Tag Archives: memes

The Revolution Will (or Will Not) be…

I’ll get to some thoughts on the 7 Habits next week. Suffice it to say that I don’t hold to the Jester’s cynical assessment of the book. The principles in that book are fundamentally decent, the kind of truths that can change a person’s life. I’ll admit that some of the more hokey suggestions in there have not worked out particularly well for me. For the most part, though, Covey did a great job in presenting empowering material to a wide audience.

On an unrelated note,
I have heard the phrase “The Revolution will not be Televised”
– it gets bandied about from to time. Removing the entries for “televised”, here are some amusing google search samples of peoples’ opinions on “The Revolution,” a collection of mutant memes.


(out of 185,000), The Revolution Will Be…
Downloaded, fictionalized, mobilized, Wikified, Digitized, blogged, Photocopied, Syndicated, Caramelized, Streaming, Litigated, Personalized, Twittered, Digitized, localized, Prosthetized

(out of a close second place at 135,000) The Revolution Will Not Be…
Socialized, Microwaved, Designed, Funded, Destabilized, Motorized, Advertised, pasteurized, Bolshevised, American, Invoiced, Podcast, T-SHIRTED, Theorized, YouTubed

My contribution: The Revolution will be poorly defined.


ideas can ‘hijack’ a person’s mind and make them do things

I think that some people are uncomfortable with the memetic perspective because it presupposes that an idea can ‘hijack’ a person’s mind and make them do things. Dan Dennett speaks at length about this notion. A meme is a semi-autonomous thing: it is an idea that spreads through minds as if it had a will of its own. People don’t like to think of ideas as things that control them. For most people who think of “ideas” in the abstract, they are like items in a catalog, not programs resident in memory. A post over at meme-weaver gave me an interesting example of exactly the hijacking that poeple are afraid of (and that fear is not without reason).

Here is the example. What Derren Brown implants into his mark’s brain is not a meme per se, since it does not spread. But it does show that an idea can be implanted in such a way that it hijacks a person’s brain rather than becoming a passive item within it.

Here is one explanation for how this was done. Based on neurolinguistic programming

There are a bunch of tricks that D. Brown has played that expose deeply the vulnerabilities of our minds. He’s a magician; he doesn’t want his memes to spread. A magician never reveals the trick.  But the tricks are out there, spreading by inducing people to spread them.  The marketing magicians know it.  I think we should too.


two examples to illustrate the usefulness of the memetic paradigm

I can think of two examples to illustrate the usefulness of the memetic paradigm. The first is a post on VilralOne , a blog on memetics. The blog entry describes the philosophical underpinnings and history of memetics. It is thorough. It goes into a great many criticisms of the memetic paradigm and how they might be countered. And, eventually, discourse of this kind might win memetics a grudging place in academia. From there, it could spread (a meta-meme) into the popular consciousness of young students who would then put it to (presumably) good use. Eventually, it could influence the development of good ideas in a similar fashion to how Darwins’ ideas helped influence the development of molecular genetics. This would validate the current memeticist’s perspective and efforts, but probably not in their lifetime.

In a sense, this is an example of the old method for memetic success. Problem: memetics is not an accepted science. Solution: write a careful, long description of why it is worth accepting, then wait 100 years.

There is another way for memetics to gain acceptance, and that is the direct and immediate application to current problems. Take the example of Godwin’s law. Godwin noticed that when discussion on the ‘net got heated, it was almost inevitable that someone would make a Nazi comparison. He wanted to design a meme to combat it, so he wrote Godwin’s law. The new form is that “once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its usefulness is over,” but that is not how Godwin phrased it originally. He started a meme, and it evolved. And it was, arguably, successful. People seem to be more careful about making comparisons to Nazism, as they don’t want to be the person who takes the discussion over the line into uselessness (or at least they don’t want people to call them out by invoking Godwin’s law).

Godwin designed this idea specifically as a meme. And so it stands as a success story of the memetic perspective. Memetics, philosophically sound or not, is useful. It is an intellectual tool and need not be a philosophy of life. I’m neither a social scientist nor a committed materialist. Both of those people might have reason to be threatened by memetics if they refuse to adapt. Social scientist may well have to learn a new vocabulary as their field is eclipsed by a new one. Strict materialists may have to accept that a new perspective explains human behavior without specific reference to biology. Of course, genetics was a successful science long before the specifics of DNA replication were known, and it’s probable that neurobiology and memetics will be reconciled eventually.

But in the end, reconciling these disparate ideas (sociology, biology, memetics) by way of philosophical discourse is inefficient. It will happen eventually if all of them prove to be useful descriptors of the same thing. Look at the history of M-theory or Quantum Electrodynamics. The big upshot is in that key word: useful. And the marketing companies already know that memetics is the wave of the future.


prions, mad cows and memes

Years ago, when I was in school, there were two sources of transmissible disease: bacteria an viruses. This idea was so well entrenched that it was very hard to suggest that there might be a third category. Of course, congenital disease and poisons cause disease, too, but these are nottransmissible. In the last 10 years, a new kind of disease-causing element was isolated: the prion. Even 5 years ago it was a contentious issue, but my sense of the landscape is that the consensus has been reached: there are proteins that mis-form and then cause other proteins to mis-form.

It’s known that these proteins get from one animal to another through cannibalism. If a mad cow eats another mad cow, it spreads the disease. How the mis-folded proteins get from the gut to the brain remains a mystery as best I have heard. I’d be really interested to learn of new findings in that area. In any case, there were some rumors in 2004 that there might be a more virulent form of prion disease in caribou, but I never heard any more about it. Interesting trivia, prions and some spider silk proteins are both amyloids.

I ramble on about this to illustrate a point: extremely unlikely things (flukes) can have a strong impact if they are in an environment that is “propagative”. I’ll illustrate with a flower analogy then talk about prions again. Let’s say I have a hundred acres of fresh, beautiful, irrigated, tilled soil. It’s ready for seed, but it’s in the middle of a desert and there are no seeds. It’s isolated. The event of a single seed (the size of a grain of sand) falling in that huge hundred acres would be impossible to notice. If you looked for seeds with a magnifying glass, you could look for your whole life and never see one land. But if you just wait and look for flowers, you have a much better chance of inferring that a plant has landed. Probably if a seed lands you won’t notice. You might not even notice the first plant. But given a few growing seasons, you will see a whole patch of earth covered with all of that one seed’s great grandchildren. The event was rare, but its consequences grow very quickly in that fertile ground.

Now let’s return to prions. The seed is a single protein molecule mis-folding. It causes other proteins to mis fold. That means that the fertile ground upon which this seed has fallen is the cow’s brain. And the plant that grows is madness. If cow’s brains are isolated, that’s not a big deal for anyone but that cow. But if the cow’s brains are brought into proximity to other cow’s brains, then that one seed (no matter how rare) will take up the whole space eventually.

Eventually, I’d like to talk about memes on this space. Memes are like flowers and prions and seeds. Given fertile space, they spread. The consequences of that are entirely dependent on the type of meme. Some are beneficial and some are detrimental; some are slow to grow while others spread quickly. They are ideas that jump from one mind to another. As humans, we can choose the memes for which we make our minds a habitat. That is one of our greatest gifts.

More to come.