The Crichton Effect: A Government Anti-meme
How to see the government when culture demands you look away
Far fewer people than you would expect have an elementary understanding of government (which here means government and law together), and this includes elected, appointed, and hired members of the government along with non-governmental private citizens. This most certainly includes your “politics friend” 99.99% of the time.
By “an elementary understanding,” I mean two things:
A command of basic domain knowledge. In math, this means things like the four arithmetic operators and multiplication tables. In government, this means the basic organs of government, the levels of government, the kinds of law, and how those things fit together.
An understanding that government is a technically complex and complicated domain, and that there is a lot to learn. This understanding is important for scoping and setting expectations. Psychologically, it helps prevent individuals from becoming terminally frustrated when they can’t understand their local government after a frantic evening of internet research (it takes more time than that), etc. Analytically, it prevents terminal burnout in the face of a greater-than-expected number of relevant governmental organs.
Even far fewer people posses intermediate and advanced knowledge of government.
But the curious thing is that many will not readily admit this state of things, especially about themselves or their peer group. And not because they’re fully aware of their low state of knowledge and trying to hide it—often they’re completely unaware! And this includes people who are elected, appointed, and hired into the government. It includes people who lead and participate in activist groups who lobby the government. It includes your “politics friend.” It includes the elites who are supposed to be leading our governmental, civic, and commercial institutions.
How can this be? How can people be unaware that they don’t possess basic knowledge in a domain they practice? How can members of the public who have *political opinions* so studiously avoid the ABCs of government without consciously doing so? It’s like having an invisible skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan that everyone automatically walks around despite not knowing it’s there. They just have the urge to walk around it, and if you tell them it’s there or offer proof that it is, they look at you like you’re the crazy one as you both stand in its shadow.
The answer is multi-causal, but a lot of it lies within memetics.1
Memes and Anti-memes
A meme is an idea that replicates by jumping from mind to mind via some vector2; you see it happen obviously on social media, but it happens everywhere. You can analogize memes pretty cleanly to viral pathogens. For example—
Some pathogens infect a lot of people quickly while others move slowly. Some pathogens get outcompeted by other pathogens.3 Some pathogens burn fast while others go slow. Some pathogens kill, others cause terrible illness, and sometimes they can infect an individual but cause no noticeable symptoms.
Some people are immune to various pathogens, either due to genetics, prior infection, physical health, or technology like vaccines. Some people can be healed quickly with medicine or other interventions. Some people are especially susceptible to some pathogens, but they luckily never encounter them—they can get the impression that they’re safe from nature. And some people are superspreaders, while others won’t spread their pathogen even one person further.
You get it.
Ideas can spread, have different rates of spread, be differently fit, and have trouble with various individuals and populations (sometimes for a random reason, sometimes because a population deliberately inoculated themselves against it) just as they have wild success with others.
While memes are things, anti-memes are voids around things. They are a field that surrounds a thing and makes you look away, but without you being aware that you’re doing it, or why you’re doing it. Anti-memes are thoughts or pieces of information that are self-censoring—almost as soon as you think of an anti-meme, you promptly stop without noticing. An obvious class of anti-memes are extreme taboos, especially extreme sexual taboos.4 Considering them actually causes physical pain and discomfort to individuals, and discussing them with others causes panic and questions about your state of mind.5
Anti-memes are not identified by looking directly at them (you can’t do that), but by carefully concentrating on where there is nothing, no conversation, and no contemplation, not even in your own head. You don’t find a black hole by looking for one—you look where light isn’t.6
This is distinct from simply not noticing, but readily seeing something once your attention is called to it. Like, if a black cat is lying on your black sweater, you might not see it. But if your cat does a big stretch or a yawn, you’ll happily notice it. If your cat were an anti-meme, you’d immediately look away when it moved without really noticing why or that you did, and you’d think of something else.7
Anti-memes are related to the concept of the Overton Window—the window of acceptable discourse. Anti-memetic fields operate at the opposed far bounds of the Overton Window.
People do not notice that they and others lack basic knowledge of the government, in part, because the idea that there is basic knowledge, that people should have it (especially if they’re domain practitioners), and that you can ask about it, is a common anti-meme.
I call this the Crichton Effect—the inability to acknowledge lack of governmental competence in elites, especially by elites themselves, even those in government.
I’ve talked to countless smart, resourceful people who are successful in a variety of fields. They want their government to function better (often in places like San Francisco or New York City, but it happens everywhere), and they dive into electoral politics or some related governmental endeavor. They’ll dump years of their life into political projects trying to shape the government…and they still won’t be able to tell you basic things about it. It’s a version of “Shall we learn how to do math? Let us start with calculus!” This phenomenon has consequences at the civilizational level!
