I watched the State of the Union address last night. The American president announced how great everything is, and summoned a dozen human props to prove it. People clapped, not all of them. It was boring as hell.

Fortunately I watched it with my friend simulator. I never go into these political things ungirded. I watch pirated streams on Twitch, where my favorite pundits and comedians yell insults at the government in real time. Mystery Politics Theater 3000. This is not much different from CNN commentary, except that the talking heads have the correct opinions. Of course, I would think that, because I choose which opinion overlay to experience.

The biggest surprise about this speech was its seriousness. This president has positioned himself as the class clown, the speak-truth-to-power everyman. If that sounds absurd to you, you’re not his audience. He won the office by saying the uncomfortable things that a lot of Americans secretly believe and doubling down on every controversy. The sedated statesman bragging about his successes made for terrible TV by comparison.

Everyone’s a comedian now. The journalists and pundits and politicians all compete for your belief, and the quickest way to make it seem like people agree with you is to make them laugh. Social proof: if other people find it funny, what am I not getting?

We’ve been trained to the rhythm of the laugh track: setup, punchline, audience reaction. “News”, “takes”, “likes”, reinforcing each other in a feedback loop. We must produce opinions for the content mills, and we must consume opinions as raw material for our opinions. The opinion economy must grow. The marketplace of ideas demands consumer choice.

This is where the idea of “cancel culture” formed. If your takes aren’t hot enough, or your jokes are too edgy, you’ll be boycotted by the content consumers. You will be de-platformed, your comedy license revoked. No more irony or snark. No more opinions. The audience have left the building. You have been priced by the marketplace of ideas, and your value set at zero dollars.

Only that’s not how it works, is it? The book that was just canceled is at the top of the bestseller lists. The comedians that were canceled are selling out tours with names like Sorry If I Stepped On Your Itty Bitty Feelings , U Mad Bro? , and Stop Hitting Yourself!. The president has never been more popular than during his impeachment.

Boycotts in the marketplace of ideas are as effective as boycotts in, well, the marketplace. Nobody has to appeal to the mass market anymore; in the era of targeted advertising, you pick your niche and stick with it. You commit to the bit. The people who live in the same reality-stream will stay loyal to you when you’re under fire. In fact they will double down, in a classic sunk-cost fallacy. Negative reviews from your enemies read like positive blurbs to your fans.

The marketplace of ideas is debunked, anyway. Human beings aren’t rational actors maximizing expected utility. We’re hive apes. Our minds are malleable, our realities are socially constructed. Laughter and outrage short-circuit the rationality system and aim straight for the brainstem. It’s easy to be reactive, opinionated, hotheaded. And it’s addictive; that’s why it’s encouraged by broadcast and social media alike. After all, they don’t sell the ideas. They sell your attention.

The real money is in the marketplace of eyeballs. The ideas are a loss leader.

To use an ecological, not economic, metaphor: ideas are plants, and we garden them individually and collectively. If there’s a big walnut tree in your backyard, its natural toxins will kill anything that grows nearby. Its seeds will scatter around the neighborhood, attempting to wipe out existing plants. I have an interest in what happens with “your” tree.

Perhaps that doesn’t take it far enough. We are each a forest. Inside of you are two trees, and they’re sharing resources through a mycorrhizal network such that their surface appearance of individuality belies their true interconnectedness. The communal fungal networks twining within me see the communal fungal networks twining within you. We are the landscape upon which memes evolve.

You can become exo-toxic, like the juglone-poisoned soil under the walnut. You can let a part of your soul grow so competitive that it will not allow another kind of thought to sprout. But look at the Other Team: don’t you wish they were less closed-minded? Don’t they wish that about you?

When next you get caught up in some viral opinion, notice how feverish you feel. Did you read the book, watch the speech? Are you replicating an opinion overlay? Whose tweets are you recycling for your own off-the-cuff remarks?

Remember: you don’t have to have an opinion about anything. Things happen. You can regard them, you can observe patterns, you can compare those patterns to the things you are told and you can see if they are different. You don’t have to agree with anyone. You don’t have to even know about most things that people have an opinion on. Just act totally surprised that you missed it, and nobody will notice the difference. They’re just trying their opinions on you, anyway, to see if you laugh or cringe or get hot. You’re not the audience, you’re the focus group.

The memes don’t care about you. They just want to convince you that they rule everything. But in reality, most people’s days are defined by waking up, getting that bread, and sedating ourselves back to sleep. All the ideologies competing for your mind are equally misleading, because they all deny the material conditions of being a human animal in a collapsing ecological bubble on a rocky planet flying through the void.

It’s important to keep that in mind. Especially this week, when propaganda is flying thick and fast. You’re a person, on a rock, in space. Neither your ideas, nor the ideas you oppose, are in charge. All the systems of control are falling apart. We’ve never been at greater risk for existential disaster, but we’ve also never had such great opportunity. If we can see each other as equally malleable, as parts of a greater whole, we can labor together to make the best possible future for life on earth. But we mustn’t be controlled by the ideologies that we claim, or claim us.

And that’s my official opinion on all that, trademark copyright dot com et cetera. Don’t @ me.

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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