QNTM on memes, anti-memes, and knowledge that doesn't want to be shared

QNTM is a software engineer and the author of There Is No Antimemetics Division. Here, QNTM speaks to the Browser's Uri Bram about collaborative fiction, why people with deep and very specific expertise are often great storytellers, and the surprising subjectivity of finding right answers in software development.

[Listen to this interview as a podcast or on Youtube (audio only)]

Uri Bram: Your latest book—which is wonderful—is called There Is No Antimemetics Division. Can you tell us a little bit conceptually about the idea of antimemes?

What is an anti-meme?

QNTM: So if you're reading this, you probably have a reasonable idea of what a meme is, but there are a couple of different colliding definitions of meme these days.

For my purposes, a meme is a contagious idea, which is much more of an older definition than today's conception of "internet meme." It's an idea that catches on due to some kind of hook within the idea itself. It's a piece of information that you have, but there's also an aspect where you want to share this information with other people, spread this idea to other people.

The canonical example of a contagious idea would be some kind of evangelical religion, where they would say: "Hey, this is the way the universe is structured. This is how the cosmos exists, but also convert other people to this way of thinking, go out and find people and tell them this as well."

But there's a way simpler idea of memes: a contagious song, a catch phrase, a political slogan, or even a symbol that's easy to draw. Wouldn't that be a meme as well?

So looking at this I thought that some ideas are more contagious than others and some ideas aren't contagious at all—they just kind of sit there. So what's at the other end of the scale: what kind of ideas resist being spread? What information would you intrinsically not want anyone else to find out about? Or maybe you do want to spread it, but you can't for whatever reason?

In real life, there's a ton of ideas that fall into this class: random wild data is is very difficult to share because it's just nonsense and it's not very memorable; just boring things are difficult to share; complicated equations are difficult to share because you can't remember them properly—because we're humans and that's not how we remember things.

But also there's a category of ideas that are hard to share intrinsically like passwords. I'm motivated to keep my password a secret. There are all kinds of official secrets, like government secrets that you're motivated to keep secret.

And from there, you move into injunctions and super injunctions and gag orders. Or what kind of journalism is forbidden in the country where you happen to live? What kind of things that you've not allowed to say? What is a taboo? What are the things that are true, but we don't talk about? Although this is orthogonal to the truth. Just because something is mimetic or antiemetic doesn't mean it's true or false.

Playing with the idea of anti-memes in science fiction.

QNTM: The truth can be very difficult to share. As they say, a lie can circle the globe before the truth can get its boots on. So a falsehood can be very mimetic, but I looked at this and thought... "anti-meme" is a novel neologism, but it's mainly just a synonym for things we already know exist. We know what secrets are, we know what taboos are. But I started taking this into a fictional concept and there's a large amount of science fiction that takes the idea of memes and anti-memes and plays with it.

For instance you could have a concept which exists and is plain as day and is right in front of you, but you can't remember it and when you turn away, you've stopped being able to remember that it was there—even though it was clearly there. An anti-memetic thing could trip you so you fall, but you wouldn't remember why you fell and then when you stood up again, you wouldn't even remember that you fell over at all.

So I thought okay, there's a bit of mileage in there, I can tell a story in this.

If you've read the book, chapter one of the book is that concept, but that's just the start, then then I keep going. Let's suppose this is a real phenomenon. What kind of organization could dealing with this kind of phenomenon? How would that organization have to operate? What kind of person would work there? And as I just kept digging into those questions, more and more story just showed up and I started writing.

Uri Bram: I was recommended this book with no context. I was told there's this book, you should just read it and go in knowing as little as you can, which I think in itself is kind of interesting on your terms. Not anti-memetic, but there was hidden knowledge or knowledge that they didn't want to convey.

QNTM: Oh, absolutely. There's two aspects of this kind of thing. There's ideas that you want to know, but you can't hang onto them, they get away from you and what do you do about that? What kind of systems do you have to develop to handle that?

And then on the flip side of it, the second half of the book is about the things that you really do need to know about, but that you kind of don't want to and intentionally shut them out of your brain. You keep them in the background until the problem becomes so bad that you can't ignore it anymore and things hit a tipping point. I just found it fairly fertile ground, there's a lot of interesting different directions that I could have taken it in.

