Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Meme Gas

"The Web is obsessed with anything that spreads, whether it's a virus, a blog or a rumor. And so the Internet loves memes." enthused Sarah Boxer this week in the New York Times.

Clearly we are in urgent need an impressive-sounding neologism to account for the phenomenon of words that pass between the minds of marketing executives without ever being properly understood.

Memes (in the way they are characterised by this article) can be any silly idea, or disconnected symbol, that is reproduced across culture, especially via the Internet, described in Wikipedia as "the ultimate meme vector."

Richard Dawkins is of course cited as the instigator of memetics to add a certain scientific gravitas to the topic. The thing is though that Dawkins had a very specific silly idea in mind when he first coined the term - the idea that Jesus was the son of God. There is a qualitative difference between this and a story in a discussion group about the pizza ambush at Old Trafford last Sunday.

What interested Dawkins about a concept that he barely started to flesh out, was that certain bodies of ideas exhibited tendencies like selfish genes. Beliefs take on apparently bizarre features that seem contrary to both reason and the best interests of the believers, but do in fact increase the likelihood that future generations will attest to them. You might quip that Dawkins was ambiguous as to whether a meme was supposed to be a mind gene or a mind virus but the distinction is an important one regardless.

Viruses are rogue DNA that has learned how to do without the technique most genes have employed to march on through the generations - building a body to survive and reproduce in.

An equivalent mind virus might be an exponentially propagating sign that bypasses the border checks of rationality in order to spread far and wide across the globe. We can probably assume with some safety though that our grandchildren won't feel compelled to stick space invaders to the side of traffic lights. Like the biological virus, the spread of the mind virus is limited by the dynamics of the epidemic.

There is nothing especially interesting about the myth that Wacko Jacko's phone number is encrypted in the barcode to Thriller, other than the implication that there are people out there dumb enough to believe it. Ditto the famous Web rumours about Beelzebub on the board of P&G and Kentucky-Fried not really Chicken. The creators of these sort of stories know there are plenty of brains out there with low immunity to such mental infections.

The notion of the Holy Trinity on the other hand has survived nearly two millennia; the phenomenon of meme persistance over time thus has to be more complex than "it might just be true".

Anyway, on the vaguely related topic of whether film critics really have a clue what they are talking about when they refer to a plot as elliptical, I have decided to casually refer to the next obscure flick that I see as Gödelian. Usefully this could mean a number of different things such as 1) you remain uncertain about the outcome throughout or 2) wherever you are in the story everything seems to be going round in circles!


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