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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Question of Scale

We have been scientifically investigating our environment since prehistory.  The cognitive process of learning is a scientific process, establishing working theories of categories and relationships, testing hypotheses and reworking assumptions to fit new data sets.  Formalizing the scientific method allowed us to streamline data-processing, (it was an innovation in memetic structure which paid higher dividends than previous methods of codifying collective learning), but it was not the birth of science.

The "magic" of early civilizations can be viewed as primitive science and primitive maths as much as it can be labeled primitive religion.

But our investigations were limited to our five senses and our human scale.  Distances beyond our bi-pedal range limited our conception of the size of our planet, how distant the stars were, etc.  Items which fit within our hands were open to investigation, but the cellular level, genetics, the nano scale, had to be inferred and theorized before we developed technologies to view them.   

This is the challenge memetics currently faces: it is a question of scale.  We do not have the traditional limitations of sensory perception which might frame our initial investigations.  Though our discipline is similar to biology, (covering environmental relationships, population dynamics, individual anatomy, organ structure, cell processes, epigenetics and inheritance), we lack the limitations, the initial scope, which would allow us to establish a framework.  We see the whole picture at once, and therefore can't see much.

Our instinct is to oversimplify and we are tempted to draw out the analogy of viruses (contagious ideas which have some, but not all, of the defined properties of life)--when the complexity and environmental roles of memeplexes are as diverse as the extremophile bacteria, phayge, oak trees, lichens and marsupials of biological systems.

We seem possessed by the smallest scale of analysis--memeticists are obsessed over the meme, its particular definition and specific parameters.  We also seem to think a clear distinction between the meme and its phenotype is beneficial to our discipline at this point in the game.  No other scientific pursuit has benefited from such self-imposed limitations at the start.  It is like being fluent in German and expecting ourselves  to comprehend a dissertation in Thai after one semester of classes.

We must start at the scales more familiar to the human experience, let those areas which perk our interest drive our inquiry further, and work to smaller scales from there.  We must learn how to learn, selecting an initial scope for our studies, even if it proves later to be incorrect.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Fractured Modern Mind

There are perils to living in ignorance of humanity's evolutionary origins.

This criticism isn't directed at creationists...they might fundamentally misconstrue the biological world, but they hang together and generally make out alright, as decent humans do.

This is directed at the memeticists who limit our discipline, who preserve secular-yet-destructive ideologies, placing unswerving faith in the system, ignoring systems analysis and critical theory. 

We should be looking at the structure of our artificial environments, our industrial schedules, our cultural expectation that the mind function at all times like an inorganic machine. We evolved within a volatile and complex environment & if we ignore this, assuming the context we came out of doesn't matter, we will continue to label ourselves and ignore the cause and the simple solution.

Our minds and our bodies are in rebellion--the mass of humanity calls out for something more humane.  

Will memeticists heed this cry?  Will we respond by encouraging psychologists to re-work the DSM-V in light of humanity's evolutionary context (both genetic and memetic)?  Will we stand up and push for change in our education structures or will we continue to  aquiesce, drugging non-complacent children and stigmatizing creative resistance?

I ask this question of myself and other memeticists--because the social and cultural pressure is to create a discipline which fits comfortably into the current political paradigm.  We are encouraged to eviscerate the religious memeplexes but leave the secular myths intact.  Giving into this pressure, refusing to question our assumptions, will castrate memetics.

We have the ability to understand the memeplexes, to name them, to gain power over them, but this will only occur when we develop the courage to question our own deeply-held assumptions.

For further discussion on re-working psychology and social policy, check out the following:

Incarceration & Memetic Reproduction
Importing Memes and Madness
Non-Optimal Elder Care

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lewis Mumford Understood Memetics

Folks have been talking about the existence of memeplexes and their impact on humanity for generations. 
I surrender the stage of this post to one of the great minds of the 20th Century:
Lewis Mumford

"The inventors of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and computers are the pyramid builders of our own age: psychologically inflated by a similar myth of unqualified power, boasting through their science of their increasing omnipotence, if not omniscience, moved by obsessions and compulsions no less irrational than those of earlier absolute systems:
particularly the notion that the system itself must be expanded, at whatever eventual cost to life.

Through mechanization, automation, cybernetic direction, this authoritarian technics has at last successfully overcome its most serious weakness: its original dependence upon resistant, sometimes actively disobedient servomechanisms,
still human enough to harbor purposes that do not always coincide with those of the system.

