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Bewildering Stories

Andy West discusses...

The Reality of Memes

Andy West picks up the discussion of the story “Meme,” in Challenge 233 and in Bill Bowler’s and Carmen Ruggero’s responses in issue 234.

Bill, Carmen, please do the exact same search Memmet recommends near the end of “Meme,” on Google, say. You’ll probably get between 12,000 and 25,000 hits (it varies up and down).

If you subtract the few percentage of sites that warn of hoaxes etc, 95 percent or more of the sites say how wonderful these verses are. Even the hoax sites don’t know why “Paradox” is a problem, they just warn that it is.

But the point is that anyone who believes this stuff doesn’t believe something else. Alan threw his voting slips in the bin because he didn’t believe there was anything worth voting for, and even if there was, it wouldn’t change anything. Once ‘cured’, he fished them out again.

Hence, Carmen, you are right: memes poison the mind, but only as a side effect, as the flu poisons the body. The memes’ only ‘inherent’ purpose is to replicate. But as the warning of the Second World War in the story is meant to portray, widespread belief in these things undermines proper thinking and the democratic process, especially if the memes are deliberately amplified and propagated, with potentially the most terrible consequences.

“Paradox” is extremely benign compared to some memes, containing no meaning whatsoever, hence negative only by default. But it demonstrates the principle nicely. Some memes are more aggressively negative.

I picked “Paradox” because it is a real meme, circulating over the last dozen years. All the side data about origins and potential authors, etc., etc., and indeed the religious connections and the original author, are all true and real in this world, not fiction. “Paradox” has spawned many of millions of copies in email, newspapers, web, journals, speeches, etc. (I found it in a U.N. speech about Aids on the U.N. website the other day).

I think whether we choose to call memes extended metaphors or memes is really only a matter of semantics; the traceable evolution of this thing manifestly shows its isolatable and identifiable characteristics as an entity. The subject of self-replicating text is fascinating, though I only dipped into the surface to write this story.

If you want to see much more, follow up the reference Don put in, to Daniel W. VanArsdales’ paper on chain letters.


Copyright © 2007 by Andy West

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