A Review of There Is No Antimemetics Division
This is the 28th installment of 774: weekly lessons from history about science, technology, and the miscellaneous.
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".
Michael Caine explains the series of events making up a good magic trick in the opening credits of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. It sets the stage for a movie about competing magicians whose prowess is predicated on their ability to show you something happening that you know cannot actually happen, while effectively preventing you from finding out how they did the impossible. The magician’s ability to formulate a trick is never worth more than his ability to keep the trick a secret.
Never show anyone. They'll beg you and they'll flatter you for the secret, but as soon as you give it up... you'll be nothing to them.
The coveted information that magicians keep away from prying eyes is an example of what Scott Alexander calls anti-inductive information.The pseudonymous writer/psychiatrist and NYT persona non grata explains that anti-inductive information only wields power if almost no one else knows about it, but because it wields power, everyone is incentivized to uncover it. Think of your reaction when you see a magic show: you’re mesmerized by a magician knowing precisely what card you pulled out of his deck. You know he’s not employing actual magic, so you ask how he did it. But if the magician were to go around touting his trade secrets to every bozo who asked, very few would pay to see his tricks because we would all know what’s smoke and what’s mirrors. Scott Alexander gives two more examples of anti-inductive information:
The classic anti-inductive institution is the stock market. Suppose you found a pattern in the stock market. For example, it always went down on Tuesdays, then up on Wednesdays. Then you could buy lots of stock Tuesday evening, when it was low, and sell it Wednesday, when it was high, and be assured of making free money.
But lots of people want free money, so lots of people will try this plan. There will be so much demand for stock on Tuesday evening that there won’t be enough stocks to fill it all. Desperate buyers will bid up the prices. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, everyone will sell their stocks at once, causing a huge glut and making prices go down. This will continue until the trend of low prices Tuesday, high prices Wednesday disappears.
When I was applying for medical residencies, I asked some people in the field to help me out with my interviewing skills.
“Why did you want to become a doctor?” they asked.
“I want to help people,” I said.
“Oh God,” they answered. “No, anything but that. Nothing says ‘person exactly like every other bright-eyed naive new doctor’ than wanting to help people. You’re trying to distinguish yourself from the pack!”
“Then…uh…I want to hurt people?”
“Okay, tell you what. You have any experience treating people in disaster-prone Third World countries?”
“I worked at a hospital in Haiti after the earthquake there.”
“Perfect. That’s inspirational as hell. Talk about how you want to become a doctor because the people of Haiti taught you so much.”
Wanting to help people is a great reason to become a doctor. When Hippocrates was taking his first students, he was probably really impressed by the one guy who said he wanted to help people. But since that time it’s become cliché, overused. Now it signals people who can’t come up with an original answer. So you need something better.
Interviews, like the one Scott describes, are essentially storytelling. Yes, you toss out some facts: where you went to college, previous employers, how long you worked there, etc. But what you really want to have happen (assuming they already think you’re qualified) is for the interviewer to find you interesting and engaging. Storytelling is a more difficult form of anti-inductive information to use than some of the other examples. If you want to become a successful magician or stockbroker, you could feasibly keep your secrets from the general public and other industry hopefuls. But in order to harness the anti-inductive novelty that is unique and powerful storytelling, you must share the information, or else there is no story to be told. Harboring a fantastic story in your own mind and never telling anyone doesn’t hold any value. Quentin Tarantino gains zero notoriety from the movies he doesn’t make, only the ones he does, but by making those movies, he spoils the novelty of those plot lines for future use. The trouble for ambitious interviewees and directors isn’t that they aren’t creative, it’s that the number of creative humans has been surging by the billions for quite some time now and each time one of them creates something novel, the idea stops being a novel one for anyone else. The pot of novel ideas is decreasing. Every potentially clever plot line and interview answer seems like it has already been thought of by someone else. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Because it seems that originality is decreasingly prevalent, it’s increasingly exciting when I find a truly novel story. I was lucky enough to experience that feeling again last week. I almost didn’t buy There Is No Antimemetics Division because I didn’t like the name, but the cover looked nice and there were enough positive reviews by interesting peopleto make me bite.
The thing that is so interesting about There Is No Antimemetics Division is that it is an anti-inductive story about an even stranger form of information. It’s a very original story of a covert war. The war is not covert on purpose. The enemies are called antimemes.
An antimeme is an idea with self-censoring properties; an idea which, by its intrinsic nature, discourages or prevents people from spreading it.
Antimemes are real. Think of any piece of information which you wouldn't share with anybody, like passwords, taboos and dirty secrets. Or any piece of information which would be difficult to share even if you tried: complex equations, very boring passages of text, large blocks of random numbers, and dreams...
But anomalous antimemes are another matter entirely. How do you contain something you can't record or remember? How do you fight a war against an enemy with effortless, perfect camouflage, when you can never even know that you're at war?
In this story by qntm, humans are in a quandary: they are at war with adversaries they know exist but know little about, and if they learn too much, it will kill them.
If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
Sun Tzu was prompting conventional warriors to learn as much as they can about an opponent: gather intelligence, conduct reconnaissance, etc. But for the protagonists of There Is No Antimemetics Division, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering get the best combatants killed, but ignoring the war doesn’t make it go away either.
Qntm’santimemes are like Scott Alexander’s anti-inductive information, but instead of the discovery of the information simply decreasing its value, the person who learns it at best can’t remember it, and at worst is destroyed by it.
There Is No Antimemetics Division can be read for free on qntm.org or bought pretty inexpensively on Amazon.