Presented at “Virtual Y2K”
5 November 1999
School of Cinema-Television
University of Southern California
It is in our interest, as rational beings, to ascribe causes and effects to the processes of culture, a constant trimming of history to fit our fleeting ethical whims. We want to think that the Web, as the archetype of all technologies of virtualization, must necessarily have an impact on every institution of culture, even that it has become the singular actor in a field laid waste by its commanding strengths.
These are just metaphors, wall and web, history and command, the bits of language which gives reason the illusion of control without providing any of its mechanisms, for there is no controller anywhere – that’s what biology and mathematics have taught us in the last decade – we have met the governor and they is us.
Hence, to speak of nations is to invoke a nearly mystical body of mind, a collection that exists tenuously in balance sheets and federal registers, but can not be measured or verified independently. But this! This body, this flesh, this being – that can be counted upon to be spectacular, crazy, unusual and nearly entirely unique. It has walls, and it meets the web.
The individual is the only point from which this hyperbolic language of self-congratulation can be studied; the only point that can actually be said to exist.
In 1974, British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a long discourse about the nature of replicators – that is, machines which have a single intent: reproduction. Dawkins characterized the natural world as an intense competition between different sets of replicators, which, at least in biology, are more commonly known as genes, the bits of amino acid base pairs which spell out the specific codings for the proteins that compose our tissues. In a statement both objectively true and a reductio ad absurdum, Dawkins stated that a human is only a vehicle for expression of human genes, that anything beyond the function of replication is unimportant.
Although our human capabilities of intelligence and reason clearly improve our abilities to act as genetic replicators, they could – according to Dawkins’ arguments – be entirely temporary. They suit the purposes of our genes in the present, but something better could come along, and our intelligence would go the way of our vestigial tails.
I’m only being lightly wry here; everything we think we are, everything we hold as valuable, might in fact be valueless, ready to be discarded in an instant.
Dawkins, in the closing chapters of The Selfish Gene, describes another kind of replicator, one which displayed the same drive for expression, but didn’t require a biological medium. Ideas – or, if you want something scientific and quantifiable, behaviors – travel from person to person, using the medium of mimesis – imitation – as their replication substrate. Dawkins named these “replicators of the mind” memes, a neologism which correctly expresses their liminal position between gene and mimesis.
It was my own great pleasure to spend last weekend in Lucerne, Switzerland, where I had the opportunity to make the acquaintance of Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine. With a forward by Dawkins, Blackmore’s book does more to examine the ethological and ontological implications of memes than any text before it – of which there are a growing number. Her deep insight into the nature of behavioral communication in humans – that is, the transmission of memes – will likely force a revision in the fields of sociology and psychology, both of which must incorporate an understanding of the mechanisms of mimesis in order to present a complete picture of human behavior.
When human activity is considered as a set of behaviors, the power of meme theory quickly becomes apparent. In every group – a family, tribe, city or nation – a rich mélange of behaviors can be observed. Some of these behaviors contradict each other, some coincide and reinforce others, but each offers its own justification for its continuation – and its further replication across the broadest population.
Just as the forces of natural selection prune the less fit from the gene pool, the social sphere provides an environment where memes fight for space and attention within the minds of the individuals which constitute the society. The fitness of a meme is based, principally, in two criteria – how broadly it can replicate itself, and how well it comprehensively improves the fitness of the meme-carrier. Some memes, such as the ones centered around improvements in human communication – language and writing – have replicated themselves to the point of ubiquity across the entire population, because the behavior radically improves the mimetic fitness of the meme carrier, ensuring that the meme will live to be replicated.
Much more could be said here, offered as examples to demonstrate the reality of memes, a field of research only now opening to study. Dawkins’ book could easily have been titled The Selfish Meme, and another question could be raised, as it is, by Blackmore – is human consciousness simply a meme’s way of making more memes?
Here we come to the chicken-and-egg scenario of a newly-informed ontology; we believe ourselves to have some reality, some definitive position, beyond our roles as genetic and memetic replicators. We want to feel as though our individual value transcends the simply drives of amino acids and behaviorism. This is not unreasonable – if romantic (and I consider myself romantic) – but we can not ignore our roles as the physical genitors of our genes, and the communicative genitors of our memes.
Our genes define us as the most fit vehicle for their continued expression, and natural selection puts this assertion to the test. Similarly, our memes define us as a carrier, a vector of infection in the body politic. Some memes die out almost immediately – particularly, as in the case of the Heaven’s Gate cult, if they kill their hosts. Other memes take root in a rapid, almost catastrophic process; the visions of a Y2K crash have spread so broadly and so quickly that the fantasies of apocalypse is accepted as a reasonable possibility.