Let’s look at a related anti-memetic phenomenon that shares a lot of characteristics with the Crichton Effect: Gell-Mann Amnesia.
Gell-Mann Amnesia: Anti-memetic fields in action
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect […]
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray [Gell-Man]'s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.8
This is an excerpt from a speech delivered by the author Michael Crichton in 2002, entitled “Why Speculate,” which was a speech about the contemporary state of the infosphere. It’s a brilliant explanation-by-demonstration. Gell-Mann Amnesia is forgetting that other fields require proper expertise to understand and properly explain, and not holding those fields to that standard—even as you hold your own field to that standard. It was also a dig at journalists, clearly.
The Crichton Effect is Gell-Mann Amnesia applied to government. But the Crichton Effect goes further, because government is routinely forgotten in the Gell-Mann way both by outsiders and domain practitioners. It’s a physicist reading an unscrupulous journalist’s incorrect rendition of physics and saying “ah, yes, of course.”
As to why I call the government anti-meme the Crichton Effect—I will answer that by quoting Michael Crichton when he explained why he called his amnestic phenomenon Gell-Mann Amnesia:
(I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
So how can you tell if you’re affected by the Crichton Effect? There are a lot of ways, but they’re all a kind of stopping and deliberately focusing. Think carefully through these examples and see how you feel, and what you think. Don’t blank out. Allow thoughts to flow naturally to their next implied thought.
Focusing on the void around your government knowledge
Do you or your friends think you have a good grip on the government? I doubt you’ve ever asked yourself that question in such explicit terms, outside of your own head anyway. Go ahead and check by seeing how well you understand the basics, and analyzing how curious you’ve been about the basics. Have you ever asked yourself what the basics are, really?
Have you read the federal constitution voluntarily, and can you say what is generally in it? Have you looked at your state constitution? Do you even know how long it is?
Can you draw a simple, but comprehensive, map of your local, state, and federal government?
If you had to write down all the exact steps by which a bill becomes a law, either at the federal, state, or local level—could you? Stop and think. You get a bill (for now, skip over where and from whom it comes, or even what it actually is), and then…what?
What is the law, anyway? You might have said “we should have a law that [x]” at some point. Well—what kind, and why that kind? Can it go in any book of law, at any level, or does it need to go in a specific one? How do you know?
Your locality, state, and federal government (putting special-purpose government entities aside for the moment) all have budgets. Where are those budget documents? How do they get made? How do you read them? What are the top-line budget numbers for the governments you care about?
Piercing the anti-memetic veil
So what do we do about the Crichton Effect?
This question is a specific version of the more general inquiry, “How do we kill anti-memes?” And there’s a lot one can do. Some big examples:
Spread memes that induce people to stop and focus, as a counteraction to anti-memetic fields.
Notice when you “blank out” and promptly stop thinking about things. This takes practice, but an obvious way to induce the feeling is to try to think of an extreme taboo. Remember that sort of flinching feeling, and see when else you do it.
Have courage. Cultivate mental toughness. Nourish a positive attitude. If you manage to cut through an anti-memetic field, you will definitionally be put at odds with the social graph that is otherwise affected by it, which is probably your own. You might be upset that everyone else can’t do it, or won’t do it. You might become despondent or write them off. Don’t do those things. Imagine you, like me, had multiple conversations with people who ran for office, and they told you they hadn’t even read the federal Constitution—and they also manifestly lacked basic government knowledge. And then imagine that you realized that was closer to the norm than you’d ever want to believe. That is not a time to get down. That is an opportunity! If you can figure out how to reverse that scenario on a large enough scale, you can really do big political things!
Anti-memes are unexploited opportunities for those who can help others get past them, assuming the anti-meme surrounds an otherwise good thing. Relish the challenge of figuring that out. Have grace and charity as you do it.
The Wikipedia article for memetics paints it as a roundly criticized academic field. The article to the contrary notwithstanding, I think memes and memetics are a great frame, and they are a great shorthand that points to a very real phenomenon. Many people also distinguish memetics from mimetics. For the purposes of this essay, I’m not pointing to this larger conceptual space, and in fact have scruples with it.
The concept of a meme has largely become synonymous with one of its vectors, a ~square image with text like the original “I can haz cheezburger” cat, but they’re still separate things.
I wonder what your brain is doing right now? Are you fully contemplating any truly extreme taboos, or are you just contemplating a hazy cloud with the words “extreme taboos” stuck on it? What happens if you try to concretize that?
Like memes and viruses, anti-memes affect different populations differently. So there is no master list of anti-memes that prevail equally, everywhere (unless there is, and that list is surrounded by an anti-memetic field so strong that I can’t get through it…).
Or where gravity is insane, but you get what I mean.
For a full treatment on the subject of anti-memes, I can only recommend the wonderful science fiction book There is No Antimemetics Division.