In the early days of the internet, optimists believed that cheap access to the world's storehouses of information would vault humanity into a new, brilliant future. Not least among their predictions was that networked communications would bring the gift of understanding. People of all ages, races, and beliefs would be joined together in enlightened discourse, becoming brothers and sisters in arms.
They forgot one thing: humans are still humans. The internet did not turn us into angels, and giving people the ability to learn about differing viewpoints has never meant that they'll take advantage of it. In fact, the internet arguably led to a reinforcing of 'weak epistemic closure' among many groups, a still-extant phenomenon in which individuals and communities become stuck in arguments and beliefs that have little to no factual basis. Feodor Gottleib, Professor of Memetics at the University of Munich, explains:
"Let's take global warming as an example. Despite the vast majority of the world's scientists agreeing that man-made global warming was real, many refused to believe it. The only TV they watched, the only news sites they read, the only people they talked to, all told them one thing: that man-made global warming was a lie. Any contradictory evidence was countered with new sources that seemed perfectly legitimate at first glance, even if on inspection they didn't stand up. It was a kind of untethering from reality."
Weak epistemic closure was not a new phenomenon, but it took on a new guise as the internet allowed people to pick and choose their news sources and communities at will. The most niche beliefs could find a safe harbour online, and even relatively small communities could wield disproportionate political or economic power.
Researchers at the time understood that epistemic closure afflicted even highly intelligent people, so ‘more education’ didn't seem like a particularly useful solution. However, sociologists at Heidelberg believed that promoting 'memetic diversity' might be more effective. Professor Gottleib recounts their thinking:
"They knew that, in theory, just reading a different news site or making new friends would be enough to increase a person’s and a community's memetic diversity. But that's easier said than done! We're creatures of habit, and most people, myself included, would be perfectly content to keep to their routines and live within their comfort zones. Opening yourself up to new ideas and the cognitive dissonance that they might bring requires genuine confidence, usually born of emotional and economic security.
"The point is, no one at the time really knew how to reliably increase memetic diversity. Even worse, no one even knew what the true state of memetic diversity was — a precondition, you'd think, of any solution."
The Systemic Memome Project was an attempt to remedy that. Conceived by an amplified team-of-teams from Heidelberg, it had the goal of creating a living map of the creation, mutation, and distribution of ideas around the world. The scale of the work and the difficulty of attempting to analyse a system from the inside led the team to make heavy use of prototype semantic AIs; even so, they suffered from data collection and privacy concerns, forcing them to use public data for their first draft map in 2047.
Compared to the versions we have today, Draft One of the SMP was childishly simple and distractingly coarse, updating merely once a day. To contemporaries, though, it was breathtaking — a shifting pattern of intricately linked ideas represented by modified Ithkuil-Marain symbols. The seas, oceans, islands, and continents the symbols described were not those of physical geography, but rather the shapes of every networked human connection on Earth and beyond.
The results were clear: memetic diversity was even lower than they had feared. The drought in ideas was not confined to individuals or communities of any particular ideology or place, but seemed to be almost universal. While billions were exposed to new ideas every minute of the day through their lenses and glasses, almost all merely bounced off, leaving no lasting impression. This was not wholly surprising — we can't be expected to absorb every new idea that comes our way — but the bounce rate was far higher than expected.
Politics was one of the worst categories for low memetic diversity, with the US Democratic Party showing signs of epistemic closure when compared against the decentralised parties of the new left. But across the world, voters in general tended to be extremely unwilling to consider new ideas.
There were some bright spots. Counter-intuitively, high memetic diversity was often found in seemingly isolated communities such as universities and clubs; researchers theorised that these places helped make their members feel secure enough to consider new ideas. However, those islands of high diversity were usually short-lived, disappearing within months or years as vested interests and ideologies crept in.
With the SMP map completed, the Heidelberg team addressed their next question: how could they increase memetic diversity? In search of answers, they tested thousands of 'diversification strategies' on unwitting subjects. One strategy used AI agents to manipulate online discussions towards considering new forms of gun control; another engineered out-of-context problems in tight-knit communities opposed to marriage contracts. Yet more experiments modified memes to make them more acceptable to isolated communities, or tailored to create novel carriers for them.
To the team's surprise, many of their experiments worked, sometimes a little too well. Following some internal strife, the team decided to publish their findings. A scandal erupted, quickly followed by strict regulations that required full public disclosure of any memetic manipulation experiments. Most believed that that would be the end of it, that if people knew that 'memegeneering' was going on, its effect would be nullified; and that most people would in any case opt out.
This turned out to be false. Memegeneering continued and the technology flourished, with artificially altered memes flooding into the world. Whether they were tagged or not (disclosure proving to be less than complete) made little difference, with many people enjoying trying to 'win' against engineered memes — something the memegeneers accounted for and relied upon. Those communities that restricted their members to provably real humans fared better for a while, at least until the practice of 'memetic puppets' briefly became a healthy source of employment for those willing to become memetic carriers.
The arms race escalated. Distrust grew and some communities retreated even farther from the world. Protective memetic monitors were developed, warning people when they were at risk of being manipulated. For many, these monitors had the unintended side effect of highlighting memetic manipulation 'at home' among their own communities, leading many to reconsider their beliefs. One wonders whether this had been foreseen by the Heidelberg team all along.
Today, we take memegeneering and memetic monitors for granted. We expect that there are powerful forces attempting to manipulate the memes we see and pass on. And we hope that we aren't being outgunned.