"An idea is something you have;
an ideology is something that has you."
don't entertain, I enter the brain..."
- DJ Spooky - _Degree Zero_ MP3 off of _Riddim Warfare_ CD on Outpost/Asphodel (1998)
Coined by zoologist Richard Dawkins in his controversial book
_The Selfish Gene (1975) , the 'meme' is the study of ideas which replicate and transmit themselves via the human mind the way a virus does in a biological host.Important early scientific studies were conducted by Daniel C. Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter in the 1980s, before a climate of viral metaphors (Ebola, AIDS) and a rapidly growing hedonistic cyberculture helped popularize the memetics field in the1990s.
Memetic engineering developed from diverse influences, includingcutting edge physics of consciousness and memetics research, chaos theory, semiotics, culture jamming, military information warfare, and the viral texts of iconoclasts William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Genesis P-Orridge.
The memetic engineer is able to
isolate, study, and subtly manipulate the underlying values systems, symbolic
balance and primal atavisms that unconsciously influence the individual psyche
and collective identity. A highly educated but susceptible
intelligentsia, worldwide travel, and information vectors like the Internet
and cable television means that hysterical epidemics and disinformationcampaigns
will become more common. This warfare will be conducted using
aesthetics, symbols, and doctrines as camouflage that will ultimately influence
our cultural meme pool. These contemporary 'life conditions' are explored in
books like Carl
Sagan's _The Demon Haunted World_, & John
Brockman's _The Third Culture_.
Fictional descriptions of memetic engineering include Isaac
Asimov's seminal _Foundation_
Gurdjieff's _Beelzebub's Tales To His Grandson_, Neal
and Robert W. Chambers' unearthly _The King In Yellow_ tome.
A meme is a cognitive or behavioral pattern that can be transmitted from one individual to another one. Since the individual who transmitted the meme will continue to carry it, the transmission can be interpreted as a replication: a copy of the meme is made in the memory of another individual, making him or her into a carrier of the meme. This process of self-reproduction, leading to spreading over a growing group of individuals, defines the meme as a replicator, similar in that respect to the gene (Dawkins, 1976; Moritz, 1991).
Dawkins listed the following three characteristics for any successful replicator:
For genes to be transmitted, you need a generation. Memes only take minutes to replicate, and thus have potentially much higher fecundity. On the other hand, the copying-fidelity of memes is in general much lower. If a story is spread by being told from person to person, the final version will be very different from the original one. It is this variability or fuzziness that perhaps distinguishes cultural patterns most strikingly from DNA structures: every individual's version of an idea or belief will be in some respect different from the others'. That makes it difficult to analyze or delimit memes. This does not imply that meme evolution cannot be accurately modeled, though. After all, genetics was a well-established science long before the precise DNA structure of genes was discovered.
Examples of memes in the animal world are most bird songs, and certain techniques for hunting or using tools that are passed from parents or the social group to the youngsters (Bonner, 1980). In human society, almost any cultural entity can be seen as a meme: religions, language, fashions, songs, techniques, scientific theories and concepts, conventions, traditions, etc. The defining characteristic of memes as informational patterns, is that they can be replicated in unlimited amounts by communication between individuals, independently of any replication at the level of the genes.
Of course, the capacity of the nervous system for learning is the result of evolutionary processes at the genetic level. Yet I will here not go into detail about why that capacity has been selected. The increased fitness resulting from a nervous system that is flexible enough to adapt its behavior to many new situations, seems obvious enough. If a useful type of behavior can be learned directly from another individual by communication or imitation, that seems like a most welcome shortcut for having to discover it by personal trial-and-error. More arguments for why the capacity for meme replication has evolved genetically can be found in most texts about the recently founded domain of memetics (Moritz, 1991).
Memetics can be defined as an approach trying to model the evolution of memes. Memes undergo processes of variation (mutation, recombination) of their internal structure. Different variants will compete for the limited memoryspace available in different individuals. The most fit variants will win this competition, and spread most extensively. Different criteria for the fitness of a meme, relative to other memes, can be formulated.
