Peter Watts on rumors, memes, and apocalypse

I’ve been reading through Peter Watts’ novels of late: pretty dark ‘hard’ sci-fi of a sort that really appeals to me.  In doing so I came across the following excellent phrases, which seemed almost like the beginning of a theory of rumors and their life-cycle. Some readers will know I accord a high importance to the exemplary study of rumors as an exercise in studying culture, so for my purposes, these quotes also seem like the beginning of a theory about culture. Which brings us to the final quote, where a culture seems to believe, against all reason, in an apocalyptic end; it believes this not because it is true, but because the culture itself – the selecting mechanism – appears to want it to be so.

Sound familiar to anyone else? All following quotes from Watts’ Maelstrom, book 2 in the tetralogic Rifters series, which is available for free reading and downloading on his own site, via a creative commons license, which pretty seriously rocks.

It didn’t make sense. Even the wildest rumors had to come out of the gate somewhere – how could all these people have started trumpeting the same thing at the same time? (237)

Rumors had their own classic epidemiology. Each started with a single germinating event. Information spread from that point, utating and interbreeding – a conical mass of threads, expanding into the future from the apex of their common birthplace. Eventually, of course, theyd wither and die; the cone would simply dissipate at its wide end, its permutations senescent and exhausted.

There were exceptions, of course. Every now and then a single thread persisted, grew thick and gnarled and unkillable: conspiracy theories and urban legends, the hooks embedded in popular songs, the comforting Easter-bunny lies of religious doctrine. These were the memes: viral concepts, infections of conscious thought. Some flared and died like mayflies. Others lasted a thousand years or more, tricked billions in the endless prorogation of parasitic half-truths. (241)

[In these cases i]t was as though someone or something had offered the world myriad styles, and the world had chosen the one it liked best. Veracity didn’t enter into such things; only resonance did.

And the meme that [announced and defined the] angel of the apocalypse wasn’t prospering because it was true; it was prospering because, insanely, people wanted it to be. (242)


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