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.