So you went in without context and I think that's important to this story because I'm screwing around with memory. A lot of the characters in the story are having trouble with memory and they're arriving at situations without really knowing what years of events have led up to those situations, what past decisions made by other people—or maybe by themselves—that they don't remember.

They're just dropped in and I like to give the reader the same sort of feeling. I just drop them in, so a lot of these chapters come out of nowhere and blind you, so as the reader you're like, "right, okay, I guess this is the scenario. Now I've got to deal with this." You're trying to catch up, and then the next chapter is a different universe.

Again, I did on purpose. I like the effect. Not every book should be structured this way, but I think it serves this purpose really well.

Online collaborative fiction and the SCP Wiki

Uri Bram: Especially at the very beginning, just every chapter hit me with a new perspective on what it means to be antimemetic that I hadn't come up with before.

QNTM:What you might be detecting is that originally this was a sequence of short stories. At least the first half of the book definitely started life as serial fiction.

The SCP Wiki is a collaborative online fiction born out of horror, fantasy and science fiction writing, but since then it has spun off in a lot of different directions from that. So there's comedy and romance and just straight thrillers in there, all kinds of stuff.

The project takes the form of a wiki that's the scientific database of a nebulous organization called the Foundation. And the Foundation's job is to protect the world from anomalous entities and phenomena on earth—paranormal stuff. So the Foundation as an organization is very similar to Men in Black, The X-Files, or Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense in Hellboy.

It's that familiar concept where there are strange goings on in the world and there's an organisation whose job is to keep it all secret and lock it all up. Every time this organisation finds an anomaly, they contain it and develop some kind of scientific containment procedure.

So the Wiki takes the form of thousands and thousands of containment procedures—special containment procedures or SCPs—and each one is on average 500 to 1,000 words. You've got a description of the procedure, a description of how we found this anomaly, and what happened. And because each of these entries is written in theory by a different person, each of them is its own small little piece of fiction.

Because of there's this standardized format—which is pretty easy to get a hold on—a lot of different people have contributed a lot of different SCPs, which go in very different directions and stretch this format in a lot of really interesting ways.

So I'm part of this community and have written several SCPs—although not as many as some people. There are thousands of other people who have contributed to this Wiki.

The unique element I think is the collaborative element, anybody can just rock up and write an SCP and anybody can vote on it. They might vote it down cause it's not very good, but it's essentially open to anybody so you've got people on the Wiki who, by all rights, should be professional writers by now, and you've got people where this is pretty much the first creative writing they've ever done.

You've got this huge cross section of writers so I consider the Wiki to be kind of an incubator for writing. In the same way that, when you're learning a martial arts, you've got to learn to take a fall, when you're starting out with creative writing, the first thing you gotta do is learn to take criticism. It's just part of the learning experience.

It's a great community. I think it's a really interesting project and it's actually kind of getting popular, like alarmingly popular. Who knows what will happen in the next three, five years.

Uri Bram: To take a step back: the idea of memes comes out of the idea of genes where genetically, whichever genes are most fit for survival will end up replicating the most.

Well, this world that your work is coming out of is a massive collaborative fiction project where people are voting on which pieces are going to get included, so similarly some people's pieces are going to be more successful than others. And it just all feels related to the idea of living bodies and why certain ideas spread or not spread.

QNTM: Oh yes, some of these SCPs are themselves memes, even people who are far removed from the SCP wiki know about them. To the extent that they're kind of in jokes to those of us who are on the Wiki where we're like, yeah, we've heard that one. Thanks for bringing it up over and over again, but that's fine. That's normal. It goes with the territory of becoming popular.

Uri Bram: I don't want to sound like I'm just saying everything is an anti-meme because, clearly not – there are things I'm dancing around when talking about this book, but that's cause I don't wanna spoil an amazing adventure. But I have to say, after reading this book, for a few days afterwards I was just thinking about information in a different way or thinking about how things reach me or don't reach me. It is one of those books that gives you a lens on the world that I really appreciate.

QNTM: I'd say that's a very flattering comment and thank you. I appreciate that.

How we see collaboration in writing versus other mediums

Uri Bram: The other thing that the SCP wiki had me thinking about was literary traditions and how differently we interact with writing now.

