Friday, 29 May 2015

Philip K Dick on memes

Sci-Fi author Philip K Dick once weighed in on William Burrough's language-as-information-virus thesis. The first quote sounds a bit negative:

I cannot accept Burroughs' view that we have been invaded by an alien virus, an information virus, yet on the other hand I cannot readily dismiss this bizarre theory as mere paranoia on his part.
...but Dick then goes on to take the idea seriously:

Burroughs may have indeed detected an "information virus" or something like an information virus, but my supposition is that, if you grant its existence, it is of long-standing. World mythology supports this. Not just Christian.

Where Burroughs and I sharply disagree is that my supposition is that if-if-an information life form exists (and this is indeed a bizarre and wild supposition), it is benign; it does not occlude us; on the contrary: it informs us (or perhaps it has no interest in doing either, but simply rides our own information traffic, using our media as a carrier; that is entirely possible.

These quotes were unearthed by the Philip K. Dick and Religion blog in 2011. It offers more extended quotations than I give here.

Dick claims that memes are benign. Memetics famously suggests that Dick was wrong: gene and meme purposes may coincide - or they may not - and fairly often they do not.

Dick describes the idea of cultural lifeforms as "a bizarre and wild supposition". In a nutshell, that's probably why so many have a hard time digesting it. It is pretty amazing that evolution now has a second high-fidelity 'information superhighway' from parent to offspring - in addition to our genes - and that it has already generated adaptations that have lasted for thousands of years.

1 comment:

  1. I think It's pretty suspicious that genes have a kind of "will" to speak of in the first place. They are just meatier memes, after all.

    I think that the systems that contain memes are indeed purpose-driven. Genetics itself is a system with the purpose of transmitting information. However, viruses (which are not proper lifeforms and are directed entirely by genetics and chemistry), and many bacteria and higher eukaryotes do indeed behave parasitic behavior.

    I think PKD is correct on this one, generally speaking. Certainly, there are cases which diverge from the noise and produce individual signals. Indeed, these may be the times when speciation or innovation occur. Where are you on the Punctuated Equilibria debate?

    Also, let us not forget what Hofstadter said: "meaningless symbols acquire meaning despite themselves". It went from metabolism to sexual recombination to symbiosis to advanced information signal processing (nerves), and culminated in ourselves, where a chunk of nerves took it upon itself to do what no brain had done before: thought about thinking.

    I doubt the Cogito was one of the first things humans felt upon realizing themselves (literally).

    As the artist who created the windbeasts would point out, any object suitably complex enough for idiosyncratic behavior can carve out a niche for itself. It's not intentional. It's perhaps just a form of entropy creating order.

    Interestingly enough, contingency is so strong in evolution that you could argue it's an example of Alex Wissner-Gross' Theory of Intelligence. So perhaps if I continue down this path, I should just disregard the anthropomorphization of the concept of Will and just remember what Hard Determinism is: things following from proper antecedents, and that our will is an invocation of this principle, not separate at all from it (a mere psychologism that makes life perhaps more pleasant)

    Source: Premal Shah, David M. McCandlish, and Joshua B. Plotkin. Contingency and entrenchment in protein evolution under purifying selection. PNAS, June 2015 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1412933112