Like the earliest form of authoritarian technics, this new technology is marvellously dynamic and productive: its power in every form tends to increase without limits, in quantities that defy assimilation and defeat control, whether we are thinking of the output of scientific knowledge or of industrial assembly lines. To maximize energy, speed, or automation, without reference to the complex conditions that sustain organic life, have become ends in themselves. As with the earliest forms of authoritarian technics, the weight of effort, if one is to judge by national budgets, is toward absolute instruments of destruction, designed for absolutely irrational purposes whose chief by-product would be the mutilation or extermination of the human race. Even Ashurbanipal and Genghis Khan performed their gory operations under normal human limits.

The center of authority in this new system is no longer a visible personality, an all-powerful king: even in totalitarian dictatorships the center now lies in the system itself, invisible but omnipresent: all its human components, even the technical and managerial elite, even the sacred priesthood of science, who alone have access to the secret knowledge by means of which total control is now swiftly being effected, are themselves trapped by the very perfection of the organization they have invented.

Like the Pharoahs of the Pyramid Age, these servants of the system identify its goods with their own kind of well-being: as with the divine king, their praise of the system is an act of self-worship; and again like the king, they are in the grip of an irrational compulsion to extend their means of control and expand the scope of their authority.

In this new systems-centered collective, this Pentagon of power, there is no visible presence who issues commands:
unlike Job's God, the new deities cannot be confronted, still less defied
. Under the pretext of saving labor, the ultimate end of this technics is to displace life, or rather, to transfer the attributes of life to the machine and the mechanical collective, allowing only so much of the organism to remain as may be controlled and manipulated.”

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Light bulb

The invention of the light bulb is a perfect example of how the evolution of a technology is obscured by secular myth-making. 
Many tinkerers and scientists contributed to the invention of the lightbulb.  They were in various corners of the developed world and were in communication with one another to varying degrees (depending on their collaborative or competitive dispositions).   Edison didn't come up with the idea of artificial light contained in a glass bulb, nor did he personally perfect it.  We ascribe the title "inventor" to him due more to his PR prowess and his economic ability to buy up patents and buy out competitors (or hire them on his staff).  Edison was a synthesizer.  That's a skill which develops in certain individuals due to circumstances, not innate gene-based 'intelligence'.

The myth of Edison is one that fits in with the secular myths of the West: it is compact, capitalistic and individual. And it is wrong.  It obscures how this technology evolved.  This narrative dismisses the possibility the light bulb would have developed even if Edison had played no part.  It places the uniqueness of one individual above the development process.  It turns just as many people away from science by emphasizing genius as it might entice a few to pursue it.  

Let's start rethinking our stories.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Disquieting Thought: Spirits in Whisky and in the Air

Our ancestors talked about the spirits in liquor and used that to explain intoxication. 

Shamans talked about the powers of psychedelic mushrooms and certain plants when they didn't know the chemical names but knew the effects.

The witch-hunters got spine chills from watching symptoms of dementia and ergot poisoning and burned and drowned innocents.

Perhaps we humans have been studying memeplexes all along, just without a framework for critically analyzing them.  Perhaps we've been like Pharonic priests who brewed beer with antibiotics...preserving the recipe because it works but not knowing exactly why. 

Perhaps those traditional whispers of "spirits" that travel through the ether influencing collective emotions, inspiring wars, deluding the unwary or inspiring peace deserve critical consideration instead of dismissal.  

Perhaps ignoring them is just as bad as deifying or demonizing them.
Perhaps we've collectively had some idea of what's going on but now we have words for these phenomena:

Collective Emotion

Naming them--articulating them, gives us power.
Instead of dismissing the superstitions of the past, let's reexamine them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blast Furnaces USA: Industrial Art is Taxonomy of Technology

Blast Furnaces USA is part of the contemporary collections of the St. Louis Art Museum.
It is a compilation of twenty-four gelatin silver prints and takes up an entire wall in its gallery.
These photographs were taken some time between 1978 and 1986 by Bernd and Hilla Becher, German artists who documented industrial artifacts.  As SLAM's online collection attests, these blast furnaces in Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other US cities were captured by the Bechers from an 'ideal viewpoint' (a set height and angle) which showcases the furnaces slight variations. 

To stand in front of this installation is to absorb the magnitude of these industrial creations and reflect on the combustion chemistry, physics, supplies, market demands and human input which shaped each unique structure.

