The Ends Never Justify the Memes

Viral media always has social costs

Douglas Rushkoff
Feb 19 · 2 min read
Image: gremlin/Getty Images

We can’t engineer a society through memetics the way a biologist might hope to engineer an organism through genetics. To do so would bypass our higher faculties, our reasoning, and our collective autonomy. It is unethical, and, in the long run, ineffective. It’s also deliberately antihuman.

Sure, well-meaning and prosocial counterculture groups have attempted to spread their messages through the equivalents of viral media. They subvert the original meanings of corporate logos, leveraging the tremendous spending power of an institution against itself with a single clever twist. With the advent of a new, highly interactive media landscape, internet viruses seemed like a great way to get people talking about unresolved issues. If the meme provokes a response, this logic argues, then it’s something that has to be brought to the surface.

The problem is, the ends don’t always justify the memes. Today, the bottom-up techniques of guerrilla media activists are in the hands of the world’s wealthiest corporations, politicians, and propagandists. To them, viral media is no longer about revealing inequality or environmental threats. It’s simply an effective means of generating a response, even if that response is automatic, unthinking, and brutish. Logic and truth have nothing to do with it. Memes work by provoking fight-or-flight reactions. Those sorts of responses are highly individualist. They’re not prosocial, they’re antisocial.

Not that the technique was ever appropriate, even practiced benevolently. The danger with viruses is that they are constructed to bypass the neocortex — the thinking, feeling part of our brain — and go straight to the more primal brain stem beneath. The meme for scientifically proven climate change, for example, doesn’t provoke the same intensity of cultural response as the meme for “elite conspiracy!” A viral assault will not persuade a flood-ravaged town to adopt strategies of mutual aid. It could, on the other hand, help push survivors toward more paranoid styles of self-preservation. Memetic campaigns do not speak to the part of the brain that understands the benefits of tolerance, social connection, or appreciation of difference. They’re speaking to the reptile brain that understands only predator or prey, fight or flight, kill or be killed.


This is section 22 of the new book Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff, which is being serialized weekly on Medium. Read the previous section here and the following section here.

From ‘Team Human’ by Douglas Rushkoff. Copyright © 2019 by Douglas Rushkoff. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of…

Douglas Rushkoff

Written by

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://medium.com/team-human

Team Human

Team Human is a manifesto — a fiery distillation of preeminent digital theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s most urgent thoughts on civilization and human nature.

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