Meme

by Andy West

Table of Contents
Part 1 and Part 2
appear in this issue.
part 3

He’d made a pact with himself to clean up the house a bit that evening. Gwen and Emily would be back in a few days. Abbey flitted in and out at will; he’d long since stopped trying to keep track or make her contribute to the household. She was headstrong, like her mother, and it simply wasn’t worth the furious rows that inevitably erupted.

After an arduous day however, not to mention a hot shower then a large Chinese meal and a beer too, the pact had collapsed. He was laid out on the sofa instead, dozing in front of a wildlife documentary.

The PDA’s default message alarm prodded him into a higher level of wakefulness. In the midst of a huge yawn, he grabbed the device and read while still reclining.

Hi,

Julia gave me your address. I think she was a little guilty about sending that message to you, because it’s not what it seems. In fact ‘Paradox and truth in our era’ is a negative association of things called memes, in this case forming a layered core of truth-tricks, a guilt hook, and a sweetener tail. I happen to study structures of this sort.

Well you probably think I’m talking gibberish, so maybe a little common sense will be much more helpful. I usually send the following generic paragraphs to people who want to understand what’s wrong with ‘Paradox’. They help to counter its effect. I can explain more about memes and how they work later, if you’re interested.

Regards, Memmet.

He had to read this twice to register what on earth it was talking about, though by then he was fully alert. Mention of memes and guilt-hooks, whatever the hell they might be, did indeed seem like gibberish. He wondered just who Julia had got herself mixed up with. But his curiosity was aroused too and he didn’t suppose it would do any harm to read the rest. After all, he’d agreed to do that much at least. He scrolled down a few lines and reached a separate section.

It would seem Dr. Icson wants us to believe that our society and all in it have no true value, just because we are modern. She implies we are somehow morally and qualitatively much worse than previous societies, who were less modern. As far as those personal habits she describes are concerned, she may speak for herself, but not for me or many others. Does she really speak for you?

As far as society is concerned, hasn’t she rather conveniently forgotten 1930s depression, when economic conditions forced people into jumping off buildings, or Victorian child slavery, or Elizabethan plague and lack of sewers, or medieval brutality, when your new neighbor might indeed have conversed with you, but he might equally well have stuck a knife in you for the price of a loaf! Despite the fact that our social structures are a very long way from ideal, on average they are more robust and morally enlightened and contain more understanding than any before them!

Rose-tinted glasses provide an extremely poor view, the magnifying glass of hard history is much better. I guess Edeth Icson’s doctorate is not in that particular field. Nobody is suggesting it’s great to watch too much TV, but practically all of our predecessors would have given their right arm for the income to buy such a marvelous luxury, and still better, some actual time away from raw survival to view the thing.

Working a fourteen-hour farm or factory shift, six days a week, let alone having nine screaming kids, is also very inconvenient when you want to find time to express love, have meaningful discourse with neighbors, or even remain generally well, all of which she implies were done better in (presumably) bygone times. Yet a great majority of people in the relatively near past had to live through conditions of just this sort!

If Dr. Icson really wanted to express what’s wrong with our times, it is surely the awful status of the Third World, a problem mainly created by our own ancestors. These indeed had smaller houses and worse medicine, but also a great deal less judgment, plus a huge number of cannons and an enormous prejudice not reined at all by today’s moral sense. They virtually obliterated native infra-structures and appropriated natural resources without restraint.

The transmission point of Dr. Icson’s message is in America. Although she does not say what time in history she is comparing “our era” to, I suggest most Americans would not even want to go back as far as the Seventies, to the tense Cold War and bloody Vietnam. Or indeed the horrors of the Second World War, or the desperate poverty of the Thirties and the casual violence Prohibition prompted back through the Twenties. Or the barbaric First World War, or Civil War and slavery. Need I go on?

And this is not to mention the virtual annihilation of the Native American race, in which many slaughters of the defenseless continued up to only a hundred and twenty-odd years ago, at Wounded Knee. That was a symptom of the times of course, much like the European conquest referred to above, grudges should not be held. But who in their right mind would ever want to resurrect such times or claim they were better?

