"Tivo-ifies the web" Paul Kedrosky

Zeitgeist and the Threat of Dangerous, Pandemic Internet Memes.

The comments thread under my rant against the execrable Zeitgeist has taken on a life of its own. Most people are clearly cranks, but a few are curious as to why I think such a seemly amateur and relatively unimportant film is worth talking about at all.

Rather than discussing the details of the film, which for me is like a chemist arguing with a priest as to whether you can turn water into wine by saying a prayer, I am more interested in the general pathology of conspiracy theories on the Internet (Perhaps this would be a good topic for some second-rate liberal arts degree).

The ability to travel to new continents created pandemic disease that wiped out many aboriginal Americans. The web has created a potential for diseases of the mind to spread more rapidly across continents than ever before. It is reasonable to take seriously the threat of idea pandemics caused by false ideas, spread via any new and powerful medium. The Rwandan genocide was triggered by the more traditional and less virulent medium of radio, as Hutus spread rumors that they would be attacked by Tutsi. I suspect that it is theoretically possible that an idea could spread via the Internet and translate into large scale violence, and that we should be on the look out for Internet memes that could mutate into malignant forms, just in case.

Current viral ideas on the Internet are largely benign, if bland or tasteless, from cuddly animals (LOLcats) to people drinking each other’s shit (2 girls one cup). Looking at the statistics from YouTube, conspiracy theory clips are extremely popular and increasingly so. Many of the ideas in these are only a few plot changes away from resembling those that have triggered violence, historically. Zeitgeist is a prime example.

Zeitgeist has three main segments: religion, 911 and central banking. It suggests that these are all part of a grand conspiracy.

To recap my problems with the three individual components of Zeitgeist:

The religion bit: the majority of the material appears to come from a single source: ‘The God Who Wasn’t There’, much of the same footage is used (even the stuff for artistic effect, e.g. the biblical silent movie) and its sources are quoted i.e. secondary rather than primary sources. It not only doesn’t add much from from the original material, and hides what appears to be the primary source, but gets some things wrong – something that suggests plagiarism. Just because religion is bogus doesn’t mean Zeitgeist is correct.

The 911 conspiracy theory portion can be dismissed most effectively by appeal to Occam’s razor, and has been extensively debunked by people like the BBC. However, like the religious ideas that Zeitgeist refutes, no amount of debunking of Zeitgeist will ever work, because people believe Zeitgeist, like some believe in Intelligent Design, i.e. for emotional rather than rational reasons. In fact the BBC itself is a popular conspiracy theorist boogie man. With 911 Zeitgeist takes a recent event and suggests it was a conspiracy. All major events from the moon landing to the JFK assassination have highly developed conspiracy theories for the same reason that Mystery and Thriller is a movie genre. Ironically a movie like Zeitgeist exists for the same reason that religion exists: many people want to believe in it, because it is entertaining.

The last part is the most disturbing. There is a type of conspiracy theory that seems to self-emerge when people have fears about outsiders controlling money. This idea has arisen in different countries in different guises for centuries. An example in the last century would be the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery that played some role in the horrible violence wreaked on European Jews. Since European Jewry was blindsided by virulent anti-semitsm at a time of economic turmoil in the very places (Berlin, Vienna) where Jews were most assimilated and felt most safe, it makes sense to be vigilant against a repeat. I am uneasy that a variant of this idea is extremely viral on the Internet, in the country whose largest city (New York) best approximates Vienna in the 1920s in terms of Jewish assimilation. If one believes that memes are more than merely analogous to genes, then the last part of Zeitgeist is a single mutation away (saying the Federal Reserve is a Jewish conspiracy of the Rothschilds, for example) from, violence inciting, anti-semitism.

Taking Occam’s razor to the three strands together: just as Darwinism shows that complex actions can self emerge, without a designer, I believe that complex human actions can evolve without a conspirator. Things like religion, 911 and the Federal Banking system happened because people think and act in a certain way, a co-ordinated conspiracy of the type Zeitgeist alleges is far more complicated and unlikely. If the world required conspiracies for religion to take hold, it would be entirely secular.