I'm not an expert on the past, but there used to be these old traditions or mythologies where lots of people would contribute to them, where storytellers within some tradition would add stories to the same body of work.

Whereas now we kind of look at writing as mainly these single-authored works that are standalone books. I was just wondering whether the way you've experienced writing and the forms you've written in have given you thoughts about that.

QNTM:  I'm like you in that I don't have a lot of context for the history of literature and the history of collaboration. So I don't know whether the SCP Wiki is inventing something new or just reinventing something that existed 2,500 years ago in Greece—it could go either way.

But I think storytelling is a natural instinct that a lot of humans have, and the internet is incredibly powerful tool for collaboration in that area. The SCP Wiki is not the only website that has this format where people are just bouncing off each other like pinball machines—just creating and creating and creating and riffing on each other. On the one hand it is quite novel but, on the other hand, it's incredibly normal and I think it's a good thing.

Uri Bram: We accept that movies are made by this whole team of people and that no one person is responsible for them. And in music people have accepted that there's a songwriter and a musician—often even ten songwriters. But in fiction specifically we seem to have arrived to this equilibrium where even seeing a two-author novel would be like quite rare and edgy somehow?

QNTM: You are right about that. And you never see a novel that's got 25 authors on it. It's interesting, isn't it?

To a certain extent that might be partly due to the format: in terms of the text, there's only really one trade involved and that's the writing of the book, whereas in a movie there's so many different trades, you've got writing, cinematography, set design, costume design, script editing, electrics lighting, etc. There's so many different trades and when you include visual effects suddenly that explodes into 50 different specialisms in visual effects alone. So of course it has to be the work of many hands.

But equally we also do make that mistake of going, "okay, well, this movie was directed by Steven Spielberg" or whoever – he was one of the people where he had the final say—or maybe he did, generally we assume that's the case—but every movie is the work of many, many, many hands.

Although whenever you see a movie and the script is by six different people, that means it probably got a rewritten a whole bunch. That means it's probably a bit of a mess of a script, because there wasn't a single cohesive vision behind the text, so I wonder if maybe the reason we don't tend to see books with 25 authors credited is because such books like that tend to work out to be a bit of a mess. You see anthologies, but that's not the same thing.

I would characterize the SCP Wiki as more of an anthology than anything else. There are plenty of creative of collaborative works, there are plenty of SCPs that were written by three people or five people working together, or longer form bits of work on the Wiki. But most of them are written by one person, so one person who's reacting to other people's work.

Another thing to compare it with would be DC comics or Marvel comics.
So the SCP Wiki explicitly has no canon because keeping all of it together and continuous and making sense would be impossible, whereas something like the Marvel Universe has developed over 60-odd years and has been the work of many hands and many editors in chief, and many, many, many writers—all of whom have come along, contributed some part of the universe, and then maybe moved on and then other people have come along, riffed on that, contributed some more, kept building and then moved on.

And I think the Wiki is similar to that, except we don't really have an editor in chief as such. Which has its pros and cons.

Uri Bram: I am always pro weirdness. I would rather something weird and inconsistent than something very homogenous and, like, fine, but just acceptable.

QNTM: There's a case to be made for both, but I think we should have both of these things. I'm not unambiguously pro-Wiki or pro-singular author novel. I like that my worldview has room for both of these things.

Technical backgrounds and science fiction writing

Uri Bram: So I understand you are a software engineer as your other job... day job?

QNTM: Day job—pays the bills a lot more than writing does.

Uri Bram: Do you feel that your technical background has influenced your writing. It seems like a lot of scifi authors have CS backgrounds or technical backgrounds—Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, Liu Cixin have all been computer engineers or had computer science degrees. Do you think that is particularly relevant in SF, or just a coincidence or something?

QNTM: I don't think it's entirely a coincidence, but I don't think it's about software development or computing specifically. I think if you have a deep knowledge of a relatively obscure niche of science, then when you're doing those explorations, when you're studying software development or computer science or...
Another example would be Peter Watts, who has done academic research in zoology, and Greg Egan, who is an amateur mathematician apparently. If you go far down into any field of research, you're going to discover stuff that most people in the world have never heard of. They're completely unaware of that, they just have at best a surface level understanding of these topics because, you know, they don't need a deep understanding of these topics.

