memetics is centralised. In the beginning many-to-many is exterminated in the public sphere, but in the post-totalitarian world the fear of extermination is enough to maintain its nonexistence in a self-fulfilling manner.
But there are obvious differences to Frankl also. Havel clearly does not intend for the greengrocer to appear to be happy, or to find some kind of meaning in Communism. It has only interpersonal reinforcement, but not personal reinforcement. A simple explanation may be that Communist propaganda was not optimally effective, having extremely effective results in interpersonal reinforcement but only varied results in personal reinforcement. The reason interpersonal reinforcement was so strong in Communist propaganda has less to do with the nature of the propaganda itself and more to do with the circumstances of it being propagated. Notably, the brutality of the Soviet regime, not only in terms of creating the omnipresent fear of exclusion but also exterminating many-to-many memetics and hence the possibility of competing memes. This was required since Communist propaganda was so poor at creating positive reinforcement on account of both being dehumanizing and tending to lead to conditions in which genuine happiness was difficult to sustain and which dissidents like Havel could exploit.
Let us update our working definition again. Propaganda is, a set of deliberately vague and selectively true ideas that purport to provide answers to a variety of social questions that are far more subtle and complex than the idea set could possibly address. These ideas shield the believer from this realisation through the meaning provided by the overbearing joy of group inclusion and the instinct that competing ideas are not really ideas at all but direct attacks on this joy. These also prevent the realisation by instilling a terror of group exclusion should competing ideas be aired, ensuring that fewer competing ideas are heard than would otherwise occur. These ideas are designed to cause a specific social outcome on the part of believers.
We might wonder, however, if a similar dominating one-to-many effect could be achieved by other means? What if many-to-many memetics was not tyrannically banned as in Havel’s case, but rather co-existed with an immensely more powerful one-to-many memetic system, whose propaganda also had the kind of positive reinforcement that therefore did not require the suppression of many-to-many memetics to maintain. In such a circumstance we might expect that no matter the lack of relevance of the propaganda to the individual, the many-to-many memetics required to exploit this fact and overcome the propaganda cannot cohere anywhere near quickly enough or loudly enough to have any effect. The effective positive reinforcement would heighten the personal threshold, and the immense power of the one-to-many memetic dynamic such that the propaganda seeming omnipresent heightens the interpersonal threshold also.
Legacy Media As A Centralised And Strongly One-To-Many System
To be fair, we did just define into existence the immense interpersonal power of propaganda in such a system. Is this realistic? Ellul argues that this is exactly what we see in the West under mass media communications:
“Finally, one more condition is basic for propaganda. We have just stated again that an opinion cannot form itself in entire societies unless mass media of communication exist. This much is evident: without the mass media there can be no modern propaganda. But we must point to a dual factor necessary if the mass media are really to become instruments of propaganda. For they are not such instruments automatically or under just any conditions. They must be subject to centralised control on the one hand, and well diversified with regard to their products on the other. Where film production, the press, and radio transmission are not centrally controlled, no propaganda is possible. As long as a large number of independent news agencies, newsreel producers, and diverse local papers function, no conscious and direct propaganda is possible. This is not because the reader or viewer has real freedom of choice — which he has not, as we shall see later — but because none of the media has enough power to hold the individual constantly and through all channels. Local influences are sufficiently strong to neutralise the great national press, to give just one example. To make the organisation of propaganda possible, the media must be concentrated, the number of news agencies reduced, the press brought under single control, and radio and film monopolies established. The effect will be still greater if the various media are concentrated in the same hands. When a newspaper trust also extends its control over film and radio, propaganda can be directed at the masses and the individual can be caught in the wide net of media.”
While I find most of this to be compelling, there is a point on which I believe Ellul is incorrect. I think he was too restrictive in the conditions he allowed for the media to fall into a propagandistic role. He does not seem to consider that the dynamics of such a strongly one-to-many memetic system, when so much more powerful than any coexisting many-to-many system, are unstable and tend to collapse into one central source.
I believe this argument follows simply and naturally from the theory developed so far. We have discussed the ideas of heightened thresholds for personal and interpersonal challenge to one-to-many memetics. The relevance of the ‘immensely greater power’ of one-to-many than any coexisting many-to-many system is that memetic competition of that nature is nullified, leaving only memetic competition from other one-to-many sources. What I think we would therefore expect in an environment in which one-to-many systems are immensely more powerful than coexisting many-to-many systems is that any one-to-many systems that have competing or contradictory ideas will sooner or later come into conflict, since their differences will become exposed to the personal and interpersonal resistance instilled by the competition.