Further, just as complex genes can self emerge, complex memes can self emerge, and ideas which are false but seductive will survive as viruses, spreading amongst the true but boring. The religion that Zeitgesit would have us believe is a conspiracy is one of these self-evolved viral memes (rather than a deliberately designed idea), but there is a another here. Zeitgeist itself is a viral meme, a false idea (that religion, 911 and the US banking reserve are an age old conspiracy of elders) that spreads naturally amongst minds primed to give in to entertainment over reason.

FEBL, religion

17 comments on “Zeitgeist and the Threat of Dangerous, Pandemic Internet Memes.

  1. Mike says:

    It’s unfortunate that you are so far off with this post.

  2. dveej says:

    Yes, I agree with Mike’s comment above: I would like to turn this around and ask: Why is it that people are not open to the possibility that several healthy young men of Sa’udi origin, with happy lives and relatives and families, were so keen to kill themselves? Start with that premise, and question it. Then think on what pressures could be brought to bear on such young men (i.e. threats to family members…?), and then ask yourself: Would any government do such a thing to concoct such an event?

    I got that far, and my answer, based on simple knowledge of widely accepted historical facts, was: Fuck, yeah, they would. Those motherfuckers would do ANYThING.

    Not just a particular government, either. I firmly believe that the higher up one gets within a hierarchical society, the more one is coopted to break commonly accepted rules of ethics and morality in the name of patriotism, religion, or the welfare of whatever tribe such strivers are trying to make themselves more a part of (i.e. New England Old Money tribe, etc.).

    And then I ask myself: What part of all that don’t people like you understand?

    The crowning laughable part of your post here is saying that the BBC has debunked anything at all.

    The BBC is the most blatant and unsubtle spin-mongering Soviet-style propaganda machine I have ever read. Example: every single BBC post with any China-related content at all is a plain effort to get Beeb readers to resent and fear China. I challenge you: find a counterexample.

    That, plus the fact that the Beeb is so bad on so many other issues, like science reporting, and so devoted to cultivating the emotional reactions of its not very analytical readers, is sufficient to debunk any claim that the Beeb ever debunked anything.

    Anyone who cites the BBC as a debunking authority should have her/his skeptic’s card taken away.

  3. Justin says:

    A friend sat me down and made me watch this “amazing” movie recently. I recognized the entire first section as wholesale lift from (the much better, funnier) God Who Wasn’t There, was uncomfortable throughout the 9/11 portion, and was horrified when we reached the part about scary international bankers.

  4. ronnie says:

    The comparison of virulent ideas spread by mediums to pandemics destroying cultures very interesting. A recent example of the false ideas taking root and altering reality could be the linking, through intimation, of the events of september 11th to iraq. it has taken several years to lower the percentage of the american population who believed saddam hussein was somehow responsible. sadly, man on the street polls might reveal many still believe that’s why iraq was invaded.

    just an example of how an erroneous idea, cleverly manipulated, can take over the rest of the message.

  5. admin says:

    Great point. And its hard to argue that there wasn’t a large degree of deliberate and cynical deception in connecting Iraq to the Saudi militant attack on 911.

    I do, however, think that people are better manipulators when they believe their own lies or are encouraged by inputs from others. I think both played a part in the Iraq war, where the balance of all the voices whispering in the President’s ear tipped in the extreme Neo-Con’s favor. In other words there was less active conspiracy, more a shift in the center of gravity of opinion which passively affected the outcome.

    This is a simpler, but no less alarming, explanation of what appears to be conspiracy but is, in fact, just the way that people behave when they think alike.

    Rather than people actually making independent decisions, I suspect that the environment allowing for those decisions to be made changes from time to time, to suit the balance point between various interests, oil, money, fear of terrorists, whatever. A big event like a terrorist attack disrupts the status quo. This moves the equilibrium point for consensus to a new location in the mathematical fitness landscape that represents ideas that will inevitably be adopted, without people even knowing they are conspiring.