Whereas you've chosen to dive deeper—and if you do go deep enough—you're going to find something really interesting down there.

If in addition to that drive to go deep, you also have the ability to tell fiction, to write a story, then you can come up for air. You can surface again, and write a story that utilizes those things that you've learned, that presents those unique and surprising and weird observations to an audience who's never seen this kind of thing before.

What you produce is probably something that's exciting and unusual that will catch people off guard. So something that's completely normal for you because you study it every day will be new for other people. If you go deep into how a modern app works, or a modern tech company works, or how fungus works, or insect colonies work, or any period of history really– if you go deep into that, you're gonna find something most people have no familiarity with.

Although you need that deep knowledge, but you also need the ability to write a story, which is a related skill but not the same at all. There are plenty of excellent writers who aren't scientists, and there are plenty of scientists who are great scientists but probably couldn't write a good story.

My previous book—which is called Ra—is about what if magic was more like a programming language than most present representations of magic? That's a fairly simple what if?, I just take that and run with it for about 550 pages.

If you're familiar with programming then it's an interesting read because a lot of the swerves that I take, a programmer goes: "ah, I kind of saw that coming. I would have taken that direction as well." Whereas if you're unfamiliar with programming, it becomes a little interesting and strange.

The same, I think is true in the anti-memetic stories. You know in the SCP Wiki these ideas to do with memes and anti-memes are already bread and butter. I've just been simmering on them for a long period of time. However, most people have never looked at this concept before so it's novel for them.

So when it comes to deep study and deep knowledge there's a lot of mileage for fiction.

Uri Bram: If you're listening and you have an unusual but deep expertise on something, please try your hand at fiction and see if it comes out well.

QNTM: Do it. If it's your first time, try a second time as well. Your first attempt might be okay or it might not be so okay, but it's something you can get better at over time. You can practice, you can get good.

Uri Bram: To me, learning to code is something that has this unusual property where there's this worldwide community of people doing it – you can find people on Stackoverflow who have tried the same things you tried and failed, and get quite concrete advice. Whereas in other fields that are more subjective, people can give you advice, but it isn't necessarily right—or there aren't clear conditions to whether it works.  

In coding there are bigger problems where you can't tell whether you can solve it or not, but at the small scale you can find solutions. All of which combined gives it some properties that are conducive to learning it and developing specifically expertises.

QNTM: As compared to some other fields, there are more provably incorrect answers, but having said that there's actually a surprising amount of subjectivity in software development—about what a right answer looks like.

I think the lowest level problems are "solved," but as soon as, as soon as the rubber hits the road and the software that you're developing is used by a human being who has human needs, then things start to get slippery and subjective. And what the right answer looks like depends very much on what those humans want and need. So with things like interface design, there is plenty of room for opinion there.

The most recent book I read, Designing Data-Intensive Applications, explains that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a lot of very large software development challenges these days. You need to understand your domain and pick the right answer, because there are several answers, some of which may or may not be better than others, depending on your specific situation.

The relationship between collaboration in fiction and software

Uri Bram: Is there an analogy there between collaboratively written fiction and the way that software can be collaboratively written by large groups of people?

QNTM: Probably what you end up with is needing an editor in chief kind of role. The DC comics and the Marvel comics, they have an editor-in-chief who gives the say-so and sets the tone and sets the direction for what we're trying to build.

To a certain extent that's similar in a large software project where generally you're going to have, maybe not a singular person, but a singular or reasonably narrow goal.

There are some transferable skills. Primarily I think the skill that transfers best between these two fields is clarity of communication. If you're able to express yourself, then that's a really valuable tool in software development, because these are highly technical challenges and you need to be able to say what you mean rather than something else by accident.

I favor clear communication above most other things, so I do tend to refine stuff for long periods of time. I mean, fiction is an act of communication. In software development, it's very easy to say that what you write a program for is the computer, but that's not really the case. You write the program for other programmers to read, primarily to debug your stuff after you've left. Or it might just be for you, later, because you've forgotten what you did. So being able to express yourself clearly in code, not just solve the problem, but actually express it well I think is the valuable technique.

The feasibility of uploading a human brain and labor exploitation

Uri Bram: Moving on, I want to talk about your story, Lena.

