Masks and the Memetics of Knowledge Construction

New table on the way

I honestly had hoped that talking about masks would be passé by this point in this increasingly contrived pandemic. But that is not to be. And as such, it behooves to understand the DeepOS of circulating knowledge, as well as what the fact that the subject has not been put to bed tells us about ourselves.

First off, every living creature on the planet, dependent on where they sit on the larger tangled tree of evolution, has a respiratory system. That respiratory system for all the latecomers to the game, fish, reptiles, mammals and so forth, is an amazing result of evolution. They are all fractalized and optimized for transport of oxygen into some version of a circulatory system that then powers the rest of the organism. Because about 500 million years of evolution has gone into the process (I’m starting with fish) all these systems are robust, or that species wouldn’t be there. They all live in some level of symbiosis with viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, as part of the larger holobiont/ecosystem they occupy.

One thing that I’ve noticed is there are very few direct speciated competitors in any ecosystem. Yes, there is overlap — the lines are never neatly drawn. But whenever there is a direct conflict, natural selection weeds out one or the other. I’d argue that this also extends to the internal systems inside animals.

Respiratory systems are included in this — there is some balance that exists between even what we consider pathogens and hosts. If not, one would go extinct. It’s the fundamental system dynamic. That means respiratory systems also exist in this balance. Of course, this is not a topic explored much, even recently. But consider the attention paid to gut bacteria, and our discovery that if we don’t have enough, then we not only do not flourish — we can die. The respiratory system remains (at least in the context of my admitted ignorance) as an undiscovered country in the holobiontic universe.

One thing that biologists have given us is a pretty good taxonomic map of respiratory systems. Below is a yanked Wikipedia picture on gill structure of fish. Each one of the gills is also heavily fractalized — basically every respiratory structure is, designed at some level to optimize space filling with some device to pull oxygen out of the surrounding medium (water, air) . That naturally leads to fractals. Trees do it as well. There is always some balancing act between robustness, fragility, and efficiency. It’s complicated, because it’s had 500 million years to evolve.

You can look at these as complicated pictures. But if you’re on this blog, then you understand these structures as well as complex, coupled informational systems. These systems have transitioned through the Permian Extinction, through the Mesozoic, and into the Cenozoic. They’ve seen shit hit the fan so many times, while they can be destroyed, they’ve woven a tight line and come out on top.

Understanding everything about gills as well, from a knowledge construction paradigm, requires teams of experts, observers and physicists. And even then, there’s still a ton of stuff we don’t really understand. There are known unknowns here, as well as unknown unknowns. To fully grok even the relatively simple system of fish gills (relatively!) takes a lifetime or more.

So if we have to designate a knowledge structure that describes something like fish gills and its function of respiration, we’re going to need one up into Yellow, and Turquoise — fractalized, global holistic. Once again — understanding even the ins and outs that we have access to requires a lifetime of work. There is no end to it. Here’s the Knowledge Structure slide.

Knowledge Structures — mapped to Social Structure

Here’s the important point for this piece. Once you realize that in order to produce a fish gill, you need the highest level of knowledge structure, scaffolded from extremely long time scales (evolutionary robustness) to extremely short time scales (molecular and atomic interactions that drive the thermodynamics of energy production in the animal) you basically have to sit back and gasp at your own ignorance of these things. If you don’t stretch your brain out to consider these obviously long time scales, as well as the large spatial scales required to make this thing work (fish don’t just sit in one place all day, and when you consider anadromous fish, like salmon, well…) you can’t really come up with a holistic portrait of fish respiration.

Here’s the point.

Short -> Long Temporal Scales are required to understand this.

Short -> Long Spatial Scales are required to understand this — both in the context of the physics of the gills, as well as the development of the person working to understand them.

OK — let’s transition. Everything that’s true about fish gills is doubly true about human respiration systems. They are also fractalized, robust systems, evolved over millions of years, with integrated contingencies, for multiple environments. Yep, they can and do break, but they are optimized for all sorts of different circumstances — including many we do not know, nor understand.

Same principle — they are the instantiation of integrated knowledge construction, from Short -> Long Spatial Scales, and Short -> Long Temporal Scales. They evolved in the context of both viral and bacterial infections, good air, bad air, and lots of stuff in between.

Now, let’s look at masks — especially the ones used by most folks for COVID. Here’s a picture.

Standard Surgical Mask

I don’t want to belabor the whole mask construction thing. To me, it’s boring. The short version is that it’s a square of some fabric, with a couple of loops on the side, that hangs on your face, and if you don’t have it exactly right, it has big gaps on the side where your breath can easily pass out, and in. Surgical masks are at best a couple hundred years old, and even their basic structure was really only optimized to keep a doctor from spitting in a patient. And it’s designed to last (without refreshing its structure, which it cannot do) for 30 minutes- 1 hour max. The fact that people are using them for longer than that is really a damning indictment of how little folks know about what they’re doing.

Here’s the point — the complexity of the knowledge structure of a mask is basically an augmented fragment. It’s a piece of cloth, with some attachment mechanism. The complexity of the knowledge structure of your respiratory system, on the other hand, is deeply integrated into all facets of your being — physiological, psycho-social, physical, on and on, in ways we can’t even comprehend yet.

