Meme

by Andy West

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Alan Bradley, a traditional, private man, is the keeper of his local town park. A series of social, political, and ecological misfortunes embitter him. But he does have personal contacts, and ready access to the Internet.

An e-mail chain letter cheers him up at first, but then he learns that the message is not what it pretends to be: it is, in fact, an insidious cultural virus.

Alan is drawn inexorably into witnessing titanic struggles taking place within humanity’s collective subconscious, battles that are projected onto the stage of human culture and history. To be able to decide whom and what to believe, Alan must, like the rest of us, first be inoculated against the viruses within.

part 4


Alan yawned and stretched. Actually the concept didn’t seem as far-fetched as he’d supposed at the start. He could see how some memes with more catchy characteristics might survive better than others, prospering through their human hosts. And Memmet didn’t seem to be proposing they were alive in any sentient kind of way.

Nevertheless, Alan couldn’t really make a link between ‘cap turning’ and the ‘Paradox’ verses. He considered going to bed, but had to admit this stuff had captured his interest. Maybe the next section on ‘word memes’ would fill in the missing connection.

He wandered out to the kitchen, speculating once again on just who Memmet was. Perhaps an academic of some sort? He also wondered how Julia had come across him. And why was a complete stranger taking so much trouble to explain all this stuff? This Memmet seemed to be as much of a puzzle as his memes. He resolved to ask some blunt questions about the man’s background when he’d finished reading.

He oscillated between getting a cup of tea or another beer. Finally weakening and deciding on the latter, he returned to the lounge and settled down again.

Okay, on to more complex and word-based memes. You’re probably familiar with many of these. The myth of Atlantis is a powerful meme. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote the original story around 360 B.C. Since then it’s become a tremendously popular and tenacious tale. The text was almost certainly an invented model for an ideal city, a warning, too, against the rise of debased behavior, though the destruction and sinking may possibly have been borrowed from a real earthquake disaster in the ancient world.

However, there are now millions of people in all walks of life who believe, or at least would like to believe, that Atlantis really did exist. Some are actually convinced it was, or possibly still is, populated by super-humans or maybe even aliens! The power of complex memes is apparent here.

Many variants and side-tales and mysteries have grown from the original Atlantis meme, for it has had well over two thousand years to replicate by whatever chances natural selection provided. Like flu, its various strains have infected much of the population and by now it may be impossible to eradicate, no matter how often the medicine of common-sense is applied.

Freedom to evolve came when the original text fell into obscurity; indeed, portions have never been recovered, so there was little opportunity for the meme’s evolution to be short-circuited back down to earth, i.e. to sense and historical truth! In fact, rampant growth of the ‘Atlantis family’ memes coincided with an explosion of popular writing in the Victorian era, when classical themes were also very fashionable.

This example demonstrates some very interesting characteristics of memes. Those that appeal to us will replicate more successfully, those that don’t will die out. So, stories like Atlantis may become more mysterious and entrancing over time, offering hope of things we desire, like an ideal society or super-beings to look after us.

An evolutionary advantage is also conferred by remaining vague, as this prevents more mundane truths from sabotaging the meme’s clever factors of hope and appeal. In contrast, a scientific thesis, which is forced to describe exactly a reality that also may not be particularly attractive, will more than likely be consigned to minority-interest textbooks forever, probably not spawning variants unless it is newly proposed and so for a time may be inaccurate or wrong. Memes that are not strongly bounded in this way, for instance those of fiction, will display much more typical evolutionary behavior.

It is also interesting to note that the complex meme of Atlantis is thousands of years old, spanning not just language barriers but the life of entire civilizations! It also seems that Plato drew on existing myths of his time to create the story, so in fact its true lineage may go back way before 360 B.C. This also demonstrates that memes may mix and merge through the action of human agents. Atlantis is mentioned as a side-tale in Plato’s Timaeus, the rambling text of which has both the characteristics of a scientific analysis of creation, yet also still a creation-myth too.

A modern, entirely artificial creation-myth was created by Tolkien in The Silmarillion, and within this work we find yet another form of the Atlantis meme, where a similar punishment is meted out to the hapless folk of a powerful land. The isle of Númenor and its great civilization is cast down and drowned by Eru, when in pride and folly the Númenorian king, Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, led a mighty fleet towards the deathless lands in order to challenge the gods and wrest immortality from them.

Not all memes are negative. Indeed the various Atlantis myths make pleasant stories and are perfectly benign, as long as you don’t take them too literally (which unfortunately some people do). However, not all memes are benign. In domains like fringe religions and pseudo-science, negative memes abound, and it is hard to tell sometimes whether they control the people or the people control them.

It is certainly the case that the lineage of some memes can be much older than the people who propagate them, in a few cases possibly thousands of years old, like Atlantis. The usual problem with negative memes is that they mask important truths, which a responsible, voting populace would be much better off knowing about.

Extra note: Even simple, lighter memes like that ‘Paradox’ message, can spread serious misconceptions and confusion. They have a disturbing capacity to convince and stay lodged in the brain. If you want to know how they do that, just reply with ‘send more’. I hope you’re still interested! Memmet.

Alan absently finished off his beer while his brain buzzed with high thoughts and intriguing questions. The Perilous Quest for Lyonesse had been one of his favorite series of books as a teenager. He was vaguely aware that Lyonesse was a Cornish version of Atlantis, sometimes aligned to legends of Arthur Pendragon. Yet he’d never known where the original tale came from and had often wondered, even secretly hoping it might hold a small kernel of truth. In a single stroke, Memmet had somehow both banished and validated his childhood dreams and fancies.

The viral model of memes was beginning to dawn on him, though clearly if the whole of the Atlantis myth was memetic, spawning relatives like Lyonesse and others, they could certainly be pretty complex.

The proposal about political and religious themes was interesting too; he’d often thought of cult religions as a kind of ‘social disease’ himself. But if ‘Paradox’ was also a meme, he still didn’t really understand how it worked, or why its survival was so dependent on telling lies instead of the truth, if indeed that was the case.

In fact he was so engaged in Memmet’s explanation of memes, he’d almost forgotten that this enigmatic giver of wisdom had yet to demonstrate ‘Paradox’ really was a clever deception, though in practice he hardly doubted it now. That part of the revelation might be coming next, it seemed, but he wanted to make sure.

Send more. But please concentrate on the actual Paradox verses this time! I can see why the Atlantis myth evolved to be mysterious and attractive, but if Paradox is similar, what is it really saying and why is it so appealing? Alan.

It was late, past the hour he should be in bed if he was going to make it to work on time. But then, even through beery forgetfulness and the diversion of intellectual inspiration, he recalled his suspicion and couldn’t resist firing off a few searching queries before retiring.

Why are you bothering to explain all this to me? How do you know so much about memes anyhow? Although I appreciate your time, how do I really know any of this stuff can be believed! Do you come from England, or are you at least in the same time-zone as me? A.

* * *

He lay in bed thinking about lost childhood and Lyonesse. Thoughts transmuted to dreams as his consciousness slowly gave ground to sleep.

Sharp, snow-capped mountains plumed over azure in the face of a stiff northerly. A forest of flaming rowans spilled down their lower slopes, penetrating the dappled ochre and green of oak groves at lower elevations and in the midst of their own autumnal turning. Grey rivers of melt snaked swiftly through woody tunnels, to drop in rainbow cascades over wind-lashed cliffs and be devoured by white riders on tall waves of royal-blue. It was a chill land, but settled by a wise, warm-hearted people. They had no TVs, but their judgment was famed and indigestion was utterly unknown in their land.

* * *


Proceed to part 5...

Copyright © 2007 by Andrew West

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