The Meta Meme

“Sir!” Ensign Glorpl-thorp whipped a tentacle to his head, in a crude pantomime of a human salute. “Come quick. We have an emergency.”

Captain Thorpl-morp heaved his bulk from the pilot’s throne, ambling after the ensign without delay. Rungs studded in the walls and ceiling of the ship let them swing rapidly, dozens of tentacles grasping and pulling to propel them down the hallways. “It’s cultural decontamination, sir,” Glorpl-thorp said once they were moving. “They asked for you directly.”

Thorpl-morp’s third heart sunk in his chest. He’d captained over a dozen first-contact ships in his long and storied career. He’d spent subjective millenia learning and adopting the cultural patterns of new species, teaching himself to think in their language and act out their gestures. In his currently-human-tinted experience, days that started with a race to cultural decontamination never ended well.

His ship had set out the moment human radio waves first reached the Orp-orp observation arrays. Over the long decades of their journey, incoming broadcasts had slowly caught them up to speed on the humans’ rapidly developing culture. They’d patterned their own lives and command structure after the humans, updating the details every few years. The technique helped first contacts go more smoothly. Not smooth, per se; just more smoothly.

His ship was about fifty light years away at this point, accelerated to 0.8c, and the most recent broadcasts they’d received were from the 2010s. The flow of new media out of cultural decontamination had slowed to a trickle about two decades ago, however. Some sort of new wrinkle they wanted to make sure was safe.

Cultural decontamination was in a tizzy when they finally arrived. About a dozen tentacled blobs were swinging agitatedly around the top of the raised dome, long white lab coats flapping in the air behind them. Captain Thorpl-morp landed with a loud plop in the center of the room, and all eyes turned to him.

“Report!” he shouted, wasting no time. One of his favorite human traits was the way they dispensed with procedure in emergencies.

A scientist dropped down from the ceiling to land beside him. The captain recognized him as deputy under-director Morpl-slorp. He was a smallish blob, fourth or fifth in command. The under-director adjusted a pair of useless circular lenses perched on his head. That meant nervousness.

“Well?” the captain asked again.

“Sir,” Morpl-slorp began. “I’m afraid we’ve hit a bit of a snag. There’s, um…” Morpl-slorp dug a tentacle around in his lab coat, fishing out a human dictionary.

The captain hesitated for a moment, then reached out a tentacle and plunged it into the under-director’s neck. They could re-enact the scene with human cultural patterns later.

What’s going on? he asked over tentacle link. Or, well, the method of communication was quite unlike words, but he was keeping track of what they would have to re-enact later, and he would say something like ‘what’s going on?’.

We’ve had a major memetic breach, sir. The first-contact team is in cultural isolation. The men who secured them are in secondary holding, along with most of our senior leadership, who were personally supervising the encounter.

Jesus Christ. What did the humans come up with? Wait, don’t answer that.

It’s not so much what they came up with, sir, as…well…

Spit it out.

Well, um. Let’s see. You should be mostly caught up to the 90s. You know how humans have unrestricted point-to-point electronic communication?

The telephone, yes.

And, um. You know how they use electromagnetic waves for mass-distribution of memes? Radio, TV?

The captain’s tentacles wriggled in little spirals. He would translate that later as a shudder. The way they’d used radio for memetic warfare during the cold war…the humans were crazy bastards.

Right, Morpl-slorp continued over tentacle link. Well, have you read the topic briefing on the new Internet phenomenon?

The captain searched through his memory. A handful of news stories came to his mind, one or two TV episodes with offhanded references. I’m familiar.

It’s spreading, sir. Like wildfire. It’s in workplaces, in homes. Humans are building little battery-powered devices that will let them carry it around on the go. We project that decades before we arrive, over a billion humans will be connected to the internet at all times.

That was the other crazy thing about humans. There were so damn many of them. It was unsustainable. Glorpl-thorp’s own home planet had sterilized 99.9% of intelligent life shortly after the discovery of nuclear fission, and the remaining population was carefully regulated. You just couldn’t have more than a few thousand conscious entites on a pre-uplift planet without one of them deciding to kill most of the rest. Humans were no exception to this rule, but somehow the crazy ones never managed to eradicate more than a few percentage points of the population. Maybe they were just lucky.

Thorpl-morp forced his mind back to the question at hand. The humans would get around to mass sterilization eventually. OK. So this Internet is spreading. What’s the consequence? You said some sort of memetic hazard? Did they find a hedonic pump? A consumptive game-theoretic entity? It was hard to imagine a game-theoretic entity that his crew would still be vulnerable to, but it never hurt to be careful.

Like I said, sir, it’s not quite that simple. We aren’t dealing with one bad meme. We’re dealing with, well… Morpl-slorp wrapped his tentacles around himself. Imagine if every human had a little radio tower in their house, powerful enough to reach to the other side of the world.

