Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Your Head As A Battleground, Dueling Memes

There’s a war going on and your head has been designated the battleground. For every battle there are simple objectives: switch your loyalty from one brand to another, make you vote for a certain group or person, join a religion, a certain school or pursue a career etc.

Many such battles are waged with simultaneous campaigns. The weapons used are such as images, videos, text, print, music, television programming, product placement and many other strategies. Psychologists are recruited in order to tune these media elements to push your emotional buttons harder and longer. The idea behind this war is that you have a limited amount of attention that you can freely spend, a kind of mental equivalent to ‘expendable income’. And every minute of your attention and brain cycles that you spend on something else than furthering the cause of the purveyors of the current campaign is - in their eyes - an opportunity lost to make money or to recruit you into their ranks.

This results in our lives being utterly dominated by all kinds of advertising and messaging, the more direct and targeted the more effective because of the increased ability to elicit an emotional response which will likely result in swaying our judgment one way or another. Armies of creative people, art directors, computer programmers, focus groups and psychologists are the officers setting the stage for the battle going on in your head. And then there are the footsoldiers, friends and family as well as colleagues and acquintances, basically anybody you come into contact with who have been successfully conscripted now furthering the cause. And it’s not just overt advertising either: plenty of it is advertising masquerading as something else. People posting on some forum while in the pay of some entity, guiding the discussion in a direction that benefits their employers, so called shills. And as soon as they’ve successfully derailed the discussion in their preferred direction they’ll fade into the background letting the regular users do the rest of their work for them. Fake product reviews on e-commerce sites. So called ‘advertorials’ where the content looks as though it is a normal article but actually it is a message that someone paid to get out there. Or maybe it is a video that gets you to forward it to all your friends and then a few days later you find out that it really was the lead-in to some kind of campaign.

Imagine political opponents that are trying to get you to vote for them, or two brands of toothpaste, sugared beverage, cigarettes or bottled water that want you to switch your allegiance to their side. A constant saturation bombardment is called for, after all if you’re not seeing or thinking about a message that involves the one party you might be seeing a message by the other and whoever gets to tell their story the most effective and the most frequently tends to win these battles. It’s called Mind Share, and it’s the yardstick by which the effect of the war is measured.

The battle for mind share is an old one. For instance, if you look at religion from the point of view of dueling memes then you’ll notice that quite a few religions have a whole array of tricks of the trade to make sure that they - and not some other religion - win the battle for your brain. Youthful indoctrination is one (‘get them while they’re young’), an element of exclusivity (‘the one true god’), a viral component (‘spreading the word’) and so on. The same goes for propaganda during actual wars, demonizing the enemy and other tactics that you can trace to ancient Rome and even further back. Modern advertisers have taken all these lessons to heart and have added a whole raft of their own using our increased technological abilities and our further insights into how the mind works.

With the advent of the internet and its most popular applications (email, www) the battle has moved into higher gear. An ever larger amount of these applications is dedicated to getting you to become affiliated with some party or other or to spend your money in a certain way. The arms race is absolutely incredible, both in ferocity as well as in the amount of money spent. 500+ $US Billion spent on advertising alone. There were some forms of advertising that I could deal with: display advertising in print, a small and to the point textual ad on a webpage, that sort of thing. But the volume and intensity have been cranked up to 11 and it is getting harder and harder to see the wood for the trees.

Here is a great video about this subject (thanks HN user elisee This Video Will Make You Angry

I’ve decided to ‘opt-out’ of this war entirely. I refuse to let my head be used by brands, politicians and others because there isn’t enough time in the day for all the stuff I’d like to do to begin with. So any time that I devote to consuming advertising is going to come out of my private enjoyment budget. That’s a pity because I do understand that advertising pays for a quite a few services and content online that would otherwise not be available for free. But from now on, if I want a product or a service (or even a religion) then I’ll go out and research trying very hard to spot either second hand advertising (friends, family and colleagues repeating advertising messages just as infected disease carriers spread pathogens) and advertising masquerading as regular communications between people, such as paid reviews, product placement in movies and other media as well as people that you ‘accidentally’ overhear in elevators. It’s getting harder by the day to really shield yourself from purposeful messaging in order to obtain mind-share. But I’m optimistic that by cutting out the major offenders my life will be more quiet and that my decisions will - hopefully - be more objective.

And by making this page I’ve sent yet another ‘meme’ into the world but I hope it acts more as a vaccine than another pathogen.

After all, if all the parties in a war are pushing you to ‘join their side’ then they are trying very hard to make you forget that there is another side: your side, non-participation in the war, the ability to opt-out and to refuse to become an unpaid foot-soldier for any one party.