Today's post, Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilization, was originally published on 16 March 2007. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

As a side effect of evolution, super-stimuli exist, and as a result of economics, are getting and should continue to get worse.

(alternate summary:)

At least 3 people have died by playing online games non-stop. How is it that a game is so enticing that after 57 straight hours playing, a person would rather spend the next hour playing the game over sleeping or eating? A candy bar is superstimulus, it corresponds overwhelmingly well to the EEA healthy food characteristics of sugar and fat. If people enjoy these things, the market will respond to provide as much of it as possible, even if other considerations make it undesirable.

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This came up in passing at the last London meet: a human-crashing meme as existential risk. I suggested that there are lots of very smart people working all the time to mirror other humans well enough to write utterly virulent memes to sell them toothpaste, and that scientific knowledge of cognitive biases would likely help this, but I did not think it would make the resulting memes dangerous (or even significantly more powerful) - using memes (with everything else we apply) to convince the other chimp to give you the fruit is one of the things we're specialised to, after all.

Then someone noted that if a human-crashing meme came along, it would be on 4chan tonight and "Basilisk of the Day" on Encyclopedia Dramatica tomorrow ...

(Remember, all those years ago, when you were shocked by Goatse?)

An important thing to remember about memetic basilisks is that, uh, they don't exist. Except possibly on a tuned individual basis. The motif of harmful sensation is a common trope in fiction, but I know of no real-life examples that are just information.


The motif of harmful sensation always intrigued me. My go-to "cached" example for this is the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, where properly-configured static can be used to "crash" a human's brain. I would guess that that type of thing, rather than the examples of people who have died laughing is what you're concerned about.

It doesn't seem obvious to me that a human-crashing meme would be able to spread though. Memes become viral because people spread them by showing them to other people around them and repost them to more and more places. If a human-crashing meme actually existed, (I think) it would be too virulent to spread effectively, much like how the most virulent of traditional diseases cannot spread effectively because they kill their hosts too quickly (the canonical example being Ebola, if memory serves).

Anyway, the death from laughter is an example of a meme that killed, albeit on an individual basis and without likelihood of becoming a true threat.

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As I noted, crashing individuals is often possible. (c.f. the forbidden post, and the valley of bad rationality.) But something mass? As you note, it just doesn't work epidemiologically.

Of course, bad ideas spread quite effectively, as long as they don't kill their host.


Thanks, I hadn't read those before.

That's an interesting observation; I would think that in most cases good ideas would out compete bad ideas if they deal with the same subject (flat earth, young earth creationism), but obviously people hold many irrational ideas all the time. Could the analogy of irrationality as a memetic disorder be usefully extended? (I have read the sequence article about reason as an 'immune system' for the mind, but it seems as though the concept could be expanded.)

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Could the analogy of irrationality as a memetic disorder be usefully extended?

Memes such as religions and New Age beliefs often contain anti-epistemology so as to stop people thinking too hard about them not actually making sense.

The motif of harmful sensation is a common trope in fiction, but I know of no real-life examples that are just information.

You are famiiliar with Nick's "information harms" paper?

Not deeply, but I reread it just now and it appears to say nothing whatsoever about the motif of harmful sensation per my link nor about the concept of memes that would crash humans. Could you please quote the bits you were thinking of as being relevant?

Um, the whole paper is about harmful sensations. It is about how gaining information can cause harm - and gaining information is mostly done through the senses.

The "motif" as folks tried to outline it in the dead Wikipedia article referred mostly to tales and mythology in which otherwise normal acts of observation resulted in extraordinary results. (The article had no sources so it was nuked, and I liked it despite the terrible name, which is why "harmful sensation" is on my google watch. I'm actually tickled pink whenever someone references it in a paper because it means it's one step closer to getting back into Wikipedia :D) The prime element in mythology and legend is supernatural. Arguably this applies to fictional advanced science, as per Clarke's third law it is indistinguishable from magic.

The minute the harmful sensation and its results become explicable or rational, it's just normal sensation with a harmful outcome. Gloomy Sunday, as the "Hungarian Suicide Song" is a good example of the motif in urban legends because it was believed to have an extraordinary power to drive people to suicide, but was ultimately found to be responsible for none. The concept is inextricably linked with fiction and, I would say, our fear of things we cannot really control. (The minute you glimpse the gorgon, or catch a strain of the siren's song...)

(I actually am not sure I consider the Evil Eye to be an example of the motif, versus an active curse. If the eye or the giver of the look is magical somehow, I would tend to call it a curse, rather than harmful sensation. If the look bestows a curse via the nature of the look itself - that is normally benign - then it would be an example.)

There are easily arguments to the contrary, but I think that the VALUE of this concept lies in fiction. For example, if it is not focused on extraordinary results, you simply have a fancy name for "Things that encourage us decide to do self destructive things." Cheeseburgers taste awesome, and they make me fatter, but that's not something I want examine in literature, or compare to Lovecraft's Necronomicon.

You're (and it's) not talking about what we're talking about here. The title of this post is "Superstimuli and the Collapse of Western Civilisation", and Nick's paper has nothing to do with that sort of poison meme that I could see. Not everything fitting the words "harmful sensation" is an example of a superstimulus, a human-crashing meme or even of the motif (trope) of harmful sensation - and the latter may fade into mere bad information, but is nevertheless not the same thing.


Some broken links in the post:

"three" -

"You can see how this problem could get a lot worse." - (was mentioned in the comments but still not addressed)