Variation, replication and selection on the basis of meme fitness determine a complex dynamics. This dynamics will be influenced by the medium through which memes are communicated, and the copying-fidelity, fecundity and longevity it allows. Perhaps the most powerful medium for meme transmission is the computer network, and this implies some specific characteristics for memes on the net.
As is the case with genes, it is not necessary to know the exact coding or even the exact size or boundaries of a meme in order to discuss its fitness, and thus to make predictions about its further spreading, survival or extinction within the population of competing memes. Such predictions can be empirically tested. For example, a memetic hypothesis might state that simpler memes will spread more quickly. This can be tested by observing the spread (perhaps in a controlled environment) of two memes that are similar in all respects, except that the one is simpler. Theories can also be induced from empirical observation of meme behavior "in the wild". Given the differences in variation and selection mechanisms, it is also possible to make predictions about the competition between memes and genes.
Since the psychophysical approach demonstrates that binary bits comprise memes that are 'alive', and exhibit RNA-type characteristics (just as some books that have been reproduced in libraries across the world for millennia constitute a kind of dormant 'virus' that latter-day readers can activate), then the most powerful form of "extra-corporeal 'DNA'" will be the metalanguage that facilitates a universal 'translation'. Put differently, although the Web can be regarded as a "literal global brain" from the standpoint of the individual's linear-logical left cerebral hemisphere [LH] 'out there' (in that it comprises a myriad binary bits that each of us can access in a cause-and-effect fashion in cyberspace), on the other hand in terms of right cereberal hemisphere [RH] (fractal) self-time the Web is *experienced* as his or her global psyche soma 'in here'. Moreover, since the ego has its origins in the soma (with all substitute-objects for the mother being felt to contain her smell-touch plus suppressed RH sensorimotor (fractal) self-time as originally instantiated within the homunculus that is the pre-object relations genital), this means that the global soma that we all ostensibly "share" via the Web can also be traced to the same source.
Any attempt to hinder the spread of a meme by eliminating its vectors. Hence, censorship is analogous to attempts to halt diseases by spraying insecticides. Censorship can never fully kill off an offensive meme, and may actually help to promote the meme's most virulent strain, while killing off milder forms.
- Memetic Lexicon
Memetics is vital to the understanding of cults, ideologies, and marketing campaigns of all kinds, and it can help to provide immunity from dangerous information-contagions. You should be aware, for instance, that you just been exposed to the Meta-meme, the meme about memes...
In memetics, ideas are viewed as almost independent creatures in a symbiotic relationship with human minds and cultures. A meme is a (cognitive) information-structure able to replicate using human hosts and to influence their behavior to promote replication.
Host = A host must be able to possess at least the potential capacity to elaborate on the meme and to perform those cognitive tasks connected to the meme that we normally refer to as "understanding". This means that only humans can be hosts (animals can perhaps become hosts for simpler memes, but we will not discuss this here), at least until the development of artificial intelligences reaches further.
Vector = A vector is anything that transports the meme between hosts without the capacity to reflect on the meme. Examples are a wall, a voice, an email-program, or a picture. Can a human be a vector? Yes she can, if she lacks the cognitive capacity (or interest) to elaborate on a specific meme. Then she is just a non-reflective carrier of the meme, much the same as a book. Note though that the human vector is still a potential host - or inactive host (Grant, 1990) - for the meme, should she suddenly choose to analyze the meme (in its widest sense) or achieve the contextual understanding which would make this possible.
Something that a host actively thinks about is less likely to be forgotten, and also more likely to influence behavior. Thus memes that encourage thinking or fantasizing about themselves or related concepts have increased chances of survival. Rituals and ceremony are often powerful reminders of the meme.
If a meme is to be spread by a host for a long time, the host must remember the meme. If a host is infected and later forgets the meme and/or stops acting out the new behavior before the host has spread the meme on, the host has not done the meme any more good than if the host had not been infected in the first place. Thus successful memes encourage permanent or long-lasting changes in the host. Note that it is not necessary for the hosts to remember the meme itself, just change their behaviors in a way that will promote the spread of the (reconstructed) meme.
Since human memory tends to be rather uncertain, external memory aids can also aid memes greatly not just as vectors, but as memory feedback.
