A few random thoughts on the idea of memes as I’ve encountered them.
Late in The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggests that perhaps the locus of human evolution at present is not in our DNA, but in the extra survival information we’ve developed and learned to transmit societally. It’s not unreasonable to see the architecture of culture around us as part of our evolutionary heritage, as it certainly affects our effectiveness as beings, our ability to procreate as a species, and so on. He uses the term meme to describe an idea-based gene, something that transmits through communication rather than through genetics–religion, for instance. On one hand, we can certainly argue that changes in our population absolutely spring from shared knowledge; on the other hand, the ten or fifteen thousand years of human society is such a small blip on the evolutionary time scale that it’s pretty hard for us to understand the relationship of our current society to the larger evolutionary sweep of our family, genus, or species.
In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly carries Dawkins’ ideas forward even more, blending them with the nerd-rapture idea of the singularity, that moment when we will be able to upload ourselves to machines. If we were to digitize ourselves, embedding the knowledge and life we’ve developed thus far in metal machines instead of biological ones, the meme could become a significant factor in the continuing evolution of the self, as the genetic traits that governed our past selves become far less important (or ultimately unimportant) when compared to our pure digital selves. Eventually we might find ourselves in the place of the imaginary author of Manuel DeLanda’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, who imagines the past through the eyes of our distant children, the robots who survive us.
The common use of the term meme has come to mean an idea that has gained enough traction on the Internet to migrate between communities. Most of the memes documented on sites like Know Your Meme seem unimportant or unlikely to last more than a little while, but mass-media culture has already shown us that these little bits of silliness need not stay contained as in-jokes. Advertising catch-phrases that have exceeded the bounds of their original contexts are the most obvious example of this potential. When Reagan asks, “Where’s the beef?” he taps into a shared culture that demands accountability in the same way that the 4chan Guy Fawkes masksters do.
But to return to Dawkins’ original contention, could these new silly memes really embody a kind of evolutionary soup from which the next generation of humanity can emerge? I say perhaps. Note the structural similarity between these new memes and the older means of sharing and discussing cultural mores, religious and bureaucratic mechanisms. Using the orality, literacy, electracy matrix, consider this shift:
||Entertainment (c.f. Ulmer)
||Ritual Rule, enforced with taboo or community pressure
||Law, enforced as with Orality, PLUS criminal code, law and order
||Meme, enforced as with Orality AND Literacy, and public scrutiny; circulated en masse and negotiated collectively
|Example: Dating Customs
||Formal set of rules, enforced by families
||also legal protections for individuals, enforced by the state
||also public conversation about key issues, held in entertainment venues and texts, enforced by peer pressure and community
This junky table helps highlight the way the qualitative and quantitative shift in the way memes circulate means something essentially different for the developing social world than in jokes from a century ago did. Because communities have global reach and are much more interconnected than ever before, the collaborative digestion and reshaping of the moral, ethical, and societal networks seem inevitable, and the motives and decision making process driving those doing the digesting have emerged from the chaotic memescape of the emerging electrate age.