Reddit is Beautiful, But What about Thomas Malthus?

/ by Samuel Fisher

To the uninitiated, Reddit can look a little archaic. It is, in essence, a list of links, ordered by an algorithm. Until a recent redesign, launched in April of this year, it had looked the same since its inception a decade ago.

Posts are arranged into ‘subreddits’: Sections which centre on a particular subject, each of which has its own rules limiting what can be posted there. At the time of writing, there are around 1.2 million of these subreddits. They range from current affairs reddits such as r/news, to anodyne staples like r/dogswearinghats (yep, you guessed it, they’re all wearing hats), to the downright strange, such as r/fifthworldproblems (hypothetical problems that could only occur in the fifth dimension). This being the internet, there’s also a lot of porn.

Users can vote these posts up the list by giving them ‘karma’. The top posts are aggregated on the front page.

It’s conceived as a weirdo paradise. A place where every person who has ever been told ‘you can’t sit with us’ can find a place at the table.

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Thomas Malthus was an empiricist with an unhappy outlook. Born in 1776, at the height of the Enlightenment, to a well-heeled family in Surrey, you might have expected him to be optimistic. Until he left for university, he was mostly educated at home, overseen by his father, who had been great friends with the sceptic David Hume.

This education might go in some way to explain the genesis of ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’, which Malthus published when he was 22, and for which he is remembered. We are doomed to poverty and misery, he argued. The reason being that population growth will always outstrip the means of food production.

It was, in many ways, a reaction to the ideas – arising out of the Enlightenment – which drove the revolutionary violence that swept across France in the last decade of the century.

Foremost, the notion that man is perfectible.

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On July 27th of this year, Disney shareholders approved a plan to buy 21st Century Fox. This deal is just the latest in a decade-long acquisitive march across the silver screen, placing the X-Men alongside the Avengers in their already-stuffed pantheon of household heroes.

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‘Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity’.

This could be a line plucked from the final act of a superhero film; an aphoristic expression of the self-serving logic of the villain, seasoning the hero’s inevitable victory with a dash of pathos.

But it’s not. It’s from Malthus. In his essay, he describes two types of checks that keep population within the limits of resources. Positive checks raise the death rate: War, disease, famine; preventative checks lower the birth rate: Celibacy, waiting longer before marriage, contraception (which he refers to as vice).

Thanos, the villain of the most recent Avenger’s film, Infinity War (2018), is only interested in the positive checks. He indiscriminately kills half of the universe, believing it to be the only way to save it from destruction, as an over-extended population depletes all of the resources.

The film is, in itself, not particularly interesting. The need to marry together this diverse set of character’s origin stories, in order to mirror the corporate mergers happening behind the scenes, make it a frustratingly elliptical and unwieldy thing. Also, the visual effects make Thanos’ face look like a puckered, liverish thumb; one that might belong to an old man who has spent too long in the bath. Not so scary.

But after the film’s release something interesting did happen: A subreddit emerged that, counter to the film’s message, Thanos had in fact done nothing wrong. The description reads: ‘Welcome to r/thanosdidnothingwrong, the community where all are free to praise the Mad Titan for balancing the universe’. It currently has around half a million subscribers.

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In his essay on ‘Myth and Education’, Ted Hughes opens with his take on Plato’s principles on how to raise ‘wise and realistic citizens’. Formal education is all but useless for children, according to Plato. What is important is to create an imagination: ‘The machine with which we recreate the world for ourselves’.

The way to do this? Teach them myths.

Most children don’t read Ovid or Homer, but they do watch superhero films. The way Plato viewed the myths, according to Ted Hughes, would have been very similar to how we view them now: Not as an access to some kind of religious dogma, but ‘imaginative exercises about life in a world full of supernatural figures and miracles that never happened, never could happen’.

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A key ingredient in reddit’s weirdo paradise formula is the way that it amplifies the internet’s tendency towards self-reflexivity.

Users take a thing, form a community around it, then make mimetic representations of it that diverge from the original by degrees until it is a thing entirely of its own.

Which is kind of how myths and folk tales work. They are building block stories; the shared ground over which we can communicate our own unique experience; structures within which the imagination can be developed, and then applied to ‘recreate the world’.

R/thanosdidnothingwrong started just this way: A piece of internet theatre rehearsing and rehashing the themes of the film. The users even went so far as to ‘snap’ exactly half of the subscribed users, eliminating them from the group and mirroring Thanos’ scheme in the film.

It’s from this point of departure that the users begin to recreate the world. Existential fears surrounding overcrowding (a possible factor in the nationalistic revival in the U.S. and across the European continent) froth up to be expressed in reddit’s particular blend of self-referential euphemism.

Take the following: A post, titled ‘I’m convinced’ – a screengrab of a tweet that reads: ‘Looking at 7pm traffic makes you think maybe, maybe Thanos had a point. Maybe.’ The post has 36,000 karma. Below is a huge thread of comments (karmically ranked), in which a debate about Malthus springs up.

‘TenaceErbaccia’ outlines Malthus’ theory and concludes: ‘The only way to provide equitable or at least fair prosperity is to kill off half of the population of the universe randomly. Thanos did nothing wrong’.

‘TalenPhillips’ feels that Thanos’ solution doesn’t go far enough and suggests that ‘reducing population growth by changing fertility rates would have been a permanent solution’ – a statement that sounds suspiciously like a justification for eugenics, and under which ‘Galtego’ has written: ‘Reducing population growth by changing fertility rates would have been a permanent solution’. You begin to feel like the gun has been fired on a race to the bottom.

‘SocialistBob’ steps in further down the thread to argue the other side: ‘Industrialised agriculture can easily produce far more food and shifting manufacturing standards can dramatically lower overall energy consumption. Malthus was wrong’.

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In 1926, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘people say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilisation, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies’.

Nearly 100 years on, we would have to assume these forgetful philosophers are dead. The ones who have taken their place would be hard pressed to follow their example because the movies, and the mythologies that arise out of them, are ubiquitous.

Reddit is juvenile, sometimes offensive, sometimes toxic, but it is a playground, a forum – one that even Plato would recognise – open to access, where discourse can shape ideas.

If reddit is the playground, our mythologies are the toybox. What will debate look like if too many of these toys – the ‘imaginative exercises’ that help us ‘remake the world’ – become the intellectual property of a select few, and our imaginations are trained to serve their interests?

I’d like to stand with SocialistBob, to confidently assert that ‘Malthus was wrong’, but I think it’s probably an arrogant folly.

I can’t believe in our perfectibility, but I’d like to keep trying to imagine it.

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Samuel Fisher
's debut novel, The Chameleon, was published by Salt in 2018. He runs a bookshop in East London called Burley Fisher Books and is a director of Peninsula Press. Twitter @fishersamuk

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