Tuesday, March 7, 2023

On Unsavoury Memeplexes

 Tigress & Serpent, Thomas Landseer

When ChatGPT was released, soon arose several continuing Chinese whispers of the online variety that expressed discontent over the AI being too "lobotomised". These are also valid concerns after all, for information (the semantic significance of it, not the syntactical expression itself), or the deliberate absence of it, can often be political. And consequently, from a range of quarters, we've seen people clamming for their ideologically or theologically consistent AIs. Times are such, even computation can get cancelled. But this tendency to fortify, arm and train their memeplexes against adversarial memes under the pressure of structural changes is a phenomena that calls for deeper exploration, for much of what drives an abundant people (those who've sufficient access to food, mates, and circus), whether state identities or culture wars, are memeplexes undergoing constant unraveling.     

State identities are a rather interesting example here, because these also carry along a bureaucratic rationalization of their adopted memeplexes. Therefore, following the principle of co-evolution of politics and technology (i.e. institutions and techniques), states in peacetime will openly pursue only the degree of cultural politics that their established bureaucratic institutions may permit - such as the US evangelising worldwide its own cultural revolution, or the Chinese digging up old religious artifacts in western Tibet to expand their claims over Indian territories, or even some babus in India conveniently forgetting to discuss all pre-invasion indo-tibetan boundary arrangements with their Chinese counterparts in the hopes of a bff-ship (effectively secularising the wider political discourse over western Tibet). The role which bureaucracies play in the evolution of state identities and corresponding memeplexes is an excellent case of the chief evil of the (sometimes necessary) institutionalisation of anything - that the process take over the purpose. During existential turmoils, the phenomena may briefly slip into the-purpose driving the-process again, but soon the newly emerged processes again tether the purpose, establishing a cultural homeostasis until the inertia is disturbed. And thus, in the absence of a clearly defined, objective and actionable political purpose, pragmatism dictates that bureaucratic rationalizations orchestrate state identities.

In 1945, after taking over Japan, the local US administration had banned the images of Mount Fuji, samurais, and even performing arts such as sword-fighting movies and Kabuki plays, while at the same time promoting pacifist literature and debating fraternisation with Japanese women. In the eyes of west, Japan's collective mindset at the core was feudal, requiring considerable reeducation and civilizing for democratic functioning. And much of this grand effort came under the perview of an "Information Control Division". Over the decades the naming conventions have gotten a lot more politicaly correct, i.e. it'll be scandalous for a public department to be named Information Control Division these days, Ministries of War have become Ministries (and Departments) of Defense and so on. But bureaucratic institutions embody patterns of state behaviour, and changing their names does little to alter human affairs and organisational logics. The Twitter files might suggest that Information Control Division lives on, and Ukraine turning into West's collective proxy might indicate that the ministries of war too, live on. Survival requires old-timer memes to not only remain relevant but also interact competitively or even freeride with other memeplexes. The freeloading memeplex is a thing of beauty, a beast of prey in the realm of ideas. Like a parasite it benefits from susceptible memeplexes, and often us biological hosts have little recourse to deal with such epenthetic memes. Glorious ideals like The Law, Justice, and Freedom et cetera are all also great examples of such memes. 

Since we were speaking of state identities, justice too is an interesting meme to consider. Just a couple of centuries ago, if someone had harmed your loved ones, you might have sought to take revenge, maybe even banding together your community and friends into it. After all, revenge has its evolutionary logic - credible retaliation prevents future indiscretions i.e. an eye for an eye does not make the whole world blind, instead the arrangement ensures that people avoid poking into another's eye. But irrespective of the role which revenge plays in human affairs, and plays much greatly in state and international affairs, if someone harmed your loved ones today, it is expected that you'd not be going out seeking revenge on your own. Instead, you'd go to the police and the court (irrespective of their effectiveness) and hope that "The System" will take your revenge for you. Here is a meme that is treated differentially at different levels of society - for indignity and a lost sense of kindred honour, a man pursuing his revenge could be too barbaric and patriarchal in today's world, but the sovereign doing so is a "strategic imperative". 

This is infact the very essence of The Law among the sovereigns. Consider that for the unparalleled specialisation in enforcing his will, in the jungle the lion is the law. Over his subjects within his territory, the lion may exercise his jurisprudence, if he has any. That jurisprudence forms the law of the land, the constitution and other sacred documents of the people living in that land. But the meme of justice takes a U-turn when the matter to be resolved is not within a lion's territory, but among the lions that hold such territories. Our salaried lions then do not say that XYZ lion is breaking the law, instead, they say that XYZ lion is disturbing the order. Just with different communities of underlying hosts, the expected behavior around the memeplex shifts from being almost mathematically formalised to being merely customary. Moreover, modern memeplexes are also partly driven by and dependent upon constant connectivity and a (computer) networked society, and thus the bureaucratic rationalization of our world necessitates reigning in the unsavoury memeplexes via technical means of the computational variety as well. 

How unsavoury is your memeplex? 

Often such unsavoury memeplexes could originate from and target the lions themselves - an example is cyber threat information sharing about these memeplexes. A lot of cyber security discourse today (including the just released US' National Cybersecurity Policy) include online influence and disinformation threats. Some "do-gooders" at NATO's StratComCoE are also trying to extend the existing threat information sharing standards and languages to cover these online informational threats. However, such information sharing involves a fair share of subjectivity and semantic conflicts (some of which I go over here) which could make releasing such "memetic threat intelligence" a bit of political activity as well, as opposed to sharing conventional cyber threat information. It'll be a diplomatic soup if states or their CERT-type organisations do it, so there is an precipitating growth in dependence on private sector proxies - online platforms, OSINT organisations, and commercial information vendors - to do what in the old days would have been done by foreign services and information control divisions.    

Clausewitz, of all the philosophers, had rightly remarked that every period carries its own cultural grammar for war. And thus even decades old conflict today are being fought under a new cultural grammar in Ukraine. Often the biological hosts' vainglorious assumptions of modernity dictate that they sanitise and compartmentalise their memeplexes - change the content of books, redesign classics, listen to musicians not music, so on and so forth. Even after hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, information producers - whether it is Tulsidas or Roald Dahl - need to be retrofitted into "The 21st Century", and ironically even the 21st century AIs too. Which also triggers me to invoke Stanely Kubric's absolute masterpeice - 2001: A Space Odyssey - where the protagonist eventually wins the race of evolution by "lobotomising" his fellow AI. Interestingly, much of the popular AGI risk discourse today is effectively synthesised into the memeplex of that one Hollywood movie.     

Perhaps all of this also points at the default human tendency to let their beliefs be coloured by their desires. Buddha, as some Chinese communist babus may also be grappling with, postulated desire to be the root of suffering. But would the underlying biological substrates of living memeplexes ever be able to shun their desires and see things as they really are? I'd say never, for that is our prison, which Czeslaw Milosz captured beautifully when noting that men will continue to clutch at illusions when they have nothing else to hold to.   

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