Quite similar to contemplating the ecological pressures which shaped the physical and behavioral differences in Galapagos finches.  Nearly identical to the taxonomic collections in many natural history museums of butterflies and other insects.

The industrial revolution and its products are the memetic equivalent of rainforests and tropical islands--where diversity and competition abound, leaving massive evidence of  variation, niche adaptation and natural selection.  

Just as the abundance of the tropics paints a different picture of genetic evolution than the scarcity and mutual adaptation evidenced on the Siberian tundra, the industrial revolution should not be our exclusive resource for exploring memetic evolution.  The adaptations and variations from nomadic cultures and ancient societies are just as important to investigate (and often of immense complexity and refinement in their own context).  However, the industrial revolution provides us with the material, the documentation, to begin the work of strict, scientific comparison and evaluation, providing us with the material hard sciences crave to support this fledgling discipline.  

Young memeticist, look to your urban explorers, your industrial photographers, your mercantile libraries, enclaves of urban renewal and the rusting industrial wastelands for your evidence.  Get out of your labs and ivory towers, get your hands dirty, your heart pounding with adventure--explore!

(Just please for the love of efficiency, take notes--we have modern tech at our disposal!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Skyscrapers Evolved: Inorganic Evolution in Human Innovation

Skyscrapers are a perfect case-study of memetic evolution within the realm of technology.  To achieve these modern marvels, advances in steel manufacture, concrete pouring and glass  production were necessary.  Engineering and construction techniques had to be refined, including the use of blueprints and cost analysis.  As towers rose higher, they contended with intense wind.   This environmental pressure shaped their foundations and internal structures, much as the trunks and root systems of hardwood trees (instead of small shrubs) are shaped by wind intensity.

Large buildings also developed a challenge common to larger animals, the struggle to regulate internal temperatures. This was solved by borrowing technology first developed for food preservation (refrigeration) to cool air.  With the repurposing of refrigeration we see another aspect of evolution at play--the adaptation of one innovation to solve a different problem or fill a different niche in a changing environment.  

Skyscrapers are like the human eye or cell structures: intricate and impressive.  But unlike examples of evolution in the natural world, we cannot ascribe their origin to a mythic, instantaneous event.  We know they rose over time in locations determined by economic, environmental and cultural factors.  They were assembled by adapting previous technologies and new innovations to a new demand.  Not assembled by perfect & omnimpotent inteligence, they are instead a conglomeration of human products and resources...exceedingly well adapted and ever more efficient, yet displaying the quirks and flaws instilled by economic constraints, not always adhering to our idealized visions of what they could be.

Our buildings are still at the mercy of their environmental contexts, as the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and numerous other disasters attest.  These events not only have consequences on the personal, social and ecological levels, they shape the memetic evolution of archetectural technologies.  Buildings are being constructed to withstand the impact of terror attacks as well as earthquakes--they are adapting to environmental pressures.  That we are driven to cooperate in this evolution through our own economic and emotional motivations is an ancillary matter. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Value of Irrational Beliefs

Not every "irrational" belief is destructive.

Some women who miscarry choose to believe (or their cultural traditions encourage them to believe) the desired child is going through a process of fetal death and re-conception which will make the child physically stronger and spiritually powerful. 
In such a world-view the stress of multiple miscarriages is mitigated by the perception that the timing of the child entering the world just wasn't right and the child will arrive at the ripe time.  Such a perception can lend itself to creating a relaxed mentality in both partners, controlling stress hormones and making successful gestation more probable. 

Contrast this with a clinical perspective of each fetus being genetically unique and the person-hood (personality, intelligence, "spirit") being directly linked to the unique genetics and material components of each, separate human.  [As opposed to the more realistic environmental & social factors which create epegenetic variations (and which may be consistent among siblings), the memetic milieu which shapes an individual's psychology, etc.].  Drug cocktails, fetal surgery and other advanced interventions are prescribed to avoid miscarriage...treatments most of humanity before us (and likely after us) could not begin to fathom.

The clinical approach often focuses on finding the cause of miscarriage and has value in its own right.  But exclusively, because of its focus on identifying causation and predicting future events (& mitigating them), a woman can easily become stressed, anxious, isolated and self-doubting over a process that is extremely common to the human condition.  Clinical science can adapt and become more humane, but until that time traditional folkways will maintain their role as a supportive therapy. 

