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With the rise of information theory, ideas were seen as behaving like organisms, replicating by leaping from brain to brain, interacting to form new ideas and evolving in what the scientist Roger Sperry called "a burstwise advance." (Illustration by Stuart Bradford)

What Defines a Meme?

Our world is a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve

Genes at least have a grounding in physical substance. Memes are abstract, intangible and unmeasurable. Genes replicate with near-perfect fidelity, and evolution depends on that: some variation is essential, but mutations need to be rare. Memes are seldom copied exactly; their boundaries are always fuzzy, and they mutate with a wild flexibility that would be fatal in biology. The term “meme” could be applied to a suspicious cornucopia of entities, from small to large. For Dennett, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (quoted above) were “clearly” a meme, along with Homer’s Odyssey (or at least the idea of the Odyssey), the wheel, anti-Semitism and writing. “Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick,” said Dawkins; “they even lack their Mendel.”

Yet here they are. As the arc of information flow bends toward ever greater connectivity, memes evolve faster and spread farther. Their presence is felt if not seen in herd behavior, bank runs, informational cascades and financial bubbles. Diets rise and fall in popularity, their very names becoming catchphrases—the South Beach Diet and the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Cookie Diet and the Drinking Man’s Diet all replicating according to a dynamic about which the science of nutrition has nothing to say. Medical practice, too, experiences “surgical fads” and “iatro-epidemics”—epidemics caused by fashions in treatment—like the iatro-epidemic of children’s tonsillectomies that swept the United States and parts of Europe in the mid-20th century. Some false memes spread with disingenuous assistance, like the apparently unkillable notion that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. And in cyberspace every new social network becomes a new incubator of memes. Making the rounds of Facebook in the summer and fall of 2010 was a classic in new garb:

Sometimes I Just Want to Copy Someone Else's Status, Word for Word, and See If They Notice.

Then it mutated again, and in January 2011 Twitter saw an outbreak of:

One day I want to copy someone's Tweet word for word and see if they notice.

By then one of the most popular of all Twitter hashtags (the “hashtag” being a genetic—or, rather, memetic—marker) was simply the word “#Viral.”

In the competition for space in our brains and in the culture, the effective combatants are the messages. The new, oblique, looping views of genes and memes have enriched us. They give us paradoxes to write on Möbius strips. “The human world is made of stories, not people,” writes the novelist David Mitchell. “The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.” Margaret Atwood writes: “As with all knowledge, once you knew it, you couldn’t imagine how it was that you hadn’t known it before. Like stage magic, knowledge before you knew it took place before your very eyes, but you were looking elsewhere.” Nearing death, John Updike reflected on

A life poured into words—apparent waste intended to preserve the thing consumed.

Fred Dretske, a philosopher of mind and knowledge, wrote in 1981: “In the beginning there was information. The word came later.” He added this explanation: “The transition was achieved by the development of organisms with the capacity for selectively exploiting this information in order to survive and perpetuate their kind.” Now we might add, thanks to Dawkins, that the transition was achieved by the information itself, surviving and perpetuating its kind and selectively exploiting organisms.

Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us—not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth’s organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception. We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them. When a jingle lingers in our ears, or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?

Adapted from The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick. Copyright © 2011 by James Gleick. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

James Gleick is the author of Chaos: Making a New Science, among other books. Illustrator Stuart Bradford lives in San Rafael, California.

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