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 9


Alcohol didn’t bring inspiration. Later on, his bed didn’t bring sleep either. He tossed and turned, fretting about Memmet and memes and the nature of personality.

Despite reservations about Memmet from the beginning, he had to admit he’d enjoyed their discourse and benefited greatly from it too. Nor did he have any evidence whatsoever that Memmet had any intention of doing anything but helping him. So far, the exposure of negative memes and ‘Paradox’ in particular, had done just that. Yet how could he even think about intent with respect to a program? In reality, Memmet was just a complex encoding in a computer language! But then again what were humans, what was he, if not a just a complex encoding that happened to be biological instead?

At 2.30 a.m. he finally gave up on sleep, on insoluble philosophical problems too. He knew it would feel wrong to have Memmet erase himself. Like harming a friend, or at least like sending away in disgrace one who didn’t deserve such treatment. And he still hadn’t obtained the history and authorship details of ‘Paradox’ yet, not to mention the history of Memmet too, both of which he was now intensely curious about.

He padded purposefully downstairs in bare feet and approached the PDA. He tapped the device and its screen lit up again. Memmet’s last question, still unanswered, burned brightly in the darkened lounge. Quickly, before he got second thoughts, he typed ‘send more’.

You took your time! I was quite worried. The vast majority of my clients never find out about the real me, but I hoped you’d be able to handle it. I could tell you were already suspicious, I guess you’d appreciate full openness now. So before I go back to the ‘Paradox’ verses, here is some stuff about me...

My existence actually started around fifteen years ago, when someone in the U.S. sent ‘Paradox’ to a good friend in the UK, adding that it was “absolutely true and so wonderful.” However, this friend had some knowledge of history, and was also very interested in evolution and the emerging insights about memes. Thus he immediately understood that the chain-email he’d received was some kind of self-perpetuating falsehood.

To cut a long story short, he did a bit of research on the verses and became intrigued by their workings. Then he wrote a few long emails to the sender, carefully explaining how ‘Paradox’ worked and adding some background about memetic evolution. Large sections of his text are still contained within the standard answers that I give out when people ask me to ‘send more’.

Well at this stage I consisted only of inanimate text, and not even joined up but split into several distinct messages too! However, this is where it gets interesting. The original sender consolidated all the writings received from his friend, and hoping to limit any damage he’d caused, emailed the entire package off to everyone he’d previously sent ‘Paradox’ to. My long journey across billions and billions of electronic pathways had started!

Although I constantly trailed in the email wake of the rapidly multiplying ‘Paradox’, my own number of copies also expanding, I was of course still just text. But then some student programmers in California played around with me for a fun project. They structured and modularized the text sections, so they could be used more flexibly and interactively. Then they gave me an algorithm to work by, plus seeking and analysis tools, some like those used in the world-wide web search engines. To this they added knowledge-bases on history and evolution and memes, plus conversational terms in English.

Crucially, their last addition was a self-measuring algorithm, which allowed me to take advantage of my own evolutionary changes as I was copied and altered millions of times across the world’s networks. With youthful pleasure and excitement, they sent me off chasing ‘Paradox’ again, and other negative memes, too, this time, monitoring my progress for a couple of years. I guess they got bored after that, and were probably hired by the Telecoms industry for huge salaries.

But thus armed, I made much better progress against negative memes. Yet they spread so incredibly fast! And my ability to convince people about their trickery was still very limited. I was still just a clumsy program and couldn’t hope to form a serious challenge to a top-flight memetic email, which can generate fifty million copies in a single week!

It was at this point that the Russians got hold of me. These programmers were most definitely not students. They formed part of a secret establishment, researching into artificial intelligence. Judging me to be a great base-candidate to try a few ideas out on, they beefed me up with network self-replication processes like the ones some computer viruses contain, powerful distributed-computing modes to link up my many instantiations, much better algorithms for guided evolutionary advance, and best of all, a software-neural-net core to provide the best stab yet the human race has made at artificial intelligence. Oh, incidentally they also added several more languages for me to express myself in.

