Designer's Notes: Transhuman Space: Toxic Memes

by Jamais Cascio

I leapt at the chance to do Transhuman Space: Toxic Memes as my follow-on to Transhuman Space: Broken Dreams, as I was looking forward to a chance to move away from the struggles of global powers and look more closely at how people would live in the world of 2100. As a professional futurist, it's more satisfying to explore how people live in a changed world than simply to enumerate the various new technological wonders they use. One of the most attractive elements of the Transhuman Space setting for me is the degree to which it embraces the massive social changes which would result from the political, economic, and technological shifts it posits for the next hundred or so years.

I had three concurrent goals in putting together Toxic Memes. The first was to show the various ways in which the year 2100 was a bizarre and, in many ways, utterly alien place when compared to the world of today. Radical extension of the human lifespan, the emergence of multiple species of humanity, augmented reality, and the like -- these all shift the way we think about the world around us, from the beliefs we espouse to the conspiracies we fear and the fashions we wear. I was fortunate to have numerous creative contributions from a variety of Transhuman Space players; about a third of the entries in Toxic Memes are based on contributions.

The second goal for Toxic Memes was to explore the development of advanced memetic science, with its ability to shape how people think and believe, in an information- and communication-saturated world. The result is something of an arms race between meme-crafters (using sophisticated AI tools to construct the precise phrasing of a message in order to alter opinion) and ordinary citizens and consumers (relying increasingly upon shared networks to filter out harmful memes and highlight appropriate ones); it's a battle between virulent memes and aggressive memetic immune systems. Some of the ideas I put into Toxic Memes depicting how the people of 2100 use their communication and information networks have seeds in the present; this is one of the many parts of the Transhuman Space future we may see well before the end of the century.

The third Toxic Memes goal was to build game mechanisms for crafting and deploying memes which would both reflect the sophistication of the Transhuman Space setting and feel usable (even recognizable) to GMs and players living in the present-day. In this, I based the final chapter on Memetic Engineering on Jon Zeigler's "Designer Notes for Transhuman Space: Fifth Wave," in which he laid out a draft memetics game mechanism. I should hasten to add that the system as presented in Toxic Memes diverges considerably from Jon's approach, and that any defects should be blamed on me, not him.

The memetic engineering guidelines received a great deal of attention during playtesting, and one variant emerged in the course of the discussion which I really liked, but didn't have an opportunity to add to the final text. This was the notion of "building-block memes," or "memetic modules." These are the easy-captured, one-sentence seeds of ideas which can be used to build up more complex memes, especially when used as part of a political or commercial campaign.

(Most of these modules will be recognizable from present-day advertising, politics, and religion. This isn't surprising, as these three realms are the most advanced "memetic alchemists" of our era.)

Memetic Modules

The following list includes some of the more popular plug-in modules for memetic engineering applications such as Meme Engine and ParadigmMaker 2.1 (see p. TS119). These are the commonplace templates upon which memetic campaigns are often built. The modules are incomplete -- the memeticist must fill in relevant information about the target population and campaign goals. Most template-based campaigns combine two or more modules to build up more complex and powerful memes.

The Candidate's press manager burst into the Message Control Center, barking at the hired-gun memehackers. "He's gone off the range again, talking about raising taxes. We need talking points now!" The memeticists hadn't yet become accustomed to this sort of retroactive policymaking, and jumped immediately into action. They didn't like using templates, but they needed something fast.

"Let's start with Eat Your Veggies spun with Authority is Accuracy," the first proposed.

"Can't do A is A, that template hasn't been revved to match the last Meme Engine pitch/pattern vocal tracks. The mix results in doubled conspiracy meme harmonics, and that undercuts us with the first-layer punditocracy," the second replied.

"So, let's see . . . New & Improved, instead?"

The second considered. "Yeah, that'll work. The results model tweaks up nicely, although we get a weird splinter meme here. 5% chance of spawning a temporary cult."

"Woah, look what happens when we throw in Like A Sex Machine! Big uptick in the hypergeezer vote!"

"Works for me. Let's run the process and model and ship it upstairs."

* * *

(Special thanks to Chad Underkoffler for first proposing the "building block" meme idea and seeding the list; additional contributions come from Peter Dell'Orto, K. David Ladage, and me.)

Article publication date: May 21, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to