Well this is just a taster, so hopefully you may perceive there is some kind of flaw in Dr. Icson’s verse. But what flaw? I’ll bet her words made you feel good, perhaps even inspired. I’ll bet you got a warm feeling thinking about them later in the day. Yet how can this be if they are unsound?

I suppose too that my own efforts above will seem long-winded and clumsy by comparison, much more difficult to digest. Maybe even now you still want to believe Dr. Icson instead. It’s likely you can’t find an error in her so-wise and elegant little verses. I admit that is difficult.

Yet I hope you’ve gleaned enough to realize there is a hollow ring behind their sweet tone. If so, maybe it will encourage your skepticism to discover there is no such person as Dr. Icson! Her philosophy is entirely fraudulent, all insights it apparently contains are worthless! Even her name is part of the ruse. If you rearrange this name slightly, as normally placed after the verse title, you get: “Paradox and truth in our era — DoctorEd ethIcs on.”

So where did these doctored ethics arise from? How come they work so well to convince people? How do they work at all? How can they actually amount to nothing when they seem so utterly true? In fact their lineage may be thousands of years old, and they have acquired many tricks inside their few words to deceive unwary minds. You may be comforted to know that millions of others have been fooled along with you.

The answers are rather lengthy, but if you want to follow up this intriguing mystery and learn about the magical tricks of ancient memes, just reply with ‘send more’.

These words induced a curious feeling of shock and disorientation. As though he’d been flying free and the hard ground had suddenly rushed up to impact him, not only leaving him winded but also robbed of liberty and weightlessness.

The message wasn’t at all what he expected, which is to say full of techno-speak from some weird computer geek telling him he’d been ‘spammed’, or maybe suspicious pseudo-science from someone worse still. Neither did it come across as honeyed or veiled or mystic or misleading. It just looked like a big slice of flat common sense, as Memmet’s introduction had said it would be. And he was forced to admit this text raised some very good points. The bit about prejudiced ancestors and the Third World particularly, had cast a stark flare into his mind. It flew directly in the face of ‘Paradox’ and exposed the fact that something was not at all right.

Then prickling discomfort crept over him. He had indeed felt warm and inspired after reading the fictitious Dr. Icson’s verses. Even rather smug for some strange reason. But how could this Memmet guy possibly have known that? Embarrassment heated his cheeks, from reflecting on just the possibility that a malicious construction of some sort might have fooled him so completely. Even worse, people would be aware of his error, people that included Julia!

And yet he wasn’t wholly convinced. He didn’t think he drank too much and he most certainly didn’t spend too much, but other people seemed to be doing so more and more. Surely too there really was more anger and hate these days; what about his vandalized tree and that poor businessman near the park? And no-one could possibly say it was wrong to express love or appreciate exciting moments.

He slipped into a kind of intellectual limbo. Maybe the truth was some sort of complex compromise. And who was Memmet anyway? The man’s text apparently originated in the United Kingdom, but that wasn’t much help. Why should this complete stranger be any more believable than the incognito author of ‘Paradox’? Maybe the latter was indeed over-selling cynicism from the safety of anonymity, but nevertheless, whoever it was also seemed to have succeeded in opening a lid on taboo realities in the process.

Other awkward questions sprang to his mind. What was Memmet’s motive in taking the time to talk to him? Julia had warned of a virus action, but Memmet hadn’t explained. What was that aspect all about? What on earth were memes anyway?

He looked them up on the web. There were several different definitions. The most widespread one seemed to be: “A meme is the smallest unit in cultural evolution; analogous to genes in biological evolution”. This was not at all helpful, but embarrassment and frustration dictated that he couldn’t leave the situation as it stood. His curiosity was aroused too, and if Julia had managed to follow this path, he sure as hell could. He sent off a text.

Send more. Who exactly are you by the way?

He flipped through a few TV channels to calm his mind, then was just about to lever himself out of the comfort of the sofa, when he was surprised to get an almost immediate reply. He thought perhaps Memmet was a real nerd, and in fact preferred this kind of conversation rather than watching TV or going down the pub. Yet then he saw the mysterious character was claiming a hectic schedule.

