The Future of Ideas

A crude version of the steam engine existed in the first century AD. It was thought of as a novelty, a toy, an interesting spectacle. It was by no means utilized for pragmatic purposes or used to jump start a revolution in manufacturing and transport. In fact, it didn’t change the world at all.

We often think that good ideas and great works automatically gain popularity and prominence. We believe that good ideas win, and bad ideas lose. Perhaps on an extreme macro scale, this is true. But it took almost 2,000 years for steam power to transform the world, even though the basic principle was known in the first century.

Such a historical oddity forces us to consider something:

What if the revolutionary ideas of the future are already in existence?

Perhaps some obscure book collecting dust in a local library is the only one that really got things right. Or what if some new age author accidentally stumbled upon the true meaning of life?

What if an unknown and minor physicist has already discovered the principle that will allow for intergalactic travel in 1,000 years?

Such “what ifs” are fun to entertain, but how can they help us?

They help us to understand that our civilization is still young, and far from understanding the Universe, or optimizing our lives through technology.

And in the realms of psychology and philosophy, I doubt we’re even at the point of discovering a rudimentary steam engine. Our most profound ideas today will be looked back on as profoundly naive and misguided.

Keep your mind open. Read the obscure and strange. Be skeptical of the popular and widely accepted.

Because when you look back at history one clear pattern comes into view:

Everyone was wrong about everything, except for a few brilliant weirdos.

How to Spread Ideas

Ideas are viral and subject to many of the same rules as any other organism existing in a selective Universe. The primary rule of this selective process being that “Success” as it can best be defined for Organic systems, belongs not to the good, moral, or even the strong.

Success belongs to those ideas which by their very internal structure demand to be replicated and spread to other minds.

“No one should ever know what I think”

Isn’t a Viral idea in the slightest, because those who actually follow its message become unable to spread it to anyone else. No wonder very few people submit to this idea, and even fewer ever discuss it.

Now, an Idea such as:

“The human race will only avoid destruction if drastic action is taken to combat climate change”

is incredibly Viral, because it implies that humans(the viral host) will cease to exist unless the idea itself is shared and spread throughout the minds of millions.

It is fascinating to observe how many great ideas sets gain almost no ground in our culture, precisely because they contain no internal compulsion to spread the idea around to as many people as possible.

The most viral ideas imply rules and behaviors in their hosts that make even the uninfected more susceptible to infection. This effect compounds the more people come into contact with the idea, and so it spreads faster and faster until the pool of hosts is completely saturated. This phenomenon is well demonstrated by the spread of Christianity in medieval Europe. The more popular it became, the less secular thought seemed viable or shareable whatsoever.

This viral principle is consciously and unconsciously used by every authority and nearly every person who wishes to transform the beliefs and behaviors of others into something more similar to themselves and their ideal.

Is it distressing to know that morality and quality have no direct relationship with the effectiveness of an idea?

Or can we use this knowledge to mold great ideas into forms more accessible and shareable amongst the individual minds that make up collective culture?

The answers to those are of course, yes, and yes. But actually designing ideas so that they spread is incredibly difficult.

When was the last time someone unknown created a piece of viral internet content on purpose?

Manufacturing virality is challenging, but understanding how these forces play upon our psyche may help us to resist what would otherwise infect us, and forever alter our thinking.