    Given that those in government are influenceable people with a mixture of day to day rational behavior and degrees of competence, combined with emotional and irrational beliefs, such as a living Bronze Age sky god, the outcome is sometimes clearly a mixture of mutual self-interest justified by utter nonsense.

    Just as before Darwinism, people could not accept the complexity of life without a designer, I suspect that people find it hard to swallow complex, concerted action without a knowing conspirator.

    But this would be the inherent nature of the indirect, apparent actions of selfish memes.

  6. Russell says:

    When attempting to debunk any popular conspiracy hypothesis, it is vitally important to simultaneously acknowledge that people in positions of power do conspire and they do play seriously dirty. Otherwise, by simply labelling all conspiracy theories as just crazy paranoid fantasy we run the risk of colluding in an equally dangerous myth, the myth that people in power are too incompetent to be truly dangerous, and the myth that there are no powerful puppeteers.

    I’d be curious to know if there are any major conspiracies or false flag events that you acknowledge to be true or potentially true?

    The Lavon affair? The Reichstag building? Russia 1999? Nixon?

    When I think of Watergate, for instance, I’m reminded that it was down to the sheer tenacity of just 2 journalists who wouldn’t let go. Just 2 people against the full force of the opposition’s attempts and threats to silence them. How easily the opposition might have succeeded and the truth might never have been made public.

  7. Lloyd says:

    There is a lot of crap out there. There are wacko conspiracy theories of all different flavors online. The problem for the casual observer is: It’s not obvious that anyone is telling the truth. For instance: Do I trust the judgment (or honesty) of the NYT’s editors after the Judith Miller brouhaha? (Answer: No.)

    To go from the realization that our betters sometimes lie to us (or, more charitably, can’t discern truth from lie), to accepting that malign shapeshifting reptilians created Christianity, masonic lodges and fiat currency in order to suck the life out of humanity … well, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of yarn.

  8. Tim Hayes says:

    The “conspiracy theory,” oddly enough, seems often to be a source of comfort for those who believe in it. I say it is comforting because, for believers, “The Conspiracy” plays a role similar to that of god within theistic circles. The Conspiracy anthropomorphizes chaos by attributing agency and intentionality to that which — as you say — “self-emerges.” Certainly people conspire; certainly the powerful set certain chains of events in motion. However, to attribute to the powerful the kind of omniscient world-mastery necessary to construct and execute any of these grandiose, theory-of-everything-style conspiracies is simply delusional. The conspiracy theory believer naively seeks out Oz behind every curtain but comes up perpetually empty. In the absence of empirical data, abstruse and meandering logic is often employed as a surrogate form of validation. The believer needs The Conspiracy because it puts a human face on everything and simplifies existence into a very basic binary: us versus them. Believers in the conspiracy define themselves against the conspirators as early Christians, say, would have defined themselves against the Romans. In short, The Conspiracy creates a world of Good vs. Evil. It is The Conspiracy which brings the dualistic impulse to fruition. One understands the source of evil in the world — and it is human. This is profoundly comforting for some; it makes sense of human suffering and seems to suggest the possibility of transformation. The notion of “self-evolved viral memes” is disturbing to some because it suggests that networks of parasitism “just happen.” This is totally unsatisfying to a certain type of mind — namely, the religious mind. It is for this reason that I interpret the Conspiracy Theory (and here I’m talking about the TOE-type Conspiracy Theory) as a basically religious phenomenon. It’s another manifestation of that old human impulse that explained Job’s suffering in terms of a back-room gamble between God and Satan (or the Accuser).