A mask is a piece of cloth the powers-that-be want you to strap onto your face ad infinitum.

For a short term application (this is where knowledge structure and information integration do matter) a mask might be beneficial. Even in the presence of deeply unnatural aerosols (think spraying rattle-can paint) it might be useful to wear a mask for the 20 minutes. Yeah, sure, you’re going to suck in some propellant and acetone, but you might limit your dose to where you don’t pass out, and only kill off some brain cells. So the idea that masks are utterly useless isn’t valid. For short duration, small spatial scale situations, they may be just the ticket for a bump in protection.

But the idea that somehow these things are going to surpass, from an evolutionary information perspective, any developed respiratory system, is positively insane. Knowledge fragment or complex, fractalized, multiple-system optimized knowledge structure, with integrated information over eons? C’mon.

Now that we understand what our two options in the Knowledge Structure space, we can now have a window into understanding why personal development matters in receptivity for grokking the relative complexity of the two solutions.


I’ve written a long piece on the psycho-social dynamics of masks here. Let’s just talk about the relative informatics of masks vs. respiratory protective systems in lungs.

If someone tells you, who is an authority figure, for a given circumstance, you need to wrap your face with a mask, odds are you’ll do. Especially if it’s short duration (for the other engineers out there, think about going into a clean room for the first time) you’ll put it on, along with those white booties and a gown, and do what needs to be done. 30 minutes later, you’re out on the street, breathing again. Any disruption of that larger integrated function your respiratory system had going with the environment really isn’t noticeable.

This is easy, from an informatics perspective, on the brain. Here’s the Authority-Driven/Legalistic knowledge structure.

“Put on a mask to go into the clean room. Throw it in the garbage in the airlock on the way out.”

The clean room is a specific environment. Your boss tells you to do it. It’s part of the rule set. You function totally on belief, and it’s not complicated.. It’s a fucking mask, after all. And everything lines up. It’s all in the limbic/automatic part of your brain. Perfect memetic alignment. Easy peasy.

And so masks have also been sold to us as an appropriate intervention for COVID. We’re down in limbic/automatic thinking, someone of authority comes along and says “put this on and you’ll be safe” — it’s incredibly compelling, as we’ve seen. No one’s thinking — they’re mirroring, meaning they’re down at the bottom of the Empathy Pyramid — and hey, “two more weeks” coupled with shared purpose (flatten the curve or some other nonsense!)

The problem discussed in this piece is it’s also a psychological hack that degrades the knowledge structures we’re used to operating under in modern society. And worse — it keeps you in an arrested state of fear. Take it off, you could get COVID. And so on.

As opposed to trusting your incredibly beautiful, complex, fractalized, self-healing structure for respiration. Of course, this is also compounded by people who have sought to maintain that authority over you through constant messaging that if you don’t follow their agency/empathy-destroying externalized advice, you’re going to die. Think about how much talk of building immunity to protect yourself from COVID that has gone on, outside getting the vaccines. Basically NONE. And yes — the whole notion of other things interfering with appropriate immune system function of the lungs, like metabolic syndrome and its most obvious symptom of obesity, is never discussed except in passing when discussing statistics.

But here’s the memetic, time-scale thing. Over time, people start aggregating larger amounts of data on their circumstance. They start noting the incongruities in their circumstance with the simplification provided by masks. They also start seeing other manifestations of events (think the RSV epidemic earlier this year) as well as overloaded emergency rooms with OTHER respiratory viruses, as their own knowledge structure starts evolving and filling in the metacognitive holes. They note the depression that comes from not seeing faces. All of the above.

I could go on. But here’s the big takeaway. And yeah — masks suck and are stupid, once you make some idiot policy that institutionalizes them.

But people’s brains are going to be receptive to different levels of complexity dependent on personal and cultural evolution. Masks have persisted because, for all the wrong reasons, they are low information/low complexity knowledge structures. And we don’t have near enough development to appreciate or discuss the amazing holobiontic system our natural respiration is.

And that’s an education/empathy challenge.

TakeawayFrom a structural memetics perspective, it’s beyond stupid to believe that a square of cloth could buffer a human effectively through the myriad circumstances of human existence more effectively than our own respiratory system, encoded with over 500 million years of evolutionary integration into our own bodies, and the surrounding environment. It requires a willful ignorance, as well as other potential motivations. Structural memetics serve as a way to look at this from a knowledge construction viewpoint, and also show how affinities in social structure create beliefs in such tomfoolery.

4 thoughts on “Masks and the Memetics of Knowledge Construction

  1. RSV? RSVP! 😆
    Plate of shrimp ?

    Bottom line: ” Masks Suck ” …
    (But they are good for short periods so people don’t spit at each other).

    Otherwise they are good for virtue signaling & tribe identification.

    GILLS ARE AWESOME. LIKE when you breath underwater in yoir Astral dreams… or don’t breath for an hour when you are meditating in samadhi.

    Liked by 1 person

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