Actually I’m incredibly busy right now, balancing what seems like a million tasks! So if you don’t mind, I’ll start off with a standard primer on memes first. I’m more than happy to answer your questions later, and also pass on a detailed analysis of the way ‘Paradox’ and other messages like it perform their tricks. But I guess you’ll need to absorb this stuff first anyhow, so you can better appreciate my explanations. Please send again when you’re ready.

Memmet.

He considered whether this might be an evasion of his identity query, but he supposed Memmet could be genuinely rushed right now and that had passed him by. In which case, he reluctantly concluded, it was good of the guy to give any answer at all so soon. He scrolled down.

The best way to think of a meme is as ‘a cultural packet’. Even this can be a little bit misleading, because the amount of culture involved may be very small, e.g. a single picture or a short phrase, or even an action like say a salute or a bow. The important thing is that it can easily be transmitted from person to person, effectively transmitting or replicating the meme. For instance a salute can be imitated, or you might scrawl onto a wall some slogan you once saw elsewhere, so it might be read by many other people.

The premise is that memes have a kind of independent ‘life’ of their own!

Alan snorted skeptically at this point. Maybe Memmet was into ridiculous pseudo-science after all!

Although the model should not be taken too far, memes can be compared to biological viruses that spread throughout the human race. Via natural selection, they also improve their ability to spread. In other words, a meme may change slightly upon each re-transmission, and those changes that make it propagate better will generate a larger meme population, which eventually dominates.

In these days of computers, it’s even easier to think of a meme as a software virus, with all our brains forming the chief ‘computer’ medium in which they spread. Although not all memes are negative by any means, some certainly are! Like real viruses they possess no true intelligence of course; yet such abilities they may have, such ‘purpose’ if you like, is purely bent on replication. They don’t and in fact can’t care about any positive or negative side-effects to us of doing this!

The viral model is most useful for simpler memetic types, yet some propose that whole cultural themes, such as communism or particular religions for instance, display memetic behavior. More complex models are used in these cases.

The written or spoken word clearly offers great scope to memes, but it’s conjectured that there were memes even before we learned to speak. Looking at a basic meme that is not made up from words makes the principles easier to understand.

One extremely simple meme used as a marker in scientific discussion, is ‘wearing a baseball cap backwards’. This cultural package perhaps started when daredevil young men used to turn their flat caps backwards while attempting whatever jape or physical exertion amused them at the time, but who knows? It could have much older roots.

Anyway, at some later point and via imitation, American youths of a rebellious or non-mainstream nature were turning their baseball caps backwards to emphasize non-conformity. Nowadays, the habit has spread so much that it’s almost conformist. But it serves as a useful example.

Some scientists hold that ‘cap turning’ is an effect on its own, blindly replicating and having no limitation within the media it occupies (humans!). Others regard this view as too simplistic. They point out there are dependencies on the overall cultural medium a meme occupies, meaning it cannot act entirely independently and may not necessarily spread everywhere. So for instance ‘cap turning’ could not originally infect many non-western societies, because turbans (Sikhs), skull caps (Jews), headscarves (Arabs), Fezzes (Turks) etc. are a meaningless medium for ‘cap turning’. These headgears are the same either way around!

However, consider an invading avalanche of western cultural memes, along with our ‘cap turning’ example and all acting in concert. Then rock music, fashions and other such memetic types may eventually predispose some portion of non-western societies to wear baseball caps, at which point ‘cap turning’ can also get a foothold.

So although a viral model is helpful, at least for simple memes, certain limitations may apply. Another limit on ‘cap turning’ would be a fatal decline of baseball in America. Should this ever happen, headgear fashions might change, possibly wiping out styles that can meaningfully be turned. So the survival of an individual meme and the larger culture that spawned it, may be strongly linked.

Okay, on to more complex and word-based memes...


To be continued...


Quotes from Daniel W. VanArsdale’s paper “Chain Letter Evolution”: copyright Daniel W. VanArsdale, by kind permission of Daniel W. VanArsdale.

Copyright © 2007 by Andy West

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