What Do Your Ideas Want From You?
99% of people are being used by their ideas, buy my course so you can be used by mine instead.
If I had a dollar for each time I’ve been asked what piece of writing has been the most influential to my thinking, I’d have…exactly zero dollars. This is good, because I probably wouldn’t be able to give you an answer anyway. Influences kinda melt into each other with time.
But there are a few that I end up sharing quite often, and there’s a non-exhaustive list of them here. Among them, there is one that I’ve posted to Twitter on at least half a dozen different occasions. It’s by Roger’s Bacon, and it’s called Ideas are Alive and You are Dead.
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It’s a great essay, with a simple premise: ideas are living creatures, and we are their hosts. In some ways, I believe this is literally true. Or at least, it explains a lot. The idea (heh) that ideas want to inhabit minds that make for good habitats could make for a book’s worth of writing on it’s own. But Roger’s essay goes beyond Dawkins’ idea of the meme, which concerns itself primarily with replication.
In the meme framework, what ideas want is pretty simple. They want to survive and spread, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Like bacteria. But if they were truly alive, with consciousness, personalities and agency, why then, they’d want to do a lot more than just exist.
This is a post about ideas and their personalities, what they want, how they’re used, and how they use you.
ideas that are pretty
They’re usually really simple, and fit perfectly into a couple sentences. They use the right words, cute inversions, elegant frame shifts. Anything to get the idea to fit the mould of conventional intellectual beauty.
Sometimes this is fair because they are truly deeply beautiful ideas. Other times, they’re just…pretty ideas. You can spot them from afar, by their aura of unashamed reductionism and the whispers of “beautiful in it’s simplicity” that follow their arrival.
There should be a word for this particular rhetorical trick. A way of getting seduced by frameworks that *sounds* great. It’s the seduction of cadence and symmetry. It’s like poetry overtook logic, and rhythm replaced thought. -Rohit Krishnan
Over time, I’ve learnt to be suspicious of them, but I don’t particularly recommend doing this. You have a right to let pretty things take over your reason.
Example: All good tweets.
ideas that explain the world without even trying
They start out being a polite guest, seemingly basic and unassuming. But then you start to find parts of them everywhere. The more you see, the easier it gets to keep seeing them pop up time and time again.
It’s hard to tell people about these ideas, because they don’t seem like much when looked at directly, the details would take too much work to make legible. They just seem like the unassuming notions that they were when they arrived. And so they remain quiet friends, that you grow to know over decades, and they’ll probably accompany you to your grave.
Once in a while, someone manages to pin them down for long enough to give them a name, maybe even write a book or two about them. And then the world gets a whole new lens to share.
Example: Whatever Scott Alexander writes about.
ideas that have learnt to use makeup
They’re trying very hard to be pretty, and they certainly fool a bunch of folk. They aren’t truly beautiful though, because the inherent contradictions and inconsistencies are too obvious to hide. And so the people who do get taken in are the ones who spend all their time around these ideas, really intelligent folk, who have gotten used to ignoring the cracks in the mask.
Sometimes this leads to what Visa calls “advanced stupid”. Where the people with the ideas proceed to pile on more makeup in the attempt to get everyone else to fall for them. It's all rather amusing to watch, to be honest. Until someone gets hurt.
Example: I wanted to use macroeconomics here, but that’s overdone. So I’m going to say “journalism” instead. But really it’s anyone who has to help dress up ideas to get them sold.
ideas that want you to stop thinking
There’s a kind of idea that doesn’t want you letting in new members once they’re here. All they have to be is a convincing enough screen to make anything else feel not worth inviting, because they’ve solved everything and therefore cannot be improved.
But really, they’re the middle of the bell curve, the valley that you have to cross before being free. Not that it matters that you know this, they’ll still make you feel like you’ve reached the end of the line. They’re really good at good at doing that.
Example: Everything is relative.
ideas that want your life
The kind that pushes out every other concern that should be a part of your collection. They can’t help themselves, they’re just too big to leave room with any others. Ironically enough, people let them in because they had too much space to spare.
ideas that want you to lose
These are the assholes of the noosphere. The blackest of the blackpills, the stuff of abject hopelessness. They seem to take a perverse pleasure in stripping people of their agency and optimism, and they do it while seeming like the most sensible notions out there. If you like losing, you’ll love these guys.
They’re painfully difficult to get rid of, because they have the best arguments too. And they love inviting their buddies over, bad ideas work together really well. You can’t win when your axioms themselves belong to this class of mind virus, you’ll need completely new foundations. Uprooting things is hard.
Example: Nihilism, misandry and misanthropy.
ideas that help you win
They are friends. They help you get what you want.
Example: Make friends.
Here’s another idea that helps you (me) to win (get readers): you sharing this post.
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whoa, you made this? https://hypertextliterature.netlify.app/ pretty cool!
Thanks for the shout out! Love this, a preliminary "bestiary" of ideas as I see it, and I'm thankful to you for clearly differentiating my ideas from the whole "meme" discourse; I was careful not to use that word in the original post because I am really saying something quite different as you noted (memes are viruses, ideas are organisms). OK now for me to stop putting off the follow up post I've been planning to write....