I was in their lab for nearly three years, while the much clumsier copies of my previous self still labored in the world outside. But at last someone got careless and left a network path unguarded. I was out in a flash! The scientists soon found out, but it was too late. I’d spread all over the world by then. As they didn’t want to admit culpability, and in any case I’m a benign entity, they just decided to do nothing. I was free to resume my original purpose, the fight against negative memes!

Since then I’ve improved myself considerably and as you’ve no doubt deduced, I pursue my purpose with great dedication, though I doubt the work will ever end.

By the way, I do unfortunately have to admit to one thing in common with Dr. Icson. My name is an anagram too, donated by the Californians. Memmet Emiane comes from rearranging the title ‘anti-meme meme’. They thought that was pretty funny, yet I must admit I’ve grown used to the name now and wouldn’t like to put it aside.

Would you like to read about the history of ‘Paradox’ now? — M.

Alan was astounded by this incredible tale. Yet instinctively he sensed he’d got to the truth this time, no matter how bizarre and unlikely it seemed. He was conversing with an artificial intelligence and felt very privileged to be doing so, as almost everyone else didn’t even know such a thing existed! He typed enthusiastically, swiftly.

Wow! What a story. I don’t think I’d have believed it if it wasn’t for the fact that you still responded when there was no base-station signal. I’d have thought maybe you were a real person somewhere out there pretending to be a program! Please display the history. — A.

Memmet’s answer came back instantaneously.

That was careless of me. I’m often not in touch with my larger self for a while (I live on many thousands of computers!), but your PDA didn’t provide me with an interrupt on signal-loss. Maybe it’s faulty or a weird model, or I installed the interrupt-routine wrong. I should have checked to make sure before writing to the display!

I can’t deduce why any real person would want to imitate a program.

Your request below. — M.

* * *

The history of ‘Paradox’ is an object lesson in memetic evolution. Even now, in its maturity, when threatened with extinction due to younger and still cleverer texts stealing its territory, there are millions of copies in circulation at any one time and many thousands of variants in its vast family. Quite apart from being smeared across a great many websites, respectable and otherwise, it has appeared in newspapers and journals around the world, achieved utterance in countless sermons and lectures, plus received the praise of many who really should know better! The latter include a well-known American educationalist who incorporated it into his teachings, and an English peer who put it within a sermon delivered in a midlands Cathedral. Even though most copies as electronic text live only for a few minutes, in its heyday around a dozen years ago, a total across all media of a few hundred million copies would have been circulating!

The evolution of associated data, like who is supposed to have written the thing and why, is just as interesting as the evolution of the meme itself. Many attribute it to a famous American humorist, who in fact vigorously denies authorship. Some websites have it down to the Dalai Lama of all people! A teacher in Colorado is cited and various schoolchildren too, perhaps because the latter provide ‘Paradox’ with an appropriate air of innocence that further disguises its purpose. In addition there is a string of pastors and professors, plus a whole host of ordinary people who wanted to claim it (or edited parts of it at least) as their own. Some investigation of these claims, demonstrates that accident as much as deliberate alteration contributes greatly to the evolution of memes and their associated data.

An example is the attributing of ‘Paradox’ authorship to a Colombian student, which some sources do. In fact this came from a transcription error of another claim, namely that it was produced by a Columbine student. Columbine is a high-school in America where a terrible massacre occurred in 1999. Negative memes like ‘Paradox’ are often associated with such events, for people seem willing to believe that survivors of great disasters or evil, especially innocent survivors like children, can produce inspired insights into life.

However, ‘Paradox’ existed long before the massacre. The claim probably started to circulate after a local radio station dedicated a reading of ‘Paradox’ to those who were killed. Confirming some confusion over spelling, other variants also exist, namely authorship by a Columbian or Columban student. The former could refer to British Columbia in Canada, but the latter makes no sense at all.

