When everything is artifice, what is real?
Must everything really be no more than a meme?
This is a sprawling subject. I spent months pondering it, struggling to begin the writing.
The broad thesis is that when you stop cruising through your days and begin to pay closer attention, much of this life represents more simulation than reality.
Not in the sense of scientific or philosophical theoreticians hypothesising that we might already live in a simulation. Nothing so high-flown or science fictiony.
In the quotidien sense of lying, dishonesty, manipulation and self-abasement being the understood way of life. Whether and how it might matter. Then, how to separate from it and find other anchors.
Then, just after I've decided to start writing and see what happens, a slew of articles appears discussing the same issues.
They're good and in some ways they render parts of my efforts redundant, like I’m reinventing the wheel. You'll find those articles at the end here. And, instead, the now heavily edited piece that still nags to be written is what follows. It's personal.
Lies make me feel weary, patronised and diminished
In my day-job profession a magazine announces "exciting news".
It isn’t exciting at all. It’s sad news.
They're scrapping the magazine.
They say it's an 'exciting new' development, when really it's because times have changed and it just isn't worth printing and shipping paper any more. They'll focus on digital.
Everyone who saw the announcement knew the truth, but no one will ever say anything. It's understood that businesses don't speak honestly. We just accept it.
I spend an infuriating 20 minutes trying to log onto online banking. They've changed the security verification process.
They clearly need to stay ahead of the game on this, but instead of just saying so I'm confronted with a message that says
"We've made some exciting changes to your log on screen"
Not 'sorry for the inconvenience of our new verification process, but we have to do this from time to time'.
I feel weary.
A few moments later Google invites me to
"Help us build a more private web" by using their Chrome browser.
Finally, a favourite BBC radio 6 Music presenter mentions something about his show being axed.
For 16 years it's been the best musical radio show of my life.
He sounds disappointed and I am too.
Later, I find the BBC's official announcement about how he will be co-presenting another, less significant, show. It quotes him as saying how "excited" he is about this new thing that neither he nor his listeners want.
These are just examples that I'm in a position to know are lies. How many things are we absorbing that we have no idea are lies? Famously, in the case of media, dubbed the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.
It's a slightly odd experience to intentionally notice the lies we're ambiently absorbing all the time.
Like the welter of commercial messages battered into our ever-contracting minds, we're inured to it all. But intentionally noticing can feel almost overwhelming. It's that bad.
I wonder if and how this affects us. Because it seems to me that it surely must, and probably outside of our awareness.
Living with things you don't consciously notice doesn't mean they aren't having an effect. Those diesel particulates are still going to kill some of us, whether we knew about them or not.
I've never forgotten hearing about the 'nervous breakdown' of a colleague, long ago. He and his wife were having dinner with friends. She asked him to pass the salt and he suddenly screamed "you've ruined my life", fell into a catatonic state and ended up in hospital.
We are capable of overlooking a lot, but sometimes these things aren't just sliding by. Often they're being stored up. Sometimes they're eating you from inside.
That's how I feel about lying in all forms of public life; business, politics, media and social media.
But the lies are still coming. And sometimes they touch me in a new way. Like the ones at the top here did.
Everything is built on lies
There's obviously a time for dishonesty and being misled. It isn't always bad.
Consider Thin Lizzy's famously patched together 'Live and Dangerous' album. I'm forever glad they assembled a mosaic of the best bits from multiple performances and replaced some parts in the studio to create the illusion of that performance. It's entertainment and that doesn't have to be real.
But what if every live performance was essentially faked, like that one? It's complicated.
'Yes, you look great in those jeans' and all the other white lies we learn from infancy, while learning to be part of the family and then wider groups, seem reasonably benign. Although I now wonder about that too.
Lies told with good intentions are often considered acceptable.
Like the lies told in the name of 'justice'. The Healthy at Any Size trope, resulting in advertising posters pretending that some Calvin Klein underpants look just as good on a pudgy guy as they do on one with steel abs. Or this one.
Cosmopolitan magazine Wokeishly urges readers to follow these plus-size male models *immediately* (their emphasis) and it's probably good advice. Get in there now, while they're still alive, I say.
Many lies are bandied around in the full knowledge of all participants that they are lies. Lies are thus instruments for change. Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum consisted almost entirely of lies, told on both sides. The best lies won.
Trans women are women and male-bodied athletes identifying as women have no inherent advantages over biological women. These are things that their promoters know to be materially untrue. They are lies.
What would happen if everyone suddenly stopped pretending to believe lies?
It would be the end of everything. This is surely true, but also surely tragic.
I once had the idea for a comic horror/thriller.
A terrorist group puts a truth drug into the drinking water supply across all of a country's major cities. The story would write itself.
Imagine honesty in every interchange, in every situation and civilisation comes crashing down.
If you think about it, it should be strange that lying is such a normal activity.
I can only really speak for myself, but seeing and hearing lies makes me detach from the human worlds of commerce, politics and social convention.
It makes me seek to attach to that which is unarguably real. To pursue the blank slate of being. A perfect state in some important respect that's hard to grasp, let alone explain.
Adam Curtis made a film about living with ambient artifice. It's called HyperNormalisation. It sketches out the 'pillars' on which this world now rests. Readers will recognise much of it, having lived through many of the events that came to skew our perceptions. It seems you can still find the whole 2hr46m on YouTube.
Introducing the memeplex as a way to see this
The term 'memeplex' springs to mind, as a way of describing what you see and hear almost all the time.
We all think that we're arriving at our interpretations of the world independently. We think this as soon as we realise that what we're being told as children is often false.
That's the trick we play on ourselves. Daddy was lying when he said mummy isn't sad and I knew that because I could see that mummy was sad. This means I now know how to tell when something is true or not.
But really we are mostly just hosting memes; sets of vaguely internally coherent notions onto which we graft an identity.
These memes are parasitic on us. They fool us into thinking that we are more right or more good than people hosting different memes. By doing this, the memes get you to pass them on.
Importantly, they don't need to be true in any meaningful sense, or healthy for you except in the sense of giving you your ticket into 'society'. We rarely stop to ask whether it's really true that 'Capitalism is bad, maan' or 'Socialism is tyranny' because we just like people who also profess that Capitalism is bad, maan or Socialism is tyranny. The same goes for belief in God that Indie music is somehow better than machine-generated pop.
Quaintly, we are fond of 'proving' that our memes are right. That they are the correct memes.
We also fool ourselves into thinking that if we successfully pass on a meme our existence is validated in some way.
This is why people argue all the time about impossibly complex things, sufficient material knowledge about which would be almost impossible to amass individually. Yes, you did your own research on masks and the origins of the Ukraine war and concluded that <insert whatever your chosen source said>. Because your kind of people believe that.
It's hard to say I don't know in a world that fetishises 'smartness'. It's hard to say I don't care in a world that demands adherence to certain memes. You will be judged. It doesn't matter that your caring is performative and based on feelings or rooted in your hard-wired precepts. As long as you have a position that others can then use to pigeonhole you, it's all fine.
We forget that we have a choice. We rarely stop to think about self-governance, such is our need to prostrate ourselves before the memeplex.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Rarely Certain to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.