  9. Les says:

    Tim–i think you make an excellent point about the dualistic impulse and how the complexity of the world is reduced to a simplistic binary of us vs. them. but in the present day context, what makes that so disturbing, as Dave points out in his original post, is that after a certain point, conspiracy theorists, or those who take them seriously, go looking for a scapegoat, someone they can blame for their problems, and, under the right conditions, say a much more serious economic downturn coupled with a humiliating political or military failure abroad that would unleash feelings of wounded national pride, then the conspiracy mentality, that “us vs. them” mindset you mention can very easily morph into a reactionary populist or semi-fascist movement. and in my humble opinion, that’s the danger, and that’s what is really at stake. and Dave is also correct when he points out that anti-semitism is on the rise and not just on the internet and that (among some other things) is always an indicator of what could be some very bad shit ahead. but, in that eventuality, we would be looking at something than just “memes.”

  10. admin says:

    The point that Tim makes is a very interesting, and I haven’t heard it expressed in that form: that people prefer Conspirators or personal Gods because it ironically makes the supernatural human. We create God and the Devil in our own image, if you like.

    I like it, makes sense.

  11. Russell says:

    With regard to sources of comfort, we should also include the danger of people finding comfort in feeling superior in their beliefs. It can be especially comforting to regard “others” as simply being naive or crazy etc etc. Feeling superior is more addictive than Crack.

    (By the way, I ought to add, in case anyone is making assumptions, I don’t like the Zeitgeist movie. And when it comes to events like Kennedy’s assasination or 911, the point is I just don’t know who was involved. But I do know that power corrupts people.)

  12. Russell says:

    When it comes to thinking about the possibility of there being a Wizard of Oz pulling the strings behind certain events, it’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves that Politics and Corporations are arenas that contain a disproportionate number of functioning psychopaths.

    for instance: “British research suggests that up to 50 per cent of business managers could have psychopathic or similar tendencies. The study carried out by the British Psychological Society says such managers are often articulate and confident, but can be unpredictable, self indulgent and lacking in empathy. Psychology Professor Adrian Furnham says manipulative characteristics are often rewarded in the business world.

    “Beware of the following individual, the good looking, educated, articulate and very bold and self confident leader,” he said. “If somebody says to you ‘I can take this company to the next level’ beware, it might be a manifestation of narcissism rather than ability.”


  13. zaratrusta says:

    there are critiques you can make on zeitgeist.
    there are many conspiracy theory classic cliches in it.
    there’s even, ironically, a fair amount of manipulation of truth.
    all of that is more or less obvious to any reasonable and informed person, so pointing the obvious is… pointless.
    trying to fight it with such arguments is like trying to fight terrorism with war. rather, you have to understand where its motivation comes from, and why people are so desperate to buy into such conspiracies. THAT despair is very real, very authentic. the new millennium started out as a millennium of fear and greed, and of great disappointment towards governments and above all: a general sense that we are not governed by actual PEOPLE but soulless corporations.

    that precise sense of drifting, insecurity, corruption and inhumanity is the true reason for the success of zeitgeist.


  14. B. Consistent says:

    “Just because religion is bogus doesn’t mean Zeitgeist is correct.”

    And just because Zeitgeist – or any expression of conspiracy theories – contains absurd and/or repugnant statements doesn’t mean any and all 9/11 doubt (much less any and all suspicion of conspiracy) is “pathological.”

    cf. http://www.antiwar.com/spectator/spec30.html

    Wake up.

  15. B. Consistent says:

    [Edited for clarity]

    “Just because religion is bogus doesn’t mean Zeitgeist is correct.”

    And just because Zeitgeist – or any given expression of conspiracy theories – may contain absurd and/or repugnant statements doesn’t mean any and all 9/11 doubt (much less any and all suspicion of conspiracy in general) is “pathological.”

    cf. http://www.antiwar.com/spectator/spec30.html

    Wake up.

  16. B. Consistent says:

    “It is not that modern history is the invention of an esoteric cabal designing events omnipotently to suit its ends. The implicit claim, on the contrary, is that a multitude of conspiracies contend in the night. Clandestinism is not the usage of a handful of rogues, it is a formalized practice of an entire class in which a thousand hands spontaneously join. Conspiracy is the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means.”
    –Carl Oglesby, President of Students for a Democratic Society,1965-1966

  17. aikowest0002 says:

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