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Paul's Project 3 Final Draft

Page history last edited by Paul Elden 12 years, 8 months ago

     It seems a bit ironic to me that the average person does not know what a meme is. How could a concept so important be so unknown? This is most likely due to the fledgling field of memetics emerging as a science within the last few decades. In fact, the term ‘meme’ has only been around for just over forty years, having been coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins. In my essay, I will be expanding on Dawkins’ definition, and adding in a few concepts that Susan Blackmore has talked about. Essentially, memes are everything around us. They are concepts, ideas, things, or actions that are done or used by many people, and passed around from one being to the next through imitation.

           

     There are various definitions I’ve come across for “meme,” but none have quite explained it how I would like. Dawkins writes in The Selfish Gene that memes are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” (Dawkins 192) In this way, to Dawkins, memes are things that we do that spread around, by way of our senses. If we like something someone does, we imitate it or tell others about it, thus forming a meme. Simple enough, but I feel that his definition is too narrow. He doesn’t think about memes that are adopted out of necessity, instead of pleasure. Take, for example, our opinions of the government. According to Gallup, a survey conducted in January of 2011 showed that 42% of the American population is satisfied with our government. (Gallup) Why, then, should we have a government like this? Clearly the answer is not because we want it, but because it is the way we know how to function as a modern society. Memes are not just things we enjoy, they are also things that are useful to us.

 

     

     Another prodigious figure in the field of memetics is Susan Blackmore. A psychologist and memeticist, Blackmore has done extensive research on memes, and has written many books and articles about them, including The Meme Machine. Blackmore’s definition allows for a behavioral type of meme. Her theory requires a bit of biological knowledge to follow. She compares memes to genes (originally what Dawkins did, but to a much lesser extent). Blackmore repeatedly used the term “second replicator” to describe memes in her TED speech. According to Blackmore, memes are passed from individual to individual much like a gene. The memes then code for a certain behavior or action. Depending on what memes are being passed around, our behaviors and actions are shaped in a specific manner. She even allows for things like “memetic mutation.” Instead of a gene being modified, it is an idea being modified by a person, creating a slightly different, new meme. If this were the case, we’d be nothing more than memetic enzymes, creating and translating memes into actions. This is her inspiration for The Meme Machine. I agree that memes shape our behavior, but memes are not the catalyst for behavior. Memes are behaviors. They shape our behavior because we observe what others do and then adapt ourselves to act in a similar fashion. Language is a good example of a behavioral meme. People are not born with an innate ability to communicate through language, it must be learned. A baby in an English-speaking household will hear the daily conversations of its parents and/or siblings and learn to understand and speak English. But a baby in a German-speaking household will learn German. Here, the specific language is the meme, and we are adapting our behavior to its use.

 

     My definition includes Blackmore’s “memetic mutation” aspect, because chances are, you are not going to act or speak the same exact way as someone else, just in a similar way. As a matter of fact, my definition of memes could be a memetic mutation itself, because I’m taking part of her definition, and also using the part of Dawkins’ definition that states that memes are things we do or make, and expanding on that to make a new one. However, to me, memes cannot be only things that we do that catch on; they can be concepts, ideas, and thoughts as well, such as language or God. One cannot “act out God,” God is a concept in our minds, and so is language. Clearly these are memes, as they are concepts that many people use, and they can only be spread from person to person. If everyone kept the idea of God a secret, it would not spread. Thus, any idea or action can be a meme.

 

     While ideas are most often good things, bad memes can be spread just as easily. For this, I will use terrorism. Our country is currently at war in the Middle East, fighting the “War on Terror.” But why exactly have we been fighting terrorists for years? Clearly we have better trained soldiers, more firepower, and numbers against the terrorists. Using logic like this, the war should have been over years ago. Instead, the terrorists keep fighting. The answer: the radical Islamic meme. This meme is quite powerful, and works through the use of propaganda. Each day, new people are recruited to take arms against the “infidels” by religious leaders that twist their own religion, telling young, malleable minds that they will be remembered as martyrs, and that they are fighting for freedom. This is a memetic mutation that can easily be seen across history. Hitler claimed the Jews were responsible for Germany’s poor state of affairs, and he used propaganda to cultivate hatred among his people. Over time, this hatred grew, spreading as a meme. Now, this is not to say that all memes are bad. In fact, I think memes are good. Memes can make us similar, but they can also make us unique. Memes force us to make choices about what we like and don’t like by selecting which memes we will use and which we will discard. Here, memes and genes work in unison. As our brains interpret and differentiate memes in different ways, we become unique to one another.

             

     Blackmore has a different view. At The Great Debate: Genes, Memes, Minds, Blackmore says that “we are just The Meme Machine; the copying machinery. The real power house is the evolutionary algorithm, that mindless, beautiful process. That is all, we are; a lot of little copying machines.” (The Great Debate) This leads us to believe that we actually have no free will, and that memes control all our thoughts and actions. How would one go about fixing this problem? Cutting off all communication with each other, as I have previously stated, is a solution. But without memes, we cannot have modern society. Memes are essential for cultural growth; they allow us to invent, create, and prosper. After all, even things like art and economy are memes. Perhaps we could adopt an anti-Utopian society like the one in the movie Equilibrium. Everyone would wear the same clothing, we would have our fates pre-determined, and rid ourselves of emotion and individual thought, but the problem here is easily seen.

