Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mind Germs & Pop-Memetics: What's Wrong, Why It Matters

C.G.P. Grey published a YouTube video last week called: "This Video Will Make You Angry".  With over a million views, this crafted production is well on its way to going viral.  Unfortunately, its' oversimplification of memetics has bypassed the defenses of many viewers (including to my chagrin, Tim Tyler, who despite his brilliance, replicated this one without a thoughtful critique).

It's not a stretch to say ideas (memes) actively reproduce through hosts, have immune systems and generally act as though they are alive.  Since they do not meet the traditional biological definition of "living", many have equated them with viruses.  No doubt it is through this narrow lens Grey derived his analogy of "alive, like germs".

Memes and memeplexes come in a wide range of sizes & complexities with different ecological niches, impacts on individuals and cultures as well as roles in the memeosphere (the collective community of memes).  It is enough to say that memes can be studied as replicators, or that some memes behave like viruses or lions or computers...it is a gross generalization to say communication is equivalent to mental snot.  Communication precipitates individual development while networking individual brains, enhancing the accurate perceptions and computational power of a human network.

But referring to memes as contagion invokes the dominant cultural narratives about "staying healthy", "improving immunity", "keeping things clean" as well as "mental weakness" or "gullibility".   Grey perpetuates the illusion that one can escape the emotional interface and have a truly dispassionate discourse.  Yet Grey's video is its own intricate web of emotional seduction, appealing to the desire for security and health.  It appeals to emotions connected to a viewer's self-perceptions, desire for adequate or improved social status and reputation.  It references the negative emotions connected to vulnerability, laying blame on the "less rational" for their condition (when often, the cause of vulnerability is due to an individual's memetic milieu, not their capacity or will).  The video appeals to a desire for calm and cohesion (perpetuating the straw-Vulcan fallacy).  It even evokes the emotions connected to collective welfare and the need to control information for the good of the community.

The video effectively reworks one's mental vulnerabilities to favor less passionate memes and dismiss (instead of examine) emotionally charged ones.  We must remember poorly articulated points, divisive issues and emotionally-naked individuals do not invalidate topics for thoughtful consideration. 

The dogmatism and dismissive tone underlying Grey's video is detrimental to the public perception and scientific development of memetics. It is a linear narative,  stripping memetics of the contributions it offers.

 Grey gets a few things right:  the symbiosis of successful, opposing ideas, the ecological stability of competitive ideas and how anger memes compel us to share them.  However, Grey's approach towards popularizing memetics has the same detrimental effects as pop-psychology or Ponzi-scheme gurus have on the mental health and business fields, respectively. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Common Creativity

Two months ago, a term for what I do popped into my mind.  Physicists study physics, a geneticist studies genes, and therefore, studying memetics must make me a memeticist. 


This struck me as a novel word and I reveled in what seemed to be a unique, creative moment.  It seemed plausible I was the first, the only person to come up with the term.  After all, the word "meme" is only forty-something years old & most who pursue memetic studies have other labels for themselves: biologist, geneticist, philosopher, etc.  Most seem too busy defending the theory to bother defining a relationship to it. 


Then (as often happens in our interconnected world) I came across an account on Twitter created by Robert M. Sarwark, @TheMemeticist from March 2012.  Realizing someone had stood on that summit before me detracted little from my enjoyment of the view.  It even gave me a sense of companionship, even if we were separated by two years.


I had felt unique and inspired.  As the uniqueness drifted away I examined the feeling of inspiration more closely.  I've often heard from creative folk (whether they're aerial dancers, watercolorists, musicians or preachers) that their art comes from someplace outside  themselves.  That is precisely how I felt, like this was not a personal discovery but instead a received gift.  While one could easily dismiss it as a mistaken perception, it seems less ridiculous than the other popular claim that creativity comes from the god-like awesomeness of one individual mind.


The word "memeticist" solidified in my mind like a lightning bolt, but the patterns which created it started forming ages before.   "Meme" may have been coined in the 70s, but the '-ist' suffix has been a part of the English-language program for many more generations.  My thoughts were shaped by a cultural drive to define myself, or at least my professional self, with a label identifying my area of specialization (a cultural drive shaped by European history and economics).  My idea was also shaped by a need for precision, confidence, even legitimacy, to justify going forward in this discipline instead of choosing a more established field.  These ingredients are common to the dominant cultural and linguistic milieu, formed over generations.  They are my rich memetic heritage, not some mythological personal brilliance or external, all-knowing intelligence. 

It should be no surprise the same words & ideas solidify in different minds simultaneously, given the right ingredients and environment.  Our brains assimilate, compute, assess, fuse, corrupt & discard existing linguistic and cultural algorithms.  Progress is built on these existing received frameworks, imbuing each progressive step with the limitations and flaws of previous programs until the bugs are identified and resolved. 

Far from being the opposite of scientific inquiry, creativity is a basic part of the scientific process, vital to growth and innovation.