☞ Constructing Signposts in the Memescape
Making an Impact via Mental Hooks and Conceptual Frameworks
What is the best way to make a difference in the world? This is not a new or surprising question to ask. Each of us, at some point or other, have thought about how to ensure that our actions matter, such that we can make a positive impact on the world around us in some high-leverage way.
Of course, the answers to this are many. Among others, there is choosing an occupation that you feel will add up to something, doing volunteer work or giving charity, raising children with values that you think matter, and being a moral and ethical human being.
Rohit Krishnan of Strange Loop Canon recently wrote about this and explored a variety of potential approaches, settling on the intriguing activity of writing science fiction: write a really great novel, especially in science fiction, and you can reorient the mythical world that people want to live in and even build. You can see this with Star Trek, Asimov’s Foundation, Iain Banks’s Culture novels, or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
As I was thinking about all of this, however, I realized that one of the most important features of these stories is that of the hieroglyph. In an essay entitled “Innovation Starvation,” Neal Stephenson (again!) describes the idea of the hieroglyph this way:
A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
Stephenson obviously did well in terms of hieroglyphs himself with the metaverse, but there are many of these novel concepts that act as keystones for how we envision a future, from warp drive to replicators. However, while I think developing these kinds of anchoring concepts—ones we can use in our myths—is a high leverage way of impacting the world, I'm not sure they always need to be done just within fiction. Developing a concept itself—like Robin Hanson's Great Filter, for example—can be done separately and can in turn evoke a whole host of ideas, both within fiction and outside it.
In other words, I’d like to posit that creating an idea that colonizes our minds—a signpost in the memescape, if you will—is a very high leverage way of making a difference in the world. This is closely related to our societal bumper crop of mental models, which also provide a novel lens for looking at the world with new eyes. But mental models, as well as theories, are a bit too capacious in terms of the conceptual space they take up (though the Dictionary of Theories is full of these and is well worth checking out). The kind of signposts I’m thinking about are often little more than short phrases—or even single word neologisms—that, due to what ideas they have compressed within them, reorient how you see specific spheres of experience.
These are “catchy” concepts that often combine two or more words in unexpected ways, creating a mental hook for a vague penumbra of facts and experiences. And these signposts evoke a similar sensation to when you learn a new word: once you’ve been exposed to one of these, you see it everywhere. A selection of these signposts:
So perhaps this is one way to create an impact in the world, at least at the margin: work to construct these compressed ideas, and in the process rewire how people think about our own civilization (I’ve perhaps made a minor contribution to the memescape with my neologism “mesofact”).
How to begin? Recognize patterns in the world and name them. Smash unexpected terms together and see if they sing. Realize when you are struggling to describe something and spend some time just sitting and figuring out how to compress that description down into a short pithy phrase. Matt Webb has even speculated on more algorithmic and systematic ways of finding concepts that compress ideas into single terms, using word embeddings.
And don’t worry: most of these will fail to gain traction. But some will colonize the minds of others (a good benchmark: if you find yourself using it all the time, presumably others will as well). To borrow the phrasing of Rohit Krishnan (he was writing about science fiction), if done well, you can have “edit access to the brains of the best, brightest and most wilful of our species.”
So, Dear Reader, go forth and start building signposts in the memescape.
A couple links worth checking out:
Why We Forgive Humans More Readily Than Machines: ‘This simple model led us to an interesting conclusion, an empirical principle governing the way in which people judge machines differently than humans. A principle that in its simplest form says, “People judge humans by their intentions and machines by their outcomes.”’
Telling the Time with Computer Vision: “Overengineering an approach to reading an analog clock”