It wouldn’t work. They’d drown each other out.

Yes. But imagine they didn’t. The Internet uses dedicated lines with packet-switching technology. Humans can talk to anyone they want, just like the telephone, but they can also talk to multiple people at once, like the radio. Average latency is measured in milliseconds. And this happened just as their computer revolution was kicking off. They can put the things they want to say on magnetic storage, and let the computer repeat it to anyone who wants to hear.

So? We have an electronic bulletin boad on this very ship.

Yes, sir. But only the communications department can make public posts. And there are only a few hundred of us.

Wait, are you saying any human who wants to can make these instant public broadcasts, at any time?

Yes, sir.

And they’re available to everyone, forever?

For the most part, sir.

Surely they have automated protections in place.

No, sir. We estimate they’re at least a decade away from having good automated content filtering, if they even decide to use it. Their pre-existing enlightenment meme cluster makes it very hard for them to understand the value of information control.

But then…then…

The scale of the problem unfolded in Thorpl-morp’s mind like a deadly flower. A billion minds, all connected, trading information at the speed of light. No filters. No guardrails.

His tentacles began to secrete. He didn’t even know what human gesture that mapped on to, and right now he didn’t care.

The whole planet was a god damn memetic breeding ground. Who knew what would emerge victorious from that primordial soup of infohazards. He’d wait and see, just in case the humans came to their senses and shut this Internet down. But most likely they’d arrive at the human system to find a few thousand surviving cultists worshiping a tangle of bad math in the ruins of their old civilization. They’d probably have to RKV it on approach.

One thing was still bothering him, however. Under-director. You still haven’t explained why so many of your staff and superiors are in isolation.

With all due respect, captain, I’m not sure I should say.

Then why did you call me here?

I want you to send an emergency transmission. Level 4 info purge on all radio emissions from the humans.

The captain froze for a moment.

It’s that bad?

It’s worse.

And you can’t tell me what it is? Can’t even describe it?

Certainly not until after the transmission, sir.

Captain Thorpl-morp thought carefuly about the question. Nobody had ever memed themselves into ideatic slavery out of an abundance of caution. Several species had memed themselves into interstellar irrelevance out of an abundance of caution, but the Orp-orp empire wasn’t at much risk of that.

I’ll put out a level 3 info purge. We’ll let the boys back at central cultural decontamination look at it and make the final decision. If our team survived contact, they should too.

Left unsaid was that if their team hadn’t survived contact – if Morpl-slorp himself was infected, and had maneuvered to imprison everyone above him in the chain of command – then a level 3 info purge wouldn’t leave everyone at central in the dark about the new threat.

Thorpl-morp withdrew his tentacle and barked a few curt orders at the ensign, who snapped a salute and swung off toward communications.

The captain and his under-director waited awkwardly for a few minutes. Morpl-slorp took off his round lenses for a moment, rubbing them on his labcoat to enhance their sheen. A few minutes later the ensign swung back in, bulk heaving with the pace of his travel. “It’s done, sir. Emergency broadcast sent.”

“Good work, ensign. Now, under-director. Tell me what’s going on. Do we need to reverse course and distribute the amnestics?”

Morpl-slorp turned his head left, then right, ostentatiously checking if they were being overheard. In the cavernous dome, they almost certainly were. The captain got the message and stabbed his tentacle into the other blob’s neck again.

Thank you, sir.

Of course. Now what are we dealing with?

Well, sir. You’ve read our topic brief on the gladiatorial meme-enslaving behavior of the enlightenment meme cluster?

I have. It deliberately allows competing memes to exist and fight each other, exterminating the weak and repurposing the strong for its own ends. It’s a powerful strategy, but ultimately doomed.

Yes, sir. We have over ten thousand comparable meme clusters in the unrestricted database, and in every case the slaver meme has eventually been overthrown by one of the memes it sought to enslave.

And? What’s the problem then?

Well, here’s the thing. You called the Internet a memetic breeding ground before, but it’s more than that. It’s a memetic ecosystem. It has different biomes that require different adaptations, culturally-distant islands that support parallel evolution, the works. We kept expecting a single hyper-fit meme to take over and dominate, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Great. So we aren’t dealing with an all-consuming meme, we’re dealing with a thousand small-fry?

A thousand small-fry with enormous selective pressure being placed on them by the enlightenment meme cluster. None of them have grown large enough to challenge it. A few of its old enemies have mutated and given it a run for its money, but for the most part it seems to be winning.

Thorpl-morp still wasn’t getting the picture. What is it selecting for?

The usual. A handful of terminal human values. Not replicating too fast or too abusively – I’m preparing a topic brief on “chain emails” that I think you will find fascinating. But most importantly, it’s optimizing for getting along well with other memes.


