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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



o’brain worms

I guess it’s appropriate that we can’t agree on what the brain worms metaphor’s original vehicle actually is. In his description of the Internet culture term, Max Read claims, reasonably, that the originals are maybe like tapeworms or toxoplasma. But I always think about the Ceti Eel in Wrath of Khan (but then, I’m always thinking of Wrath of Khan, especially, these days, the imminent off-Broadway musical).

To be infested with a brain worm is to have become a one-note (or a cacophony of discordant notes) speaker. To have all your behaviors, at least online, collapse into one strident position. To shore up every exit from that position with every mental barricade. A mind trap.

I will insist that I’m right about the best analogy. Like the Ceti eel, the modern brain worm usually gets in via your ear (or Twitter feed). It “render[s] the victim extremely susceptible to suggestion,” as Khan notes: Chekov later confirms that “the creatures in our bodies… control our minds …made us say lies …do things”. Madness, then death follows. Metaphorical brain worms, with COVID and measles, can kill you nowadays. In happier times, you could get away with just agyria.

Brain worms certainly seemed to have grown more virulent, more vicious, recently. I worry about my proximity to them. As I’m hinting, I’m considering slinking into punditry again, and woah nelly, do brain worms seem to be an occupational hazard in those dark woods. I think I’ve lost more friends and acquaintances to brain worms than the pandemic. From 9/11 truthing, to whatever it is that’s slamming around Glenn’s cortex these days, from election-disbelievers to Russia-runs-it-allism.

Since I was a young man clutching the Loompanics catalog for the first time, I’ve actively explored strange new views; sought out new lies and new inclinations. But watching good people all around me just be consumed by an idea, possessed and ridden by these loa, trapped by an illusion that if they just moved one foot to the left or right, would dissolve away, has given me serious pause. If I open my mouth and speak my mind again, will the brain worms get in that way? Start polishing up my prejudices until they’re clean, consistent, and shiny, and one day find myself unable to drag my eyes away from their distorted mirror image?

Or you know, maybe the brain worms have already got me? Like most people who read books or say long words, I have a few brain worms that I keep as pets. They’re fun, they’re conversation pieces, and you can bring them out for people to coo at during parties. 

I’m still confident that if they turned rabid and started attacking my friends, I’d have the sense to put them down — the worms, not my friends, of course (oh no maybe they have already got me)?

My pet brain worms: the Internet (still with its capital letter); anarchism of a harmless, de-fanged kind; a litter of related ones bred from the same pedigree. These days, decentralization would be the obvious one, I guess. My friends and relatives, watching me wading in booty-shorts through the cryptocurrency swamp, worry, but I think that’s a little too obvious to snag me.

But, of course, nobody with a brain worm thinks they have brain worms. So how do you protect yourself? Alan Moore’s old trick was to tell his closest that they should retrieve him from whatever mindfuck he was pursuing, but only if he started becoming less productive. I’m not sure I want to take advice from Alan Moore on this matter, however, especially as I suspect a brain worm would make far more prolific, not less. I mean, this is why pundits have them — they’re superspreaders. A brain worm that doesn’t target pundits would not be a successful brain worm. Just ask Richard Dawkins: a man who, on some deep level, must know that the memes are now defining him, not the other way around.

Making hard-to-wriggle-out-of testable predictions — make your beliefs pay rent, as the origin of so many geek brain worms whispers to me from his wicked lair — would, I would hope, help ground me. But I need to avoid pattern-matching as I seek out those beliefs! Or else there’s a mountain of evidence awaiting me that supports my position! You just need to let me devote more time to finding it!

Ultimately, all I can assume is that the best practical guard against monsters is to make sure you’re not hurting anyone — or inspiring others to hurt themselves or others. No one deserves it, no matter what the worms say. It may make you a quieter, weaker source of thought: but tell the voices in your head that worms who prosper long term will be the ones who don’t kill their hosts.

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petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.