Monday, 12 December 2011

Are memes just tools?

One challenge to the meme's eye view goes as follows:

Most modern memes are deliberatively propagated or engineered. They either directly benefit their hosts or are propagated by people who benefit from their spread. Most deleterious memes (for example, those associated with smoking or obesity) are begineered weapons, that promote the interests of their creators at the expense of their victims.

Maybe there are a few wild chain letters or computer viruses that persist without there being any beneficiaries any more - but those are surely rare cases. Heroin addiction may be all-bad - but even there there are pushers higher up on the chain that make money from those lower down on it to feed their own habits.

So: most memes are either engineered, or act to serve some human or organisation somewhere. In which case the memes will be designed to serve the interests of some human or human group. Those memes are then reduced to being tools - with their interests being subjugated to those of the humans they serve.

The first thing to say is that there is obviously some truth to this - most memes have interests aligned with those of humans somewhere - including most "bad" memes which promote drug use, suicide and other harmful behaviours.

Some memes are rather like domesticated sheep and goats. Their needs are important - in the sense that their needs for food and shelter are important - but their reproduction is governed by humans - and they are mostly under human control. In the case of sheep, we may well see them being "relinquished" - once superior lab-grown alternatives become available.

Other memes are more like engineered bioweapons. The engineering work to create them is done in the lab - and then they are unleashed on the world, after which they are not really under the control of their makers any more. Some advertising memes are like this. Inventions such as fire and wheels have saturated the population and are not under anyone's control any more. Fire and wheels are never going to be relinquished. In such cases it makes more sense to ask what the memes want.

When looking at the design features of memes, it often makes good sense to consider the interests of the meme's designer(s). However, even with engineered memes, the interests of the memes are often not completely subjugated. For example, the memes still have metabolic needs which must be met.

We can go back to the sheep and goats, and usefully consider their "gene's eye view". As Dennett says: "How clever it was of sheep to acquire shepherds!" We should look to the sheep's genes when considering their dietary requirements, or their inclination to escape from their enclosure. The gene's eye view is still valid and useful - even in the case of domesticated animals.

In the case of memes, humans may try to bend the memes to their own ends, but the memes are often not passive entities but have their own needs and requirements.

To illustrate with an example, here's a 40-second video commercial:

No doubt the manufacturers would be quite happy if people just watched the last 6 seconds of the video. That section accurately reflects the manufacturer's interests. However, the rest of the video is there of assist its delivery. That that portion has precious little to do with the interests of the manufacturer. However, the meme's eye view is useful and insightful with regard to explaining its design features.

Most memes act as though they are tools - but it is important to remember that tools do not always act in harmony with the interest of their makers. Tools can malfuction, and damage their owners - such as when a man hits his thumb with a hammer. Tool use can result in accidents - such as when a sleepy driver crashes through the central reservation.

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