There are then two clear options for those in control of the systems, be they magazine editors, talk show hosts, news program producers, or whomever. They can fight and face extinction, since recall that propaganda does not allow for the existence of alternatives. Or they can coalesce into the same message so as to resolve the conflict, remove the threat of extinction, and share the spoils going forward. Note also that fighting will not necessarily lead to total extinction for one party, since culture is not a homogeneous marketplace of competing ideas. However, over whatever terrain the marketplace for ideas is relatively homogeneous, we are in Highlander mode: there can be only one.
And of course, this goes for more than two; it can be repeated recursively to each pair of competing one-to-many sources. As long as these dynamics stay constant for a relatively long time, I think therefore that we would expect what might start as the blooming of a thousand one-to-many flowers would slowly begin to centralize into one basically indistinguishable mass, with the only exceptions being cultural terrains that are so starkly different that the conflict is able to stabilize over the divide.
By 1962, Ellul had identified this mass as ‘the media’ (to which I add ‘legacy’ to distinguish from the ‘new media’ found on the Internet, which I will come to shortly) but I disagree with his implication that there needs to be some kind of evil conspiracy behind the agglomeration. I think rather that it is a natural consequence of the prevailing memetic dynamic of immensely more powerful one-to-many systems than many-to-many. To avoid sinking the reader entirely in pretentious twaddle, I ask them to consider the last time they remember any material disagreement between The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, ABC, NBC, The Huffington Post, NPR, The State Department, Harvard, and Berkeley? On anything? Ever? Does this seem realistic for a group of entities who all claim to be after the truth? Is the truth about everything so screamingly clear? Compare this to a group of friends, for example. Do you agree with each of your friends on absolutely everything? If the answer is no, I suggest you be more suspicious; if the answer is yes, I suggest you make more friends.
I do not believe any coordination is necessary to achieve this. I also think the aforementioned alliance of what we might call ‘mainstream’ information outlets has numerous very positive effects. I would highlight in particular the industrialisation of scientific inquiry and dissemination of its results, which surely grew exponentially in quality and productive output over the twentieth century, whatever its additional minor flaws. It also clearly seems to be the case that whenever a worthwhile social cause becomes accepted by this system, its victory becomes inevitable. One obvious example is gay rights, which took little over 15 years to go from a fringe issue for most that it was obvious and uncontroversial to oppose, to a deeply held and unquestionable belief for most.
The problem is the power this entails. With great power comes great responsibility, and I believe the possibility of neglecting this responsibility is deadly serious, to the extent that it is legitimately picked up on by groups of dramatically different political stripes. For example, I believe that, viewed in this way, the ideas of underrepresentation of minorities in media and the stifling effect of political correctness on public discourse attack this same issue, despite superficially seeming to be attacking each other.
I think both are serious issues that merit concern, but the importance of both is not where they disagree with each other, but where they make a more abstract claim along the following lines: the legacy system of centralised memetics largely dictates the range of ideas that are acceptable in public discourse. What is represented there, even unintentionally, becomes internalised and reflected by consumers of the ideas, which is basically to say all of society.
If these representations are discriminatory, this can create serious problems, whether the discrimination is unintentionally against racial groups or intentionally against disfavoured ideas. Keep in mind, for example, that it was arguably this exact complex that held back gay rights for so long before, as I would phrase it in this context for clarity, a certain threshold for interpersonal resistance was not only overcome but flipped entirely. We need not see centralised memetics as some kind of evil conspiracy to realise that its effects can still be evil. We need not even think of it as having a predetermined direction, as the volte-face in the gay rights issue shows.
I hope it is now clear that however much the various entities comprising ‘the legacy media’ insist that they are interested in ‘reporting the news’ or perhaps more nobly still, ‘searching for truth’, what they are really doing is telling you what to think. Not in some evil, conspiratorial sense, but rather in the sense that in an era of immensely powerful one-to-many memetics, if they did not engage in this activity they would be outcompeted and destroyed by some other entity that did, given that the audience does not really want the news anyway. The audience wants to know what it is supposed to think of the news, which is to say, what ideas it ought to believe. This is what propaganda really is — a particularly effective strategy for creating, distributing, and curating easily consumable ideas. For most of the history of communications technology, it has come from centralised memetics. But it is neutral as a technique. You can have white nationalist propaganda and you can have gay marriage propaganda. As there need not be any conspiracy to evil action (although there may be) there is no necessary concern over what is being propagandised and why. It may well be that most of it is entirely moral. The arc of history bends towards moral progress, and all that.
Except that it actually bends towards technological progress, which isn’t quite the platonic fantasy of the former and, it turns out, has consequences.
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