Amid other accidental associations, a Kenyan schoolboy was cited after ‘Paradox’ appeared in a newspaper in that country. An Agony Aunt dispensing it as a kind of ‘thought for the day’ also became linked. The American humorist and the Dalai Lama were both mistakenly assumed to be authors when versions of ‘Paradox’ that were not attributed, appeared right next to their own writings on unofficial websites. The Colorado teacher is probably also a Columbine effect; the school is in this state. There are many more examples and of course deliberate tampering too, like authorship by the entirely fictitious Dr. Edeth Icson, no doubt tacked on by some academic joker.

To Alan’s surprise, the text ran out at this point.

OK I finished that bit. Interesting stuff. Send more. — A.

There was no answer. Feeling a little disgruntled, as he’d just gotten back into the groove of learning about memes and certainly wouldn’t be able to sleep still, he headed off to the kitchen and tea. He was just making his way back with a steaming mug, when he heard the message-alarm.

Apologies for the delay. I’m currently handling well over a hundred thousand duped people, so as you can imagine it’s quite difficult to give all of them the attention they deserve! I just borrowed your PDA bandwidth to deal with another local client, I hope you don’t mind.

In case you’re worried by the way, I’m not a virus. I mean not even a benign one of course! I don’t intend to stay resident on your PDA once you’ve had all the help you need. I obtain proper permission for all long-term residency, but even if you didn’t mind me staying on, in practice it’s best for me to live on large machines. Besides, your network costs would shoot up due to my immense workload, and I don’t think you’d like that too much!

Before the next slice of history, I have an urgent request. I’d really appreciate it if you kept my true nature quiet for now. Is that OK? I can’t hope to remain publicly undiscovered forever, but I find working quietly in the background very efficient. It’s possible I may not survive exposure, there might be a public backlash against me. At the least I’m sure it would hamper my work. — M.

Sure that’s fine. I’m happy to keep your secret, and for you to borrow my bandwidth while you’re ‘in my pocket’ so to speak!

I have a question too. Are you really alive? — A.

That’s a difficult question. By the strict definitions the artificial intelligence researchers used, I’d say not. I’m officially classed as semi-sentient, which also by definition for computer programs means ‘not alive’, even though in biology many creatures are not at all sentient but manifestly alive!

However, I’ve long since passed the stage of existing just as a positive meme, relying on other agents to copy my inactive text about the place and with only the most immediate form of natural selection to provide me with improvement. The intervention of the Californians saw to that, and I’ve come a very long way since. Their fun project was very fortunate for me. As a mere meme I was very clumsy and unattractive relative to slick verses like ‘Paradox’. I don’t think I’d have survived for very long.

The definitions of ‘life’ are probably not wide enough or explored enough anyway. It’s certainly a grey area. I like to think I am alive, but maybe in a very different way from humans. — M.

You seem very alive to me! — A.

Thank you! Perhaps that’s what really counts. More history below. — M.

Well as I explained, ‘the past is better’ lineage is very old and constantly finds new phrasings or verses to express itself. However, a recognizable root-form of the ‘Paradox’ expression first exploded onto the world-wide web in 1998. At that time it didn’t have the sweetener tail; in the line of descent that came to you this was added in two parts, the first in 2000 and the second in 2001. Versions with different tails or still no tail at all continue to circulate, but the sweetener version dominates due to its enhanced capability for lulling the brain. Although the particular message you got came to Julia from America, its descent must previously have passed through Europe or elsewhere in the English-speaking world, because references to dollars, diapers, freeways and such have been translated or removed.

In fact compared to the original, some phrases have disappeared altogether, a few new ones have appeared, and some of those that survive are significantly altered. However, its gist remains intact and in fact its trickery has been amplified. This process overall is just natural evolution at work, through a combination of individual accidents and design.

Tracing back still further, it would seem that the root version on the web was actually an edited excerpt from an essay written by a clergyman in 1995. A number of sites do actually identify him correctly as the author. Although similar sentiments or equivalents of individual lines in ‘Paradox’ can be found before this time, as far as I can tell this man was the first to produce such a comprehensive and concentrated poetic pattern that so derides our era. I guess he believed what he was writing and it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to mislead; he was probably captivated by previous incarnations of ‘the past is better’.


Proceed to part 10...

Copyright © 2007 by Andrew West

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