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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. 


  1. It sounds as though you were more irritated than I was. I mostly missed the 'm' word. "Thought germ" - yeah, right. We have a word for those these days.

    The video scored points with me for its slick presentation and for its main point about controversal memes spread - which seems like a nice topic for research.

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  3. = ) It's a very good point that Grey did not use the term "memetics" in his presentation. Perhaps because of this, the video is not as destructive to memetic theory as my initial impression suggested. I think the slick presentation is exactly the problem--in that it encapsulates a very narrow interpretation of memetics ("germs") in a glossy, attractive package.

    The study of the spread of controversial memes is not new, though such studies may need translation to modern memetic terms. The psychology and sociology of advertising and political campaigns is a good place to start. Edward Bernays was a master at this, getting women to consume cigarettes by associating smoking with women's liberation. He parred a controversial behavioral meme with a still-controversial yet idealistic social meme, creating a hybrid that was a social statement and a mark of an independent woman.

    Also of some importance are social science studies which have examined the phenomena of genocide as contagion (Rawanda and the radio propaganda which instigated widespread violence has generated some key studies). And of note too is the less formal experiment conducted by an American Schoolteacher which is known as Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes. The field is already quite populated with studies which can be re-interpreted through a memetic you pointed out recently in your post "Refactoring Science", this is a natural part of the scientific process when a new theoretical paradigm is introduced--science is about recycling information as much as it is about generating new data.