Re: virus: Will the real meme please stand up.

Tim Abbott (
Mon, 4 Aug 1997 21:51:24 -1000 (HST)

Tim Rhodes writes:
> On Sun, 3 Aug 1997, Tim Abbott wrote:
> > A prehensile tail is a useful genetic trait, but I, and I presume you
> > too, do not have one.
> I suspect that memetics is, at the moment, in the process of making itself
> a reality. What we are seeing now is an infancy, a toddler pulling itself
> up on all the furniture and chewing on the carpet. If memetics is able to
> enter the public mind, to become a part of the larger consensus reality,
> it will, by that act, prove itself to be legitimate (even if, as yet,
> quite immature).

Possibly. But it would be helped by some clear idea of what memetics
actually is. If it's a new way of describing the meme of natural selection,
making it of more immediate meaning to the general population, and, in
the process, extending the meaning of that meme, then fine, but don't
make it more than it is.

For another example of what I'm on about, what exactly has memetics done that
is new? What predictions has it made, or what new concepts has it generated?
None, as far as I can tell.

After I first heard of memetics (well, actually, after I started really
thinking about it - I heard about it many years ago - a dormant meme?) a
particularly tasty phrase jumped into my head: memetic engineering. (Clearly
not an original inspiration, but it was to me at the time.) I thought
about it a little, and wondered how you might go about such a thing,
implications notwithstanding, and then I realized that we already do
this, very efficiently and very effectively. Except we don't call it
memetic engineering, we call it "advertising", "propaganda", "indoctrination"
"brainwashing" and, sometimes, "education". "Spin doctoring" is the
latest that I am aware of. So, perhaps "memetic engineering" is an
interesting umbrella word for these processes, but in itself, it
says nothing new.

All I know is that if I ever have to enter the advertising industry (shudder)
I shall call myself a memetic engineer. Hey, if my dustman gets to call
himself a sanitation engineer, then I can play the game too!

> Therefore the emphasis on spreading the meta-meme is often given
> importance over actual research. Because if <memetics> is in play in the
> consciousness of a group, the transmission of ideas within that group will
> conform to the dynamics we would expect to see from the memetic model.

Uh, and how is this different from the dynamics you'd expect from any
other model? And how would you test it? (This is a genuine question,
if there are methods, I would love to know - I got your email Tim,
and will reply later, but testing the *rate* of information transfer
is effectively meaningless because it depends on the physical methods
available and on the demographics of the group polled).

The problem echoes that of genetic natural selection - it is very
difficult, if not impossible to make any predictions because of the
complexity of the issues involved and the maleability of the environment.
The model must be as complex as the situation being modelled, which is
tantamount to saying the model must be the reality.

> Memetics is, in this very real sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, and bootstrapping should make any scientist very, very wary.
The effect of the observer, in this case, is infinitely worse than in
any quantum-mechanical sense.



Timothy M. C. Abbott, Ph.D.     
Resident Astronomer                          
Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope                         Tel: +1 808 885 7944
Box 1597, Kamuela, HI 96743                            Fax: +1 808 885 7288