 

    

     Memes do, in a sense, control our thoughts and actions; however, we still have free will. We have the power to choose which memes we like, which ones we want to use and follow. This gives us the ability to individualize ourselves. I have to disagree with Blackmore on this point, because after looking at memes this way I feel that they are a good thing. I like to think of memes as a sort of subliminal peer pressure. Whether we realize it or not, everything we do is based off what someone else has done. This peer pressure is not deliberate, and said peers are not even aware that they are doing it. If a friend bought a snazzy pair of Nike shoes that you like, you are probably going to look for something similar next time you go shoe shopping. In this way, your friend is influencing how you present yourself, but not on purpose. This peer pressure can be on a personal level, like a friend’s shoes, or the global level. Language is a great example of a culture-wide meme as well as a behavioral meme. Language came about as a means of communication, so that people could easily understand each other. Someone said, “Okay, the word ‘house’ is going to mean that thing you live in.” Others just accepted and adopted this. English is the largest “peer pressure” language there is. Most of the world speaks at least a little bit of English, not because we force them (mostly), but because they see Western culture and media and want to be like us. So they adopt English. Of course, words like ‘house’ have been taken from other languages and modified, just like most memes are taken from a previous source and modified. Memes like English and those Nikes your friend bought, have mutations, as Susan Blackmore suggested.  British English, Southern English, “New Yawk” English, and many other forms of English exist. These forms are known as dialects, and dialects are nothing more than memetic mutations.

 

     Then, if all language is a series of memes and mutations, would it not be true that everything else we know is made up of memes? All concepts like mathematics or language, all man-made creations, and all imitated behaviors are memes. The only possible way memes would not exist would be in the case that everyone stopped communicating with each other altogether. Not even by sight, because the way others look and act can be appealing. Even clothing and hairstyles are memes.

 

     Things like the brand of clothing one wears or the particular way we style our hair are cultural memes. Cultural memes can span anything from clothing to catchphrases to pictures. The cultural meme is not only the most common, but most important form of the meme, because these are the ones that we differentiate ourselves with. These memes work through the subliminal peer pressure I talked about. One would not wear 18th century clothing on a regular basis. If you were to wear strange clothing, people would avoid you, simply because you look odd. This reasoning stems from a psychological need to feel accepted. By nature, humans are social animals, so people attempt to fit in with others; hence, subliminal peer pressure. Perhaps the most prominent form of the cultural meme lies within the internet meme. These memes are especially effective because they travel at an extremely quick rate to thousands, if not millions, of people each day. Examples like “Chuck Testa,” “Scumbag Steve,” and the “Lightsaber Kid” video can be seen in dozens of forms by simply searching for them in Google. Internet memes are so popular, rock band Weezer even made a music video featuring a wide range of memes. Since internet memes have the ability to spread so rapidly, they are the quickest to change our behavior. Many internet memes are the butt of most jokes these days. But internet memes are not restricted to entertainment. Memes can be spread through the internet for any purpose. Advertising, politics, and news are only some of the important areas that make use of the internet to spread ideas or information.

 

   "Scumbag Steve" internet meme

     

     In addition to believing memes control us, Susan Blackmore also believes that memes are what sets our species apart from others. The Royal Association for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce sponsors an event called “The Great Debate.” At these debates, various topics are discussed by experts in whichever field is being presented. In November of 2004, the topic was memetics. Blackmore made an appearance there, and in her discussion, she presented her theory about what makes us human. “For Blackmore this turning point is the development of our ability and readiness to imitate; At the point when we began to imitate the meme became possible.” (The Great Debate) Blackmore insinuates that the ability to imitate allows for memes, and memes are what sets us apart as a species. However, my definition of ‘meme’ allows for any creature to use memes. After all, many species of animals can learn and use the meme, when presented as I have. In the spring, nature is buzzing with the many sounds of songbirds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Songbirds, or oscines, are a worldwide group of more than 4,600 species, including orioles, warblers, wrens, thrushes, and other birds known for their beautiful singing. Unlike suboscines, all songbirds that have been studied so far must learn to sing.” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) Under Dawkins’ definition, songs are memes. Therefore, many species besides our own use memes every day. Blackmore cannot be correct in using memes to set us apart from other animals in this sense. Perhaps what sets us from other animals is the capability to understand that we’re different, on all levels, rather than giving a specific reason for our differentiation.

           

     Memes are rooted in everything we know. As human beings, we should understand that memes are an unavoidable and necessary part of life. They have been around since our ancestor species became semi-intelligent. Memes are not only a necessity, but they are useful to us as well. They help us to define ourselves. But defining that is something I’ll leave to someone else…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

"All About Birds: Vocal Development." The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, n.d. Web. 8 Nov 2011.

 

Blackmore, Susan. "Memes and Temes." TED Talks. TED. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQ_9-Qx5Hz4>.

 

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, USA, 1989.

 

"The Great Debate: Genes, Memes, Minds." Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://thegreatdebate.org.uk/GMMIntro.html>.

 

"U.S. Satisfaction With Gov't, Morality, Economy Down Since '08." Gallup 04 01 2011. n. pag. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <http://www.gallup.com/poll/145760/satisfaction-gov-morality-economy-down.asp&xgt;.

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