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.)
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.
- Alpha: Might makes right.
- Authority Is Accuracy: Memes presented by persons with political/scientific/religious/etc. authority are automatically more valid than those presented by "regular people."
- Beautiful Plumage: Like attracts Like.
- Beginner's Luck: Unskilled first attempts are always more successful than later unskilled ones.
- Can't Get No: Achievement of a goal renders the goal valueless.
- Conformity Cuddle: If someone is like you, they are good.
- Cooties: Touch can contaminate, reducing prestige, attractiveness, value, self-confidence.
- Dialectic for Murder: Every thesis offered always has an antithesis which is an equally valid proposition.
- Eat Your Veggies: If it's unpleasant, it must be good for you.
- Emotional Magnetism: Opposites attract.
- Everybody's Doing It: Popular acceptance indicates objective value.
- Fame is Value: A variant of the "Everybody's Doing It" meme, this meme indicates that if a person is famous for one reason or another, they must be qualified to speak on a wide range of topics intelligently.
- Fandom Menace: If you like something more than the popular level of acceptance, you are weird and different.
- Fools, I'll Show Them All: If someone is oppressed/injured, future revenge is valid.
- Forbidden Fruit: If something's forbidden, it must be good/fun.
- Gods Among Men: Unusual and sought-after personal characteristics (beauty, intelligence, athleticism) are objective demonstrations of superior value as a person.
- Knowledge is Power: A belief that information is, in and of itself, useful, even out of context, and that this information is the property of society as a whole, and thus must be made available.
- Like a Sex Machine: Product Makes You Sexy.
- Machiavelli's Koan: The ends justify the means.
- Made of Titanium: Product contains a material or ingredient that makes it inherently, indefinably, better, even if an unbiased analysis would show that the material makes no performance difference.
- New & Improved: Product, service, or idea is better because it's newer, even if it doesn't vary significantly from earlier version.
- Nobody's a Loser: The pursuit is more important than the achievement.
- Nostalgia Traditions: Old is more valuable than new.
- Objective Solipism: My opinions on a topic are objective fact.
- Opiate: If it's popular, it sucks.
- Organic Noble Savage: Primitive/unrefined is better than civilized/refined.
- Owned By Cats: Tied to a humor response, victim pretends to be the servitor of his or her pets. This is a gateway meme for advertising; presence of meme shows target's willingness or predilection to act in a subservient role to another entity or object.
- Pariah Punishment: If someone is different, it's fun and right to punish them and ostracize them further.
- Popular Pariah: Do X/Use X/Believe X, or everyone will shun you.
- Product Makes You Smarter: Use of this product/embracing this idea demonstrates that you are objectively smarter than others.
- This Time, For Sure: The idea that repetition will leads to greater chance of substantial success (which may not be borne out statistically).
- Vanguard of the Revolution: If nobody knows about it yet, it must be good.
- Victim Validation: If someone is oppressed or injured, they are better than their oppressor/attacker.
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
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