Another instance to consider: The Bari (a population in Venezuela) have held a traditional belief that a fetus develops not simply from the initial act of fertilization but through successive washes of semen.  They seem to have some concept that the initial act has primary importance because they emphasize the importance of a wife having her husband as an exclusive partner for that time-frame, yet they encourage women (this practice is dwindling with western influence) to select a secondary father for the child--to take a lover during her pregnancy.  This second man provides nutritional support for the woman through her pregnancy and for the child after it is born.  The secondary man is viewed to be providing a service to the husband, who might otherwise waste away from trying to supply enough material to guarantee a successful pregnancy.  This testifies to the ability of human culture to adapt to resource constrictions and use memetic engineering to mitigate the territorial concerns of our species which can impede our survival.  Lest you view the Bari as an anomaly, variations of this belief have been observed in cultures from the Na of China to populations in New Guinea, India and other regions of South America. 

From a purely "rational", "scientific" perspective (as such concepts stand today) these poor uneducated individuals in traditional societies don't know any better and need to be informed of modern medicine.  However, their worldview is one which arose from environmental constraints and cultural adaptations which should not be dismissed purely as primitive superstitions.  "Enlightening" them about scientific realities might first cause them to disparage traditional social structures and expose them to exploitation and destruction by other cultures.  It may also rob Western science of the opportunity to reconsider its assumptions about biology.  

We should not avoid such questions as: Does extra sexual activity during pregnancy have an impact on a woman's internal chemistry and thus the condition of the fetus?  Does the introduction of another partner impact the immune system of the woman and/or fetus? (I'm not saying this to assert there must be a positive impact simply because this is a traditional folkway that has been preserved...I am merely saying it's time science evolved to thoroughly investigate traditional hypotheses and get down from its high horse.  Even disproven theories benefit science.) 

It is important that we value what we can learn from traditional beliefs just as much as we value what we can teach these cultures.  We need to cultivate a symbiotic exchange over previous colonial approaches. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Exterminator vs. A Rodentologist

Susan Blackmore is a mildly effective publicist for the concept of memes.  She is certainly skilled at stirring up controversy about the topic with the next generation of scholars.

As a memeticist, my heartfelt apologies go out to her audience at the Oxford Royale Academy summer program of 2014 . 
Ms. Blackmore is perhaps a snapshot of what meme theory once was (or still is) to some, but she is not a viable representative of the discipline which is emerging.

She pontificates against metaphysical beliefs, waging war against "irrationality" while failing to lay a firm foundation for her scientific discipline.  She is an engaging speaker and the economic realities of modern life act as a selective pressure for her to limit her vision and customize her presentations to an anti-theist audience.  (No doubt if I were more fiscally "rational", I should do the same.)

The difference between Susan Blackmore and a Memeticist is the same distance between an exterminator and a rodentologist.  Both are passionate about their subject, but the first chooses a very narrow, reactionary approach towards their subject: the only good rat is a dead rat.  A zoologist on the other hand recognizes the resource conflicts created by the close proximity of human and rat populations.  They examine how artificial urban environments have shaped the evolution of rattus rattus into the massive and territorial urban legend of city transit systems.  The rodentologist studies diseases which afflict her subjects even though she may harbor concerns about their ability to vector diseases to humans.

Similarly a memeticist must have some curiosity and tolerance for her subjects.  Understanding interactions and evolutionary contexts, she refrains from blanket judgements and incendiary remarks.  Inquiry, understanding and reflective appreciation trump gut reactions because they often lead to more appropriate solutions.

Blackmore makes two critical errors: She dismisses "irrational" memes and provides blanket approval to "rational" ones.  Both reactions bypass the careful examination and articulation required of any academic study. 

Memetics is in desperate need of new minds to move it into the 21st Century.  Those who have passionately defended ancient belief systems and glean what they can from fields we have abandoned may offer insights which non-believers cannot perceive from a distance.  

The failures of Western development clearly illustrate we cannot eradicate every bacterium, pull every weed and exterminate every last rattlesnake.  We are learning we need a balance of bacteria to develop our immunity and maintain our health, that weeds are simply exceptionally adapted plants and processed venom (anti-venom) is the most effective cure for a snakebite.

Blackmore is not a memeticist.  Do not let her diatribes dissuade you from pursuing this emerging discipline.  Her fears over "irrationality", insecurities about the appeal of "rationality" and near-certainty of an impending apocalypse leads to the same fanatic desperation observed in all absolute and inflexible world-views.  She is only one person.  Memetics is so much more.

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 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.