the Disillusioned kid: The Meme Machine vs. The War Machine
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Monday, May 23, 2005

The Meme Machine vs. The War Machine

Continuing the pretentiously academic tone from yesterday this post will focus on memetics, the study of evolutionary models of information transmission (although I'm sure you knew that already). More specifically memeticists are concerned with the study of memes and the way they are propagated through societies.

The term meme was originated by biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book The Selfish Gene (specifically in Chapter 11, available online here). In it he sought to suggest that the logic which leads to natural selection of genes could be applied to any other "differentially surviving replicating entities." The specific "replicator" he chose to discuss was the meme:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.'
This process echoes natural selection and biological evolution insofar as memes can be considered to compete. Those which have features which make them more succesful in the "meme pool" than others are more likely to replicate and so will be spread further than others.

In recent years memetics seems to have been a boom area of study. There has been extensive scholarly debate on the topic across a range of fields, academic conferences, books and even a scientific journal on the topic. Anyone seeking to find out more could do worse than checking out UK Memes Central maintained by Susan Blackmore one of the leading thinkers in the area and author of The Meme Machine.

Now some of you may be thinking that this is all very interesting, while remaining at loss to explain what it has to do with anything at all, let alone any of the matters more usually covered here. The connection, I suggest, is that most of what I write can be seen as an attempt to spread memes or meme-complexes (defined by Principia Cybernetica's Memetic Lexicon as "a set of mutually-assisting memes which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship" and perhaps exemplified by religion). The definition of a "memetic-engineer" offered by Principa Cybernetica as, "one who consciously devises memes, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others," sounds very much like what I and many of my comrades engage in on a regular basis. Indeed one could argue that such memetic engineering lies at the very heart of all politics.

A good example of a radical meme would be the "Not in My Name" slogan which emerged in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. This appeared on placards at demonstrations across the world and was taken up by a number of campaigning groups in different countries. Marxism is perhaps a good example of a radical meme-complex, while its inumerable variations (Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism, Gramscian, Autonomism etc.) is perhaps illustrative of the role mutation can play in the process of memetic evolution. (Principa Cybernetica suggest that these different interpretations may also constitute a range of different sociotypes of the original memotype, but even I'm getting lost by this point.)

What interests me is how this insight (whether we see it as an accurate description of the spread of ideas and the evolution of culture or merely as a useful analogy) is whether there is any way the process can be manipulated by radical memetic engineers once they become aware of it. Several of the definitions on Principia Cybernetica point to overtly political roles for memes. A "vaccine" for instance is a "meta-meme which confers resistance or immunity to one or more memes, allowing that person to be exposed without acquiring an active infection." They suggest that conservatism (with a small 'c') is a good example of this as it protects the "host" by encouraging them to "automatically resist all new memes." Unfortunately they have nothing to say about how these defences might be surmounted, which must be possible as there are examples of numerous instances of people shifting ideological stance (although I'm prepared to concede that people more often shift towards conservatism than away). Another idea which is of interest, to me at least, is the idea of an "infection strategy" which is "any memetic strategy which encourages infection of a host." Examples include the villain vs. victim strategy and a sense of community, which perhaps recalls my comments yesterday on the role of identities in radical politics.

When I started writing this I had hoped that I would be able to make some startilingly original assertions about how activism should be carried out in light of the meme hypotehsis. Unfortunately it dawned on me in the process of writing that this wasn't in fact the case. While I think that a memetic approach potentially very useful in helping us to understand the way ideas spread and become succesful, I don't think that it has anything new to tell us about what we can do to spread our ideas more effectively. In fact, this whole post seems a little pointless, although it can be seen as my own small contribution to the propagation of the meme meme.

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