If a host is infected by a scientific meme-complex he will be encouraged to read books relating to the meme complex. The host becomes likely to learn more and more about the theories rather than forgetting parts of them, and should he forget something relevant he can look it up again, the books can serve as memory feedback loops and also act as vectors for other parts of the meme-complex causing further infection.
After successful decoding the meme becomes part of the host's mental structures, and this is called infection. A person who does not remember a meme at all is not infected. A person that does remember a meme but who's behavior is not affected has thus become a human vector. A person whose behaviour is affected by a meme has been actively infected and can potentially transmit it to other hosts.
meme /meem/ n.
[coined by analogy with 'gene', by Richard Dawkins] An idea considered as a replicator, esp. with the connotation that memes parasitize people into propagating them much as viruses do. Used esp. in the phrase 'meme complex' denoting a group of mutually supporting memes that form an organized belief system, such as a religion. This lexicon is an (epidemiological) vector of the 'hacker subculture' meme complex; each entry might be considered a meme. However, `meme' is often misused to mean `meme complex'. Use of the term connotes acceptance of the idea that in humans (and presumably other tool- and language-using sophonts) cultural evolution by selection of adaptive ideas has superseded biological evolution by selection of hereditary traits. Hackers find this idea congenial for tolerably obvious reasons.
meme plague n.
The spread of a successful but pernicious meme, esp. one that parasitizes the victims into giving their all to propagate it. Astrology, BASIC, and the other guy's religion are often considered to be examples. This usage is given point by the historical fact that 'joiner' ideologies like Naziism or various forms of millennarian Christianity have exhibited plague-like cycles of exponential growth followed by collapses to small reservoir populations.
memetics /me-met'iks/ n.
[from meme] The study of memes. As of early 1999, this is still an extremely informal and speculative endeavor, though the first steps towards at least statistical rigor have been made by H. Keith Henson and others. Memetics is a popular topic for speculation among hackers, who like to see themselves as the architects of the new information ecologies in which memes live and replicate.
- _The New Hacker's Dictionary_ by Eric S. Raymond
In a way, the theory of evolution, which was born in the 1850s, was the beginning of the turning of the tide because even though the first 100 years of evolutionary theory was fantastically concerned to eliminate teleology, eliminate purpose, nevertheless nobody ever understood that except the hardcore evolutionists. To everyone else, evolution meant ascent to higher form. I once heard someone say "if it doesn't have to do with genes, it ain't evolution." Well, that's a tremendously limited view of what evolution is. The inorganic world is evolving, the organic world is evolving and there the currency is genes but also the social and intellectual world of human beings is evolving and there the currency is not genes but memes so that idea carries with it the implication of ascent to higher form and correctly broadened and understood becomes permission to optimism and to the kind of hope that these folks were trying to articulate.
McKenna lecture on Alchemy
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property."
-- Thomas Jefferson, U.S. President, Deist
Music and sound are tremendously powerful forces for organizing affect; their power to structure subjectivity, in the here and now and over time, makes them an incredibly productive language, one capable of overcoming the linear grids implied by text. This isn't just true of electronic music: all popular music functions, particularly for young people, as a way to construct and define a whole worldview, a whole position, a whole set of ways of organizing the world. It is no accident that you find the logic of youth subculture most strongly articulated around music. And in the world we're moving into, a world full of cultural viruses, memes, decentered subjects and unfolding para-spaces, these issues will only become more important.
- Erik Davis - _Acoustic Cyberspace_ lecture
There is no creation ex nihilo. We always work from pre-existing material, both literal substances (wood, a language, the resonance of strings and reeds) and the existing cultural organization of those materials within history, tradition, and contemporary networks of influence. So as we survey the expanding and converging landscape of electronic, virtual, and immersive production, we might ask ourselves: what material is being worked here? Is it simply new organizations of photons, sound waves, and haptic cues? Or does the "holistic" fusion of different media and the construction of more immersive technologies actually suggest another, perhaps more fundamental material?
- Erik Davis - _Experience Design And The Design Of Experience_
"a man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." - John F. Kennedy