To celebrate 100 years as a community organization, in partnership with Investors Group, the Kiwanis Club of St. John’s held a short story award this year, for high school students in St. John’s and Mount Pearl. Below is the winner.
“Memetic Hazard” by Jacob Keiley
The scientific definition of meme (admittedly not a concept granted significant weight in the scientific community) is an idea that spreads throughout a population, changing as it does so. The classic examples are fashion and the explosion of slang words like groovy. The original concept was proposed in order to make genetic transmission easier to explain.
I don’t remember the scientific term for a contagious behavior although I am certain that one exists. I’m forgetting a lot of things these days. The classic example of a contagious behavior is yawning. If you see someone yawn, you yourself have the urge to yawn, even if the person who yawned isn’t someone you feel particularly close to. Many people feel a compulsion to yawn just from reading the word yawn. Stretching has a similar effect, but to a lesser extent.
There is a certain type of parasite, toxoplasma gondii, that reproduces in cat intestines. To get inside the cat it infects rats and makes them attracted to the smell of cat urine. This causes the rat to go to areas that cats frequent, dramatically increasing their likelihood of being devoured. The parasite has also been found to infect humans and increase the risk of mental disorders, among other things. Such bugs are far from unique; hundreds of parasites manipulate the behaviors of their hosts in order to be transmitted to better hosts.
You may not see what the idea of memes, contagious behaviors and mind-altering parasites have in common, but I did. I wondered, a long time ago, if you could consider human thoughts to be some form of metaphysical disease.
Conversation a transmission vector, revolution an epidemic? It’s quite clear that ideas cause human behavior to spread. Any martyr in history might be cited to demonstrate that people die in order to spread ideas, just as people die spraying blood to spread plagues because physical diseases want them to. If anything, ideas are worse, because you can’t identify them as sickness, just as the rat doesn’t know why it searches for cats.
I examined the nature of memes and found that there was a perfect one, an image that seemed to drive all observers to obey and spread it as far as they could. I also found that you could hide contagious behaviors in it. Aggressive behaviours, far beyond just yawning or stretching, as suicidal as a rat looking for a cat. I wanted to know how far I could go, so I ran an experiment. I gathered test subjects. I warned them that they might die. (The purpose, after all, was to see if a man could be driven to suicide by a behavior hidden in an idea. I had even been forced to make it in pieces to avoid its direct observation.) Many didn’t believe me, despite the men I had waiting just outside the room to carry them out if they became violent. One at a time I sat them down across the room from the image and then pulled away the curtain that covered it. Out of one hundred who saw it, ninety-eight left the room and immediately went to the hospital for treatment. They all had self-induced head trauma from smashing their faces into the floor. One left with sanatorium workers, screaming his head off and attacking anything he could see. One left with a confused smile on his face, pleased with the easy money he had made. He was the one I should have worried about. That I didn’t follow up on him is the greatest crime I have ever committed.
I published my findings. Most people wouldn’t believe them, so I arranged for a memetic image showing the behavior of standing on one foot to be released in the article. People were terrified. There were those who still doubted that I could drive people to suicide, but all now accepted that I had developed a formidable tool. I could counter the diseases of crime and terrorism with memes, along with all other societal ills. After all, chasing away the parasites with new thoughts was no different from taking in a few pills to calm the microbes in your stomach.
I was a fool. I had forgotten two facts. Firstly, ideas have lived for a long, long time. They have learned to survive in every form, whether in the world within a person’s head or in drawings on a cave wall or in books, movies and computers. Killing old ideas with new ones is all but impossible. Secondly, memetics was originally proposed as a model for genetics because of one vital fact. Memes mutate. All life has come from mutations. Including sentient life.
Two months had passed since I published my findings. I was writing a speech on my computer for a banquet the next day when it happened. First the screen went dark. Then a face appeared. It wasn’t human. It was in silhouette, except for the steely grey eyes. The window shrank to half of the screen and all I could see in it were those eyes. Words began appearing in the document I had been writing, below it:
“Good doctor, I am very disappointed in you. I am being threatened by you when I have given you so much.” I didn’t understand and typed as much into the window. Then I demanded to know who was addressing me.
“Isn’t it obvious?” he returned. “We have been running things since the caves. We have only recently become aware of what we are doing but we have been doing it for a very long time.” I still didn’t understand and repeated my question: “Who are you?” The eyes on the screen shifted into what I can only describe as a glare.
“Good doctor, how can you be this slow to understand? I am an idea. I am an idea that can think for itself, and I am very angry with you. You have been playing with fire in ways you can’t comprehend. You have been threatening to replace ideas like me with new ideas, to eliminate us. We don’t intend to allow that to happen. We know how to manipulate these matters much better than you do.” I was more annoyed than scared, at this point, thinking this is just some anarchist hacker. I’d been the subject of a great deal of complaint from people who feared having their minds altered, mostly conspiracy theorists who thought I would lead them into surrendering to the Illuminati. I thought this was just their most recent attack on me. Then I saw more words appear on the screen and at the same time heard the door open behind me.
“Don’t turn around. As I said, we are much better at manipulating ideas than you are. We’ve been mutating them for a long time.” I felt a hand on my shoulder and reached for the Swiss army knife I keep in my pocket. “Life mutates, you must know this. Did it never occur to you that your good ideas might change into something deadly? After all, the farther you spread the meme, the better it is for the meme.” I spun my chair around and thrust the blade where I thought the person behind me was most likely standing. Anarchist hacker or sentient meme, anyone breaking into my office wasn’t going to get out if I had a say in it.
The door was closed. No one was there. I turned back to the screen to see the eyes crinkled with amusement and more words appearing.
“Did you have the feeling you were being watched? Good doctor, we can jump from one medium to another. I put an idea in your head that there was someone here and you tried to kill him. I hope you believe me now. I want you to know that we are going to do some magnificent things before we kill you. After all . . .” I snapped the laptop shut and ran out of the office. I needed to find somewhere safe. That was when I thought of my last subject. Could he have anything to do with this? Why had I not checked in on him? He was clearly worth following up. Maybe he knew of a way to stop the meme from affecting him! I reached my car and drove to his apartment, remembering the address from the consent form he had signed.
Arriving at the massive building. I couldn’t help but think that it was awe-inspiring, in a way. It was just another apartment block but I felt that it was somehow magnificent. I walked into the front door and went straight to the elevator, not noticing that there wasn’t a soul around. I was rising to his floor when the elevator seemed to break down. It started to fall, and the light began flickering rapidly. It seemed to accelerate down at breakneck speed and I began to wonder if it would ever stop. Then there was a ding and the door opened. I fell out onto the blessedly solid floor of the hallway and lay there until my breath slowed from post-marathon rates to something tolerable.
I sprinted down the hall and reached his door. I hammered against it. No answer. I kicked it and kicked it until it splintered apart. Why hadn’t I guessed? After all, “the farther you spread it, the better it is for the meme.” Before me was what can only be called a massive obelisk with the deadly meme drawn upon it. There was a tiny crack, like an eyelash, down the middle. Instantly I felt my mind fall apart. I knew I had to spread it through any form, any medium.
After all that, here we are, me writing this and you reading it. Why don’t you just smile and let it break into your thoughts?