Meta-Meme – The “Overton” Meme Meme

Saw a reference to “The Overton Window” this morning – a meme so embedded in 21st C political commentary that you can simply tweet it in cynical fashion and assume your audience knows what you mean.

The “Overton Window” and its accompanying “Treviño Values” are a meme about memetics. About how ideas shift (ie literally memetics) and, more to the point, how the cynical can exploit the natural effect for ideological ends. As old as Machiavelli’s Prince, ’twas ever thus. Any idea follows a natural trajectory from its first thought. That is:

Freedom evolves:
Conservative and liberal, interests and values, are
Unthinkable > Radical > Acceptable > Sensible > Popular > Policy

Overton was coined in a public policy context, balancing these competing values, so the end-game is “policy”. But, in a more general sense, that end-game is simply “accepted reality”. Pretty much the same as  Arthur C Clarke’s science and new technology trajectory “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  The understanding of things moves from:

“That can’t be for real!”
(Inconceivably Magic)


“How did our world exist without it?”
( Everyday Technology)

…. by copying expression and sharing experience.

It’s so natural that the word meme is rejected by many as having any remaining use, because what it means is so embedded in accepted reality. It’s political by political choice and ripe for the adversarial game but an entirely natural process nonetheless.

What we really need to understand is that the stack of interacting memes (or memeplex) we inhabit are evolving ever faster and inexorably in the direction supporting and supported by that environment in a self-reinforcing positive feedback or mechanistic “first cybernetics” loop.

The more we value simplicity, clarity, objectivity, transparency, (ac)countability, the more the popularity contest delivers populism. A free-for-all for the memes – including the unthinkable – rather than cultivating human freedoms and values. Perversely, we need the conservatism of active moderation on all of those inhuman values:

Simplicity and clarity – in so far as  necessary “but not more so”.
Transparency and sharing –  in so far as “need to know” in context.
Objectivity and (ac)countability – in so far as “you get what measure”.
Careful what you wish  for in “best laid plans”.
Careful what you throw out with the memetic bathwater.

Doubly perversely, the greater the stakes, the greater the need for conservation and … yes … mystification. So tough for liberal humanists (like me!) to get this. We need to make space for the humanistic “second cybernetics”.

In order to value freedom of expression we need less of it.


[Note: The use of the first and second cybernetics is counterintuitive here. I did say “perverse”. When it comes to positive and negative feedback, the point is which processes are reinforced, not necessarily which definable states and outcomes. It’s about the freedom (process) to evolve being distinct from the freedom (state) evolved. A free state is about freedom, the process of free evolution is about conservatism – hi-fidelity and hi-fecundity – many good copies of what already exists.]

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