Our brains are anatomically identical to those of early humans. If you brought a cave man to present day, gave him a shower, shave, and haircut, you wouldn’t be able to pick him out in the street. Except that he’d be the guy wondering what the hell is going on. The only real difference between present day prosperity and pre-historic poverty, is not biological: it’s our memes. Our ways of working, knowledge of tools, and cultural norms are the only reason why we live lives of extreme luxury compared to our ancestors. In fact we don’t even have to go back that far for the progress we’ve made to completely blow a historical figure’s mind. George Washington lived 270 years ago, in a time with no electricity, motor vehicles, or telecommunication, and if you brought him to present day, he might be so shocked he’d die. Tim Urban calls this the DPU, or “Die Progress Unit”: how many years would you have to bring someone forward for the progress be enough to kill them from shock. The key insight is that these DPUs are getting shorter: relatively little happened in terms of technology in the preceeding 270 years before Washington, yet we went from the Wright Brothers to landing on the Moon in 66 years. If you have a bottom of the range Android phone today, you have access to more information than Bill Clinton had as President 20 years ago. In only the past few years have we seen AI suddenly gain the ability to generate human-level quality art in the style of any known artist. The DPUs are accelerating, and likely the latest generation will be the first to have multiple DPUs in a single lifetime.
The upshot of this acceleration is that you can no longer rely on finding one meme and milking that for the rest of your career. As Arie de Gues wrote in his book on companies lasting longer than 200 years: “Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only sustainable competitive advantage”. Different memes have always had different virality factors, retention rates and tendencies to mutate. Some memes, like the ‘ice bucket challenge’, are highly infectious but burn out quickly, as they confer no real world advantage. Other memes, like certain folk tales, have been with us since at least the Bronze age, as humans remain flawed, and therefore are ever in need of age-old wisdom. Short term trends follow fashion, but the long term is governed by the Lindy effect: the longer something has been around, the longer it is likely to survive. Usually you need a technological shift: horse riding was useful for most of history, but became a niche interest after cars arrived. The advent of AI art generation is going to make horse meat out of the art world, ending a lot of historically reliable best practices that entire institutions have been built upon. The type of artist that grows up with prompt engineering, is not going to look like the artist using photoshop, just like they looked nothing like their forebears painting on canvas.
When a shift happens like this, there’s opportunity for early movers to disrupt old traditions. As William Gibson says, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed”, so a relatively small share of the market will initially be willing to recognize the new opportunity. They’ll still be living with the old memes that were true before the technological shift, telling themselves they’re still relevant. For example knowing where to buy good turpentine became irrelevant when most art went digital, just like being able to trace an object pixel by pixel to cut it out of a background is a useless skill when an AI can more easily and consistently do that for you. Memes that depart from reality can suffer rapid collapse, as the hosts they infect try to actively forget them, to re-gain an advantage. Often its’ the most dominant species in the previous ecological niche that suffers the most in the transition to a new one: they’re stuck in their own ways, and have put resource into being a good fit for the old way. There’s a relative advantage to outsiders, who have nothing to lose and can more quickly adapt to the new reality.
You have to work just to maintain: brain space is limited, and there's constant competition for our attention. Whatever new idea is being presented must compete with all the other things a person could spend their precious attention on, so only the most useful, novel, and interesting survive. As new methods are proven to work, news of their success spreads, and they become saturated. The first banner ads enjoyed a 78% click-through rate - today you’re lucky to get 0.05%. People start to block them out - literal ‘banner blindness’ - and the tactic loses its effect. Eventually new ideas go mainstream, and in some cases come to represent the opposite of what their creators intended. For example the author of Fight Club was warning us of toxic masculinity, but now the book regularly gets quoted by toxic men. At this point if you haven’t already exited the scene for something fresher, you risk being taken down by association. The key for larger companies is to not make their administrative burden too overbearing. Bureaucracy always acts to enforce the use of memes that work today, at the cost of missing out on what's next.
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