Wednesday, 4 July 2018

On Memes (Before There Were Memes About Memes)


I was scrolling through some of my archival writings when putting together one of my books, and in my 'Essays' folder I found this piece I'd written in 1997 about memes, which seemed oddly pertinent given today's news about the latest foolish EU directive to force online agencies to automatically filter out any copyrighted material uploaded.

I thought it worth sharing for one simple reason - not because I have anything fresh to say about memes, but because it did strike me that this is one of those rare opportunities to share an old perspective on something that may be widely in common parlance now, but that at the time of writing was a fairly esoteric term known only by those familiar with Richard Dawkins' seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene, from which the term 'meme' was first coined.

So I'm sharing my meme essay, solely for the purpose of giving readers the chance to see what my younger self thought about the memes 21 years ago when he had no idea they would go on to be so widespread, and that the term would be co-opted to represent far more than in its inceptive use.

Reprinted below:

On Memes
A lot of people share ideas and views that are valuable (don't steal from your boss, look before you cross the road, white t-shirts are better than black ones on a boiling hot day, and so on). But a lot of people also share ideas and views that are foolish and damaging (give pregnant women thalidomide, price controls are a good idea, vandalism is cool, and so on).

One word can aptly describe why all this happens - and that word is 'memes'. Just like mutations in DNA, ‘memes’ are packets of information passed from mind to mind. Just about any piece of information has the potential to be passed on like a meme, so long as there is a reason for it to be passed on. When a pregnant woman thinks it's fine to smoke 40 a day, and when a leftie asserts that the world is unfairly unequal and that we need a revolution, they are both acting on past, often very subtle, information signals.

Consequently it is to be expected that people believe all sorts of great and foolish things, as society involves lots of meme sound-bites that get passed on rather like how germs get passed on - by contagion. The reason memes are somewhat analogous to genes in biology is that they have characteristics that lend themselves to being preferentially duplicated or repeated.

Of course, memes are not simply the copying of the same information over and over again; just like genetic mutations, they are susceptible to insertion (where something extra is added to an idea), deletion (where something is taken away) and point mutation (where a part of the idea is changed into something else), as well as straightforward duplication (the copying of an idea).

Memes are cultural, and as such they are Lamarckian in that they are acquired characteristics that are inherited. They comprise elements of cultural ideas, symbols or practices that transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena - and as a consequence, they demonstrate both the wisdom and the foolishness of the human race.

They act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures. If one thinks of examples such as catchy melodies, catchphrases, religious beliefs, superstitions, jokes, clothing, fashion and technology, we see that this gives evidence of the memetic propagation of language, terms and ideas. 

Here's an example. Suppose we have two memes with regard to girls’ hairstyles. Meme 1 involves a girl tying her hair in a pony tail, whereas meme 2 involves a girl tying her hair in barrel hitch knots. If tying one’s hair in a pony tail induces comfort, convenience, happiness and positive feedback, then meme 1 will be duplicated and repeated with increased frequency. If, however, tying one’s hair in barrel hitch knots induces more comfort, convenience, happiness and positive feedback, then meme 2 will be duplicated and repeated with increased frequency.

As a general rule of thumb, a meme will spread depending on how its characteristics affect the organism. The mark of a good meme is one that is often expressed in voluntary behaviour, relative to other memes, due to the fact that it has left the organism feeling rewarded. The fact that pony tails are popular and barrel hitch knots are not tells us everything we need to know about their selectability in girls' hairstyles.

Even as I observe the first few pages in today's edition of a friend's daily newspaper, meme theory seems well suited to describe the cycles observed in fashion trends (in today’s case, the rise and fall of skirt lengths depending on whether girls would rather be modest or feel suggestive), or the popularity of certain belief systems (in today’s case, the popularity that Buddhism is gaining as a reaction to the hectic pace of modern life, and the popularity that both Scientology and Kabbalah are gaining due to the celebrities that endorse them).

Not wishing to invoke any ‘conscious thinking’ to memes (at least, not in the sense we are discussing here), but given that memes are packets of information looking to get themselves copied through various kinds of receptacles (computers, newspapers, magazines, billboards, radios, letters, and most generally of all, brains themselves) there are inevitably going to be a great many bad memes that spread throughout populations causing harm to their hosts. 

In fact, in many respects a lot of the bad memes are more likely to be passed on than the good memes, because many of the ideas and beliefs that are most easily embraced are the overly-simplistic ones that we don't take enough time learning to resist. For example, a lot of beliefs are adopted because they facilitate polarising black vs white thinking, highly selective worldviews, emotional appeals for quick-fix solutions to complex problems, and attraction to the kinds of dogmatic certainty and trivialisation of contra-contentions that we see in cults and ideologically driven political groups.

Given the ease with which new memes are formed, and how rapidly they spread, humanity will always have memetic diversity, and this yields lots of competing ideas and human flaws regarding how to assimilate a multitude of ideas into a coherent worldview.

With genes there is selection for the fittest organism, where biological forms acquire traits that better enable them to adapt to specific environmental situations, which results in their improved evolvability due to the perpetuation of those beneficial traits in the generations that succeed them.

With memes there is nothing quite so effective. For memes, there is selection for the behaviour that the organism finds the most satisfying, easy to understand, personally self-congratulatory and culturally consistent - and this gives no guarantee that bad ideas won't endure - especially if, as seems inevitable, the world's population becomes more and more closely connected through increased technology capacity.

 James Knight 1997
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