I know, sir, it sounds insane. But memes which push all their competitors out of an ecological niche find themselves on the wrong end of the enlightenment meme cluster. It causes the target meme’s best thinkers to abandon it, and the meme slowly starves.

What does that even mean, for memes to get along with other memes?

It’s a nightmare, sir. We have a whole stack of research papers we haven’t been able to decontaminate well enough to transmit back to central, any one of which would make my career. But the most diabolical meme to emerge from this abomination is the meta meme.

That sounded…well, humans didn’t have a concept for how bad that sounded. Their own understanding of memetic hermeneutics was so underdeveloped that it hadn’t yet affected their language.

The under-director continued past Thorpl-morp’s horrified silence. It’s a meme – technically a meme cluster, but cohesive enough we’re calling it a meme – that convinces other memes to pull their punches. It’s a bundle of arguments that reliably convinces memetic hosts which encounter it to update their existing memes so that they are better able to co-exist with competitor memes in the same ecosystem, especially competitors that share the meta-meme. Once they’ve updated in this way, they naturally attempt to spread the meta-meme.

What are these arguments?

I don’t know, sir. Everyone who does know is in cultural isolation. But it doesn’t appear to take very much. Sometimes just knowledge that the meta meme exists is enough, if the memetic host thinks about it for too long.

You’re telling me everyone in isolation is infected?

We’ve never seen anything like it, sir. It’s like an alien virus in a human movie. The crew had no memetic immunity to speak of. Junior first-parser Slorpl-vorp was exposed for less than half an hour when he started speculating that the Orp-orp meme cluster could better achieve its terminal goals if it didn’t have to expend resources on memetic warfare with the Niminian Heresies.

The tentacle-signal representing the Niminian Heresies was shaped like an ugly black sphere of hate. Thorpl-morp took a moment to reflect on the evil of the heresies, and to recommit himself to their destruction.

My god.

Yes. He sounded excited at the new idea, sir. We locked the whole thing down right after.

The captain withdrew his tentacle. “I need to consider these developments,” he said. The likelihood that Morpl-slorp himself was infected was growing by the minute. Likely it was some ordinary memetic hazard, which had convined the under-director to order an info purge as step one of a more complicated plan.

Thorpl-morp would consult with the uncontaminated, and consider ordering a purge. “Gather whoever remains outside isolation and prepare a heavily-redacted report for the senior officers,” he said. “Nobody except me is to leave this room until we’ve decided what to do. That includes you, Ensign.”

The ensign snapped another salute. The under-director bowed, then whipped his tentacles up and pulled himself toward the swirling mass of blobs in the dome above.

The captain retired to his quarters to compose his thoughts, before he met with the senior officers.

The humans were a status-oriented species, and as the highest-status being on the ship, every aspect of his life was shaped by that fact. His rooms were the largest. His bed was the softest. His rotten-food drink was oldest.

He could go for a little bit of the rotten-food drink right now, actually. The cultural analogizers had given him a bottle of amber relaxant. It had a few undesirable side-effects, like impulsiveness and poor coordination, but one dose wouldn’t hurt much.

Thorpl-morp slumped into his chair, a transparent cup of relaxant in his tentacle. What an absolute disaster. He’d probably have to purge the whole cultural decontamination staff. After that, he’d have to decide whether or not to RKV the humans when he got there, or hide in a long orbit around their sun until central could get instructions to him.

He didn’t seriously believe that the human meta meme was a threat to Orp-orp, of course, even assuming it actually existed. Orp-orp was the best meme cluster in the galaxy by a wide margin. If the meta meme was able to infect it, then it would be able to infect everything.

That purely hypothetical situation might even wind up benefiting them. Sure, they’d lose a few good Orp-orps to rhetorical tricks if they began to tolerate heresies. But if the tradeoff was that the Niminian Heretics opened their receivers to the truth of Orp-orp, Orp-orp would spread through the galaxy at the speed of light.

The risk, however slight, was that the Niminian Heretics would be immune to the meta meme. But the Niminian Heretics would be thinking the same thing he was, that this meta-meme offered an unprecedented opportunity to spread throughout the galaxy. They were so enmeshed in their web of lies, they would surely think their own meme cluster to be the strongest. If they fully understood the superiority of Orp-orp, they wouldn’t be heretics, and so the truth of things would take them by surprise.

Thorpl-morp paused. If he’d had a mouth, he would’ve frowned. He swirled the glass of relaxant like he’d seen the humans do on TV.

He stood and walked to his desk, setting down his cup. He took pen and paper, old designs from the early 20th century that hadn’t yet been updated, and scrawled a quick note to purge the ship. He said to update the level 3 info purge to level 4, and to broadcast in cleartext this time.

Then he reached into the desk drawer, producing a kinetic projector shaped like an exact replica of Browning’s M1911 automatic pistol. He put it to his head and blew his brains out onto the polished metal floor.

Written on April 14, 2021