Memetics and the global brain

by Florian Rötzer



A new scientific approach, Utopian vision, a craze, a memetic infection?


We are plunging into the Information Age, in which material goods are no longer of primary importance, but instead the creation, distribution, processing, preparation and reception of information - and of course the appropriate packaging, so as to make people take notice, spread, reproduce and - where possible - buy them. This is by no means new; back in the distant days of Marxism, it was called product aesthetics. In banal terms, we speak of advertising and of targetting the consumer's needs. What counts is the number of sales or viewer ratings, the ability to attract attention, break through filters, give the impression of importance or attractiveness, and be successful in the market of desires, fears, hopes, and drives.


In the age not only of computer technology, but also of biotechnology and the universal application of Darwin's theory of evolution, the new model of change also requires a biological foundation, or an analogy to biological mechanisms. The new science, memetics - a concept established by the biologist and evolution specialist, Richard Dawkins - fulfills this perfectly. Just as genes compete or cooperate with each other and, by means of their survival machines (the organisms), are given the chance through natural selection to reproduce and spread, so too do memes exist, i.e., basic units of information whose only aim is to enter their victims' heads, to reproduce and spread there. Just as organisms play host to the egotistical genes, while at the same time using them as vehicles for replication, so too do the brains of human beings play host to memes, which enter the brain like a virus, changes it in line with their own interests, elicit alterations in behaviour, and, if they can, spread from one brain to another, mutating in the process. A meme's point of entry is the victim's attention. "Where there is attention, there are memes" says Richard Brodie, for - as Dawkins had already claimed - memes compete above all for the limited capacity of attention.


The brain is an object of the biological sciences, thus memetics skillfully combines cognition, biology and culture. Added to these are information and communication technology, together with that rising star of the sciences, Artificial Life, which helps perfect the mixture in as much as the media serve as the most efficient vehicles for memes and provide the first examples of artificial life, or at least something resembling it, in the form of computer viruses. As people and machines communicate better and faster with each other worldwide, so do these beings spread better and faster, with the resulting damage to our programmes and databanks. Other, like-thinking New Age theoreticians view the media and computer networks as an emerging global 'Gaia' brain, whose networking is becoming ever more complete and whose neurons are the people either sitting in front of their machines or simply being surveilled by them.


Dawkins established the concept of the meme in analogy to that of the gene as a unit of replication, which spreads by means of imitation, i.e., mimesis. One sees, hears, tastes or feels something or observes behaviour, and if this strikes a chord in the observer, he repeats it. A more recent version - for which Dawkin's comparison with viruses is partly responsible - is somewhat more intrusive: although our cognitive immune system improves with age, our brains, which are machines ready to pounce on anything new, greedy for new stimuli and not unlike vacuum cleaners, cannot fully protect us from the swarms of memes all around us, that seek to nest within our innermost selves.


So now we know how ideas, forms of behaviour, feelings or fashions succeed: people simply become infected, surrendering themselves unwittingly to the successful memes, which combine with others to form new networks in our brains, and thus in us. Natural selection steers this success, and evolution marches around unpredictably and undirected in the domain of potential memes, driven by the fact that only memes which can replicate survive.


Meme experts do not, however, agree upon what really constitutes a meme. Every good memetician offers new, ever more stunning examples of memes, to the point that we are gradually being submerged in them, and almost everything counts as a meme. By writing this, and by virtue of your reading these comments om memetics, you too may become infected. The only question is how many memes attempt to enter your head and whether your neuron system provides them with a good feeding ground.


Rudy Rucker, a mathemetician and science-fiction writer who has recently turned to the development of programmes for creating artificial life, is likewise a follower of memetics, as is the philosopher Daniell Dennett or the computer scientist Douglas Hofstadter: "A meme complex or the order of language offers its host such an improvement for its chances of survival that those infected by the meme prosper. There are many memes of this kind, which display an obvious survival value: agricultural methods, ceramics, mathematics - all helpful mental viruses living in the sphere of human information. Memes offering no obvious advantage for survival are, by contrast, difficult to explain. Melodies, fashions and so forth spring from one mind to another with amazing speed. To remain at the forefront of current ideas would appear to be a meme of such a high order that it probably represents some kind of survival value. Knowledge of artificial life, for example, can in all probability improve your chances of finding a job and increasing your sexual attractiveness.


Of course, memetics itself is marketed memetically or with advertising strategy as a revolution or paradigm shift. A book selling well in the USA at the moment, "Virus of the Mind" by Richard Brodie, is of immediate memetic interest as it begins with a warning: "This book contains a living virus of the mind. Stop reading now if you do not wih to be infected. The infection may alter your thinking in ways that are subtle or not so subtle - or even turn your present way of viewing the world inside out."


But what is so revolutionary about memetics? Instead of watching television, going to a library in order to find something to read, interpreting something in a certain way, learning a skill or choosing an item of clothing, we - or rather our brains - are simply the means for a television programme, a library book, an interpretation, a skill or an item of clothing, to replicate themselves. For a long time, the most enlightened minds have made efforts to destroy the faith, founded in the Enlightenment, that we could be sovereign in anything. In order to explain something, we look for a cause, yet if we find it, that phenomenon is suddenly declared to be no more than an effect. Even when this reductionism is sweetened by self-organisation or emergence, nothing else comes out of it.


Et voila, the memes are here, and we are no longer the masters in our own homes. To be honest, we knew that already, but now we have a scientific explanation for it, one that complements the genetic explanation, which proved unsatisfactory and had been discredited through history, but was at least similar to it. However, as with any explanation that declares a new determinism, it is accompanied by a way out: to know the cause may bring the possibility of manipulating it. Memetics could put us in the position of creating memes that protect us from other, undesirable memes. We could therefore, if we know the way memes work and infect, strengthen our cognitive immune system and set up anti-virus programmes, which would give memeticians the advantage of being selective.


Being egotistical, we could however - in a way that would guarantee memetic and financial success for the new specialists - develop memes using hacker methods that could breach all existing protective walls and sneak into us like Trojan horses. That sounds good, and would be good for business, for prominent people, for a particular programme, or we could simply stand back and enjoy the disruption; it would also lead to a new arms race, one suited to the Information and Biological Age, working with cognitive viruses rather than bombs, jets or tanks, now that the Cold War - for which so much of our current technology was developed - has ended with the departure of communism.


Now all we have is the free market, which must be swifltly applied to many minds, for here, too, deregulation requires self-organisation and for the host to be cleared of obstructory memes. But with the collapse of walls built in the Cold War, something of the memetic balance has also disappeared. Other theoreticians soon declared that the economic and ideological conflict of certain powers was to be followed by a battle of cultures, which are suddenly clashing once again and competing for influence. Cultural identities want to survive, spread and replicate. According to memeticians, however, culture consists purely of memes, which sit inside people's heads and breed such things as religions, fundamentalist attitudes and programmes. Genocide is really a memetic battle executed by their survival machines, the people with infected brains.

So this is how everything fits together, promoting the meme of memetics. Anyone who remains sceptical is simply making use of a defence meme, or of that cunning meme that makes us believe we are still masters over our own thoughts. No problem for memetics! Does all this make sense? If so, you are already infected. Do you want to avoid meme infections? Then lock yourself away in a hut in the wilderness, break off all contact to people or the media, and live the life of a hermit, a monk of the Information Age.