After Gamestop, After Dogecoin: Memetics, Mobs, and the Future of the World
8 February 2021
Last week, online mobs, Elon Musk and Doge’s made headlines when an online Tweet caused the joke cryptocurrency to bull run to a market cap of around $14 billion. Memes are funny. They stick in your mind and communicate an idea simply.
Memes = weapons
A meme is not “a visual gag”, as dubbed by the Australian Financial Review. The term “meme” stands for ‘memetics’. It refers to a unit of information and culture designed to be “hosted” in the minds of people to successfully propagate ideas.
In Snow Crash, this is known as a mind virus. Although funny, and while they can be used for good to quell disinformation, memes can also be used as a mind control technique for psychological warfare.
Memetic techniques continue to manifest in “real-life”. The consequences of targeted memes was has been widely demonstrated in the dark side of social media to undermine democratic processes. Memes also features in COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation, which resulting in very real consequences of inspiring protests around the world against public health measures.
In reality, memes are no laughing matter.
Power to the people: online lols and ICOs
This recent case follows the event of a market “pump” on the stock price of “GameStop”. It was a story of victory for the little guys, when online forums coordinated against powerful Wall Street Hedge funds to protest their shorting of the market by coordinating massive market movements by directing resources.
This kind of “pump and dump” market activity, mediated via online forums such as Twitter and Reddit have been occurring for years.
The culture inside an ICO — an ‘initial coin offering’- of a cryptocurrency is an insidious interplay between project founders and angry online mobs, all aligned by the economic incentive for “number go up” of the value of the cryptocurrency token.
This is a common criticism of “blockchainers” from other “peer-to-peer” decentralised technology projects and researchers. Cryptocurrency enabled blockchain networks create artificial economic scarcity and project a computer governed, techno-utopian future, which can avoid governance and politics. Some of this animosity between sub-cultures could also be because these projects didn’t get crypto-rich.
Of course, not all projects are about market price. The innovation of Bitcoin is that is leverages “crypto-economic” incentives to enable coordination of information across a network of distributors actors, without a central intermediary to coordinate transactions. Some cryptocurrencies genuinely utilise cryptocurrency tokens for the functioning of a decentralised network, or a smart, optional addition aimed at investors to help fund the project and benefit from possible up-side.
Consequences in cyberspace
Things got nasty. Limited accountability levers have been pulled with regulators monitoring the situation to prevent market manipulation and chat app ‘Discord’ banning some online forum groups for hate speech.
This begs the question, what does the future of cypher-physical space look like, with online mobs holding the power to coordinate to affect the “real-world” markets and people?
The cypherpunks predicted this
The cypherpunks predicted this in the 1990’s.
Towards the more extreme end of the “crypto-anarchists”; online mobs and organised cartels are all an unavoidable consequence of the decentralised-internet. The bi-product of this ranges from Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks, which are reportedly becoming more frequent, severe, and costly; to dark markets.
The author of ‘Snow Crash’ imagined a future in which cyberspace is knitted in to the reality of everyday life as the characters threaded between digital and physical life. In Snow Crash, the world is privatised. Private cartels govern different sub-sections of the city and people can ascribe to the jurisdiction they dislike the least. This paints a visceral picture of one potential near-future of the Web.
Crypto-projects are waking up to the fact that what they are doing is in-fact, governance design, in new, more decentralised and digitally mediated ways.
Governing the future
In the words of our Lord Elon Musk, memes may actually be what “controls the economy of the future”. If this is the case, we are in trouble when the ideals of “freedom” and “justice” actually arise from the “mimetics of desire”, rather than “enlightened self-interest” though the “invisible hand” of the market, or the “immutable code” of cryptocurrency.
So, how do we create a cyberspace of “commons”, rather than cartels?
There is a huge push amongst distributed web communities on governance design. People are acknowledging that “Decentralised Autonomous Organisations” are not flawless code machines to direct the humans. Permissionless digital infrastructures also cannot avoid governance. Rather, a possibly better version of what could be in a somewhat inevitable digital world.
In a world where ‘algorithms are policy’, responsible for setting and executing the rules of collective governance, the constitutional foundations which guide such policies need a north star.
It seems that Ostrom is everywhere, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s framework for governing public goods emerging as a direction for governance amongst online communities. This provides a potential framework for interacting with digital infrastructure as a ‘commons’, or a shared public good where the interests of participants are to build and maintain it, rather than as a weapon.
Gamestop, Dogecoin, and more memes are the ripple effects that continue to show that all infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, is political. But citizens of the interwebs beware, memes are a weapon in this war for mind-share and behaviour influence which should not be underestimated.
The best antidote is proven to be education. European researchers founded the game GoViral! to train students on how memes are developed, to help them to identify memes and disinformation.
Whilst information infrastructure offers individuals increased freedom, power, and participation in governance, we are still missing a code to live by.
Thank you to Distinguished Professor Jason Potts and the RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub for feedback, and continued conversations.
Note: minor amendment to a Freudian slip in the title from “Dodge” to “Doge”. 12/02/21.