QNTM: The story is written in the style of a Wikipedia article from about 60 years from now, and it is a Wikipedia article about the first human uploaded. The first human mind that was successfully uploaded into a computer, but more importantly, was run as a brain in that computer, and people could communicate with it as a person, which in the context of this "Wikipedia article" happened in around 2031.

So 40 years have passed of iteration on that technology, and it's gone from being the most sensational breakthrough in history to something that's very mundane, that is now absolutely part of life and inescapable, and lots of really, really bad things have started happening with this technology.

The story, in the same way as a Wikipedia document, is just reciting all of these terrible things completely dispassionately, and just says, "well, this is what happens to the millions of uploaded copies of this person. And these are the normal ways to get the maximum amount of throughput out of these people."

Uri Bram: We recommended this story in our newsletter and our editor said "it moved my mental furniture more abruptly than anything factual I've read in the same general area."

QNTM: When you wrote to me you said, "this story doesn't feel like it's totally fictional." There's two parts to it.

The part that is entirely fictional is the uploading technology. Admittedly, this is not my field of expertise, but as I understand it, simulating a single human neuron takes a supercomputer. It takes an incredible amount of processing power to simulate one neuron and the human mind has what, a billion neurons? Or within a few orders of magnitude of that.

While computers have been getting steadily faster for a long period of time, we're actually starting to hit the plateau there and I think it's extremely unlikely that we'll ever get to a point where simulating a human brain is in any way cost effective versus just getting a human being to do a job, or getting a regular programmed computer to do a job.

So I want to be reassuring and say this isn't going to actually happen, or not in your lifetime or mine anyway, it's certainly not going to happen in 10 years. The year 2031 was the closest I could put it while being a reasonably credible read.

The flip side of it, though, is what's essentially happening is that these uploads have been exploited in the most terrifying ways that you can think of. An exploitation of labour where you're running a huge corporation and you've got a lot of work to be done, you want to pay the absolute minimum amount of money to get that work done, and the conditions of the people doing the work are completely irrelevant to your goals. That 100 percent exists, has for about 150 years at least, and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future.

So basically the scenario described in this story is the end goal. It's the dream where labor is reduced to data and it has no power whatsoever and you can do anything you like to it. You will get the work done—the work that creates value for you—but you will no longer need to think about food, toilet breaks, vacation, pensions, healthcare, compassionate leave, or even just giving them a place to sit down. All of those things that you perceive as cost centers, and you no longer have to acknowledge their humanity. And there's absolutely nothing that they can do to push back against you to demand those things.

That is, unfortunately, an extremely realistic scenario, and it's one that we see, we see right now. If you consider how let's say Uber works right now, in practical terms, the Uber drivers work for an algorithm and the algorithm works for Uber and for the high level of operators of Uber. And this algorithm essentially reduces the drivers to the levels of data, where any kind of communication where they might say, "Hey, look, I need some time off cause I'm sick" or any kind of deep human contact is intentionally sealed away behind this algorithm API to make it so that you as an Uber driver cannot make those appeals or demands.

This is completely by design, writ large. So I think a lot of people who read Lena, like you and your editor, you kind of get that. And it sounds fairly realistic and plausible.

I think the main problem is that the story doesn't really give us any tools for pushing back on these things. A lot of dystopian fiction has this problem where we present a dystopia and you read it and you go, "oh, that would be terrible." Yes, it would be terrible, but how do we steer away from this? And that story doesn't quite get into that.

Uri Bram: To circle around, I know that all these terrible things are happening in the world—sometimes every day—and then Uber shows up at my house and brings a meal and I immediately stop thinking about the human costs that this system imposes. I am somehow able to have the knowledge that I have and constantly not think about it....

QNTM: And this ties back to anti-memes where they're all things you don't want to think about. And it's not even just that you don't want to think about them, it's because there's so much stuff going on you can't think about all of it. There isn't time. If you'd thought about all of it, you'd go crazy. You'd break apart. So you have to hide from a lot of these ideas because they're unpalatable and what do you do about that? And the answer may be that we ignore it for long enough that it becomes a very serious problem that can't be solved and the game is over. So, that's fun.

Uri Bram: On that sad but very accurate note – please tell people how to find you online and where to read your work?

QNTM: Just search QNTM online.

Uri Bram: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

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