“Alexander Hamilton is one of American history’s most luminous figures…Yet in 1804 this brilliant man did something that by today’s standards was astonishingly stupid.” – Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature
As fans of the hit musical Hamilton know that astonishingly stupid thing was that Alexander Hamilton engaged in a duel with Aaron Burr. As Pinker points out, the source of Hamilton’s stupidity was that he obeyed old cultural intuitions in the face of radically changed technology. Dueling to first blood with a fencing foil is one thing. Dueling to first blood with a giant musket ball is virtual suicide. The old adage that you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight is reversed in the case of dueling at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The reason dueling was so deadly was because people were bringing guns to knife fights. Eventually, the insanity of this practice would cause the practice of dueling to be laughed out of existence.
Well, history may not repeat itself but it certainly does rhyme and once again supposedly brilliant men and women are obeying cultural norms that were long ago made obsolete by technology. As someone who observed those norms as recently as nine months ago, I don’t blame them. For years, I brought a book list to a meme war. And that I now realize is insanity. The world has changed and the sooner we all accept that the sooner we can get busy fixing it. We are now living in World War III.
Of course, some people have already embraced this. Namely, the friends of Pepe.
ISIS produces the slick online magazine Dabiq and a whole host of easily shareable internet-compatible material.
Meanwhile, for the last four years, I’ve co-hosted a podcast that interviewed academics like Steven Pinker and then asked people to read their books. These books are hundreds of pages long, full of academic citations and written in the driest of prose. And, at a certain point, it just became blindingly obvious why so many bad ideas were winning out. The people driving them were using far more powerful information technologies.
This is another pattern of history. New technologies are often exploited first by people on the outskirts of society. Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran in large part because he was the first person to exploit the cassette tape. He could record his message from exile in Paris, smuggle in one tape and then have that message duplicated millions of times. Martin Luther was not the first person to challenge the Catholic Church but he was the first to do so with access to a printing press. The result is that he and his allies were able to flood Europe with millions of pamphlets. And JFK beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential election because he understood the power of television. Now, a whole series of previously marginal voices have exploited the internet to win hearts and minds without respect for national borders or traditional norms of public discourse. Where then does this all lead? Here again the late, great media scholar Marshall McLuhan was prescient.
Each medium contains a message. Television contained the message that some people were stars and that it was the job of the rest of us to sit around the boob tube and passively consume their words. The message of the internet though is different. It is that everyone gets a voice and that the nation state is increasingly irrelevant. ISIS does not worry about national boundaries when recruiting. The anti-globalization crowd coordinated freely to oppose Brexit and support the election of President Trump. The seemingly brilliant men who fill our universities and write the great books of our time are behaving in ways that by today’s standards are astonishingly stupid. They continue to bring books to a meme war. The history of warfare is littered with combatants who stubbornly clung to old formal rules rather than embracing the new standards of conduct. At some point, we’ll all realize that the old tried and true cavalry charge makes no sense in the face of machine gun fire.
Of course, the very idea of a meme war seems a little silly. No blood is being spilled. And, clearly, the people who make memes about meme wars are doing it with tongue firmly in cheek. Moreover, I have personally lost faith in the idea of bad people. There are a lot of people who have some sort of personal trauma or who haven’t had access to travel or good educational or employment opportunities. The combatants in this meme war then aren’t people. They’re ideas. They’re stories. They’re dueling narratives. And a book cannot effectively outcompete a meme, a gif or a short, funny video in the daily battle for our attention. The goal then is for all of us to spark reflection in each other about what we believe and why. To do this, we must be realistic about each other’s lives. We are busy. We have little time. A lot of us are pretty stressed out right now in part because technology is bringing about a jobocalypse. And so, we need an organization that can help our fellow humans out by finding the signal in the noise and by breaking those ideas down into bite-sized chunks that are easy-to-digest and fit into our busy lives. At Mixed Mental Arts, we call this organization NISIS. That’s pronounced Nice-is and we’d love to have you join. This is our flag.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be launching the Mixed Mental Arts belt system that synthesizes the hundreds of books we’ve promoted over the last four years into NINE sentences. It’s nine simple ideas that form the foundation of a better more productive worldview. The goal is ultimately to get humanity past the sort of easy certainty peddled by Fundamentalists like those in rival organizations like ISIS so we can all join humanity’s first family dinner in a spirit of exploration. Why do I believe what I believe? Where did those ideas come from? Why do other humans think so differently? I wonder if maaaaaaaybe we could both have a point and we could all learn from each other. The goal is to get everybody to realize the awesome opportunity offered by Humanity’s First Family Dinner. We all get a voice. We all get to tell our story. And what we all really want is to be heard. Of course, the more dramatic way to look at Humanity’s Family dinner is as a guerrilla information war. Choose whichever narrative you prefer.
Brilliant men who bring guns to a knife fight are as idiotic as brilliant men who bring book lists to a meme war. And so, #NISIS was born.