Memes Against Decadence

Sometimes the virtual really can transform the real.

On the subject of my last post, and particularly the question of whether memes can survive in the real world long enough to change it, a sapient friend sends me this February post from Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, which rolls together Bruno Maçaes’s “virtualism” thesis with several different memes-into-reality case studies: The 2016 Trump campaign, Gamestop and the Green New Deal, and finally Elon Musk’s Tesla, which Thompson argues is a case study in how the defiance or suspension of reality inherent in virtualism can, in the right circumstances, lead to the transformation of reality itself:

… Tesla … always seemed to be weeks from going bankrupt, at least until it issued ever more stock, strengthening the conviction of Tesla skeptics and shorts.

That, though, was the crazy thing: you would think that issuing stock would lead to Tesla’s stock price slumping; after all, existing shares were being diluted. Time after time, though, Tesla announcements about stock issuances would lead to the stock going up. It didn’t make any sense, at least if you thought about the stock as representing a company.

It turned out, though, that TSLA was itself a meme, one about a car company, but also sustainability, and most of all, about Elon Musk himself. Issuing more stock was not diluting existing shareholders; it was extending the opportunity to propagate the TSLA meme to that many more people, and while Musk’s haters multiplied, so did his fans. The Internet, after all, is about abundance, not scarcity. The end result is that instead of infrastructure leading to a movement, a movement, via the stock market, funded the building out of infrastructure.

This seems right: Tesla is, to date, the business-and-tech case study for how a certain kind of fantasy can actually become fully enfleshed, or in this case ensteeled — with a real world automobile company that speeds a larger energy-and-transportation revolution as the objective correlative of “TSLA and Elon Musk” the meme. And it isn’t just evidence that fantasy can still, as in days of yore, remake reality; it’s proof that under the right circumstances the internet makes it easier for dreams to change reality, by creating a space where a fantasy can live independent of the fundamentals for long enough that the real-world fundamentals bend and change.

In this sense it’s a strong counterpoint to the unhappier set of examples that I discuss in The Decadent Society — cases like the Fyre Festival or Theranos or WeWork where the internet-abetted fantasy transcended the fundamentals for a while but in the end reality had its revenge. And it suggests a possible future where memes and reality exist in a virtuous cycle, the former pumping up surpluses that can then be spent on things that on the pre-fantasy fundamentals we wouldn’t be able to afford — today, a fleet of electric cars and charging stations; tomorrow, the hyperloop or the Mars mission. (How this applies to public sector deficit spending and Modern Monetary Theory is probably a subject for a different post.)

But you do still need the reality part. Musk is a gazillionaire because the battery tech improved at the pace his company needed; Elizabeth Holmes is a cautionary tale because all the surplus she channeled into her Edison machine still couldn’t make it actually work. Tesla is a success story because even independent of its green-energy component there’s generally a pretty big market for cool automobiles; Gamestop is a success story on the “virtualism” side of things but the real-world future of video-game emporiums still seems pretty dicey. And then there’s cryptocurrency, the great meme of the moment, which has a variety of different futures: The one where the fantasy outruns reality and the bubbles ultimately collapse; the one where the fantasy becomes real enough for the “coins” to compete with gold as an investment but not with normal government-backed currencies as an instrument of trade; and one where the fantasy actually alters the fundamentals and billions of people eventually buy and sell in crypto. The first is obviously the pure-decadence scenario; the second seems like the reasonable bet (he said, checking his modest crypto portfolio); the third is the memes-conquer-reality transformation.

There are some cases, I think, where the virtual is extremely unlikely to be anything but an ouroboros, a simulation that leads to more simulation, a virtuality that never touches reality itself. When boosters of “sextech” insist that VR porn and zoomsex and sex robots will increase “intimacy and connection,” for instance, I see only an ever-deepening decadence, a Huxleyism intensifying, with technologies of simulation guarding the doorways back up to fruitfulness and health.

But maybe politics is different. I definitely noticed that when the meme candidate won so unexpectedly in 2016, a lot of smart people whom I knew to be very anti-Trump, both right-wing and far-left, suddenly felt an unexpected optimism about our political condition: Not because they suddenly thought Trump himself would govern well, but because his shocking victory was a proof-of-concept for exactly the possibilities that Maçaes and Thompson are talking about, where virtual reality creates a space to run political experiments in which the sclerosis and gridlock partisan rigidity of our real-world political system matter less than they might otherwise. If Trump could pull it off, it meant that someone else could do the same — harness a virtual politics to capture the very real powers of presidency, and potentially turn them to more constructive ends than either real-world coalition is capable of right now.

Earlier this week I speculated that Trump might have had a unique capacity here; certainly among his would-be successors on the right it’s hard to see anyone with the same meme power as AOC has marshaled from the left, let alone the kind contained in Trump’s distinctive celebrity businessman appeal. But then again we (meaning the media, not the memeworld) didn’t see Trump coming, and it may be that the Elon Musk or Tesla of the American right is out there even now, waiting for the right moment, the right combination of virtual and real developments, to meme and fantasize a less decadent conservatism into the power that Trump claimed but failed to use.