Thursday, 22 December 2011

Tim Tyler: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes (review)


Hi! I'm Tim Tyler and this is a video review of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes.

I approached this book with low expectations. My self esteem usually prevents much involvement with the "Idiot's Guide" series of books.

However, my initial reaction to the book was pleasant surprise - the book actually has some interesting and useful content. It is organised into neat sections - which makes the book easy to scan and find things in. The contents and index are comprehensive.

My second reaction was not so positive - I quickly found some mistakes.

However, to start with an overview of the contents.

The book starts out with an introduction. It gives a definition of a meme and then continues by saying:

Maybe a way to clarify the definition is to determine what isn't a meme.
It lists three disqualifying criteria:
  • A meme must be original;
  • A meme must be digestible;
  • A meme must be easily understood.
Alas, the first and third are wrong, and the second is pretty debatable.

Then there's a chapter on the science of memetics. This gives incorrect definitions of the concept of "hook", "vector" and "host". It uses the conventional bait/hook distinction - but says that the "hook" is what attracts us to memes - which is wrong. It claims that "people are not vectors" - which is contrary to standard usage in epidemiology. It says "hosts" are those that send memes - while it is better to picture hosts as meme recipients.

Then there's a section on how memes spread - broken down into chapters about verbal transmission, transmission over the internet and marketing.

Then there's a big section about memes in action - which covers lots of different sorts of memes in more detail: pop culture, technology, philosophy, pornography, religion, politics. This section is one of the most boring parts of the book.

Then there's a miscellaneous section, which deals with memeplexes, retromemes, doomsday memes, hoaxes, scams, and urban ledgends, dormant memes and toxic memes. Some of this material is interesting.

The next section is about immunity, allergies, censorship and techniques for getting disinfected.

Then lastly is the section that I found most interesting - the 50-page section at the end devoted to meme science. This starts with a section about classic meme theories. It starts with Richard Semon and then skips to Cloak, Cavalli Sforza, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. Then there's a section on new meme theories. That covers Richard Brodie, Aaron Lynch and Susan Blackmore. This section is pretty strange. Aaron Lynch gets more coverage than Blackmore and Brodie put together - which is strange since Aaron Lynch's book on the subject is pretty awful - a science-free collage of armchair just-so stories. The treatment of Blackmore's work is pretty cursory and no more authors are covered. Then there's a section of alternative theories. It covers some of the criticisms of memetics. Then there are sections on E. O. Wilson, Boyd and Richerson and William Durham. These folk get a pretty small corner of the book - which seems rather unfair considering how much work they have put in. I also wondered what happened to all the other workers in the field.

The science section seemed rather out-of-date to me - and to my eyes, it didn't seem very well balanced. However, it was a pleasant surprise to see the mainstream scientific branch of cultural evolution get much coverage at all in a book about memes.

Probably the biggest problem with the book is that much of it is on the dull side. The book attempts to covers all the different sorts of memes in the world - and the audience is likely to already be aware of a lot of this material. However, though rather tedious, this is a type of content that I haven't seen anywhere else - so perhaps it needs laying out somewhere. The book shows some signs of hurried preparation and lack of research. The author embraces internalism - saying "memes can only exist in a human mind". I wish people would leave internalism alone. There's relatively little coverage of human evolution in the book. Nor is there mention of the possibility of a memetic takeover. However it is absolutely fantastic to have another whole book about memes and memetics, and it is good that the book contains a fair quantity of interesting and original material.

I do think that it's a bit of a shame that the book is in the form of an "Idiot's Guide". However, one of the book's redeeming features is that it is extremely inexpensive - or at least my copy was - so if you have a limited budget for research into memes, this is a pretty reasonable place to start.


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