In a battle between memes, where each is trying to occupy the same behavioral position, demand the same attention, computer simulations indicate that the most fit meme triumphs completely, uprooting all opponents in a run-away effect that looks much like the path dependencies studied by economist Brian Arthur. Given that economies are, in large part, interconnected systems of memes, it seems reasonable that economic theory and memetic theory should be at least partially coincident. When memes are considered against some of the technological wars, such as Beta vs. VHS, or Macintosh vs. Windows, or Navigator vs. Explorer, we can see a strong correlation between meme theory and Arthur’s economics.
If we had only come to mimetics unconsciously, if this field had been entirely unknown before Dawkins’ discovery, or perhaps, recovery, we might need to worry about the misuse of memes. But memes are arguably the principle feature of culture, and “mastering the meme” has nearly always guaranteed position and wealth. Religion, politics and advertising are the social crucibles where the unconscious practices of behavioral replication become the conscious arts of mass persuasion. Whether or not God is a meme, religions certainly are; if left unchecked, they tend to propagate throughout populations, creating periodic religious manias, the pandemic infection of populations. Politics consists of convincing the greatest number that your ideas are fittest. And advertising – well, that’s a bit too obvious to mention.
Although the idea of the meme has been around for a quarter of a century, the meme didn’t begin to make significant inroads until just a few years ago – at roughly the same time the Internet began to actualize the promise of global connectivity. This, I assert, is not an accident, but a reflection of a cultural recognition of the meme of the meme, an activity which concretizes its understanding in the rhizomic artifact of the net. “Knowing is doing, and doing, knowing.” More than just an inversion of the unilateral programming which defines mass media, the net plunges us ever more deeply into a mimetic environment, where attention – the lifeblood of the meme – becomes the only value.
We have already completed the translation of culture from material to attentive values: the cotton-candy of persuasion, the hell-fire of dogma, and the musk-scented illusion of control have intoxicated us; we no longer know where we are. But answers await. Just turn on the television or log onto the net, and someone, somewhere, will tell you what to think, or rather, how to behave. This is the truth. Believe it.
Like the drunkard stumbling around on the street, we fail to realize our weakness, our defenselessness against this change in our own consciousness. Our boundaries are suddenly reversible, and our selves, insofar as we can know them, are slipping out, replaced by the objects of attention, and the opportunistic infections they breed.
This activity is individual and personal, fractally scaling into the universal and global. Increasingly, our battlements, the ramparts of biology and ideology which define behavior and personality, have been scaled at more points than we can count, and alien forces pour over the walls of being.
We are not without resource in this delicate state of affairs. We have lived our lives in meme-rich environments, and have grown crafty, sensitive to the smooth words, building antibodies to the most pernicious diseases, resistant to the strains of convincing thought.
But the meme means to replicate more and more perfectly, recapitulating the prehistory of the gene, until it achieves a level of perfection that could only be called machinic: the ubiquitous, unambiguous and error-free duplication of itself. This is the goal of the technological project, the world of virtualities offering a cutting-edge vehicle, a syringe which breaks the boundaries, overwhelms reason, to insert its own tidy codes.
The virtual, as the perfect vehicle for pathologies of the mind, becomes, in the Third Millennium, the contested ground, the sought-after prize. As with the language arts and mediaspheres before it, command of the techniques of virtualization confers enormous power, an ability to shape the gaps in thought in conformance with any particular set of memes.
It seems noteworthy that one only rarely hears this point discussed.
Ten years ago, less a few days, we blamed the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the episodes of “Dallas” that had made their way into the TV sets of East Germans. Although we had not heard the word “meme”, we applied its logic to the situation, seeing the communists as so many ripe vessels for the seductions of capital. The virtual worlds of J.R. Ewing, existing as they did only on a sound stage, played out in the attentions of a population who lacked the proper immunizations against the infection.
And this before the Web, before the instantaneous flows of information became a truism, before speed equaled light. The natural function of reason, detached and thoughtful, has already given way to a broad catalepsis, punctuated by sudden mobilizations, those unexpected moments when the mimetic boots the self into being, the better to serve its purposes.
The memes are moving ever forward, evolving faster in an ever-more hostile environment. It's not the walls outside which are breaking down, but the walls within ourselves. So much of what defines us no longer originates within us, for our walls are entirely encircled. Joshua has blown the trump, the skies are still, and the bricks begin to shake.
5 Kan – 6 Chicchan (4 – 5 November 1999)
Providence, Rhode Island