December 16, 2010
Ideas are a lot like viruses. Neither a virus nor an idea is alive, technically, but both reproduce though contact with other people. And both are hard to eradicate. For example, 20% of the American population believes Obama is a Muslim. That’s actually an increase since he was inaugurated.
Most idea viruses are the bad type. But I see no reason we couldn’t engineer good idea viruses. Such a virus would have three traits:
1. It must be catchy, so you never forget it.
2. It must be something you are inclined to share.
3. It must cause a positive change in the world.
The catchy-sharing part happens all the time. You see that in the form of famous quotes. One harmless idea virus is John Lennon’s “Give peace a chance.” It’s catchy, and it has a positive message, but it probably doesn’t cause people to act differently. It’s too general.
I’ve been tinkering with an idea virus that links education with peace. It would be a takeoff from the famous observation (and idea virus) that no two countries that both have a McDonalds ever went to war. I’m not sure that assertion is technically true. And it’s hard to act upon, short of conquering a country and forcing it to become a free market.
Here’s my engineered idea virus: Education is the antidote to war.
The engineering that went into that idea is that you want it to be true because it suggests an alternative to war. That’s what lets it slip past your rational defenses.
Your rational mind can come up with lots of examples where relatively educated countries started wars. But the virus is already past your rational filter. A wanted truth is always stronger than an evidenced truth.
The second part of the engineering is that the sentence itself is pleasing and pithy and quotable. You can imagine it on a bumper sticker. It will probably be in the tweetisphere within an hour after I post this. Here it is again: Education is the antidote to war.
Notice that my idea virus used the word education instead of knowledge. Knowledge is a fighting word, because people always disagree on the facts. But education is universally desirable. Even the Taliban believe they need to learn some things, such as operating firearms. My idea virus is cleverly agnostic on the content of the learning.
Is it true that education is the antidote to war? I would argue that China educated itself out of the risk of war with Russia and the United States. Education primed their economic engine, and that led to economic ties around the world. Those economic ties greatly reduce the odds of war. You might say that education is what brought McDonalds to China.
Long term, the world will need to figure out how to improve the general education levels inside problematic countries. I can imagine a future where rich countries smuggle millions of iPads into rogue countries and provide free wireless Internet to the masses. Then the world can sit back and let education do its thing.