virus: Virtual Memes
Sat, 21 Dec 1996 18:20:14 -0500

Responding to Alex Williams:

I'm at a loss to understand how memes, as virtual entities, can "wear our
flesh." Perhaps you'll say it's axiomatic, but I think that's where memetics
fails as a social science, proving itself to be a quasi-religion (and
potentially as dangerous as social Darwinism). It's easy to understand the
‘conduit' idea, equating telecom with speech and writing, but where you say
it facilitates the transmission of the ‘meme spoor' as it seeks hosts, I
would say that communication serves to coordinate and reproduce social
practices over time and space.

We've already established that we understand our fundamental disagreement

I want to show you that replication occurs through the performance of
language, an instantiated practice--not a virtual one. I'm going to do this
by showing that virtual concepts embodied in self-reflexive sentences require
human agency to "exist." They have no "will" independent of our animate
cognition because their existence is solely a manifestation of our behaviors
and speech acts over time and space. The virtual image is what we make of it.

First, I want to be sure I'm clear on the difference between virtual and
instantiated (or real). Virtual reality might be the arrangement of pixels
instantiated on a screen. We see them, and our mind arranges the patterns
into some idea of a place. Virtual, but seemingly "real" enough to let us "go
on" so that we can describe it and perhaps interact with it. Our descriptions
and interactions transform the instantiation across and within media. I don't
think you would object to this, so far.

Now you will. We are the ones who spread ideas; they spread themselves only
to the extent we say they do when we speak metaphorically. By
anthropomorphizing or otherwise reifying virtual concepts, we often
mistakenly imagine them as real external forces, allegedly capable of
governing social behavior. Thus, the descriptive becomes prescriptive,
justifying all sorts of superstitions and theories which claim that
metaphysical forces can control us.

We need grammar, of course, but life is complex enough without having to
worry about what some independently-minded ghosts, goblins and zeitgeists
"out there" might have in store for us. Our behavior is simultaneously
constrained and enabled by empirical physical reality and what we can get
away with saying about it. Sometimes we can get away with believing in
superstition or incorrect notions of reality. The virtue of natural science
is its commitment to a method of investigating and *explaining* physical
reality. Explaining is a major challenge, because we need to create words and
other tools in order to make the explanations clear, verifiable, and

Nature is what it is, and does what it does, regardless of our opinions about
it. Observing and understanding humans is considerably more difficult,
however, because the processes of communication and reflection change us. To
communicate, we instantiate elements of language (symbols, indexes and
icons), and then revirtualize them in our minds by instantiating thought.
This is what Peirce and Eco call semiosis. Meaning is always being extended.

This reflexive process is a Big Deal for Hofstadter, because (if I understand
him) it explains how memes take on a metaphoric "life" of their own,
extending themselves, traveling between humans, and making us think.

Now, consider the self-reflexive sentence, "Dogs, humans and weathervanes can
point, but symbolic strings like this make a point about pointing." Dogs and
humans can make conscious decisions about pointing, but weathervanes can not.
Humans have a concept of pointing, and dogs may (though I doubt it), but only
humans construct sentences which claim to ponder it.

But do those sentences /really/ ponder it?

To point is an instantiation. To ponder is too.

What is remarkable about us is that we can conceptualize paradoxes which do
not exist in nature. We who try to think and work scientifically are willing
to accept the idea that the physical world can ultimately be explained
without submitting to mysterious paradoxes. Thus, as I understand Popper, we
are obliged to look for exceptions to a rule. Hypotheses must be falsifiable.
If we find an exception, the rule falls, and we need to create and
investigate a new hypothesis. That commitment keeps us honest.

We are not so honest when discussing our language-based social world. In
fact, we glory in our flagrant dishonesty, which we sometimes call art. We
play with metaphor, simile, analogy, synecdoche and metynomy. We can make up
paradoxes like, "This sentence is false." Or we can conjure up and act on
purely fictional ideas: "My monitor's name is Sam and Sam says I should go
outside and play."

But I didn't listen to Sam.

Because I need to stress the ‘point' one more time. We can point to genes,
not memes. Memes are just an abstraction we can make points about. It can be
nice to contemplate how ideas acquire people, but you can't overcome the
reality that it's people who acquire ideas.

Craig Simon