People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!

And that’s the message!

Susan Blackmore is up to her usual shenanigans, promoting memes like the red in her hair, following fashion when it’s just not good science.

She has an essay over at the New York Times, The Third Replicator, and will also be engaged in debate with other folks at On the Human, the online project of the National Humanities Center. The entire essay and further discussion are available there at Temes: An Emerging Third Replicator.

Blackmore’s basic argument is that information is multiplying, and the resulting evolutionary process – due to variation, inheritance, and internet success – is best understood through the concepts of “memes” and “temes”:

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace…

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge…

When our ancestors began to imitate they let loose a new evolutionary process based not on genes but on a second replicator, memes. Genes and memes then coevolved, transforming us into better and better meme machines…

[I]n the early 21st century, we are seeing the emergence of a third replicator. I call these temes (short for technological memes, though I have considered other names). They are digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines. We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from one replicator to the next.

The basic analysis is two-step: (a) like so many spectacular failures before, slot humans into a reductive evolutionary analysis – eugenics, selfish-gene sociobiology, and now the memes/temes team (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do good evolutionary analysis!); (b) come up with a categorical concept and apply it everywhere – the replicator (genes, memes, and temes) – even after the complexities of actual genetic “copying” reveal a dynamic and incomplete process, not a prime mover and essentialist causal force (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do neural/anthropolological analysis!).

The great advantage of this is that most people can follow a two-step analysis, a one-two punch, a back-and-forth dance move. It’s easy, often appealing, and doesn’t require a lot of practice or skill to ape.

Let me go back to my initial play on words, off McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Here’s a part of the Wikipedia entry on just that phrase which reveals the immediate downfall to Blackmore:

McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As the society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.

The content of “memes” or “temes,” the simplistic juicy idea, really distracts us from two messages: what the social implications of Ms. Blackmore’s ideas are (and she sure has plenty to say there, and does so often), and how technology actually drives wholesale transformations in ways that makes the the concept of “temes” seem so inadequate, so antiquated. Why are a search engine, a social connector, and a video uploader the three top sites in the world? It’s not because of temes – it’s because people use them.

I could go on and on, but there’s not much point. I’ll let Greg speak for me in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On:

So, why do I hate the concept of ‘ideas replicating from brain to brain.’ After all, I work on physical education and imitative learning; shouldn’t I be happy that memetic theory places such a premium on imitative learning? What is my problem!? Ah, let me count the problems… I’ll just give you 10 Problems with Memetics to keep it manageable.

Greg starts with (1) Reifying the activity of brains, (2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas, (3) Doesn’t ‘self-replicating’ mean replicating by one’s self?, (4) The term ‘meme’ applied to divergent phenomena, and another six gems for you.

In the meantime, here is someone who actually does work on YouTube and other Internet phenomena, anthropologist Michael Wesch.

9 thoughts on “People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!

  1. The invention of writing meant that for the first time you did not have to keep everything in your head. When an old person died it was a great lost, due to the amount of information that was lost. With writing the human brain now has an auxilary memory storage capacity. The digital age as expanded not only that storage capacity but speeded up the retrival process. There have been large libraries for hundreds of years, but it often took a long time to find a piece of information. Now we can retrieve information much quicker. It also allows more people to engage in storing that information. Very few people were authors of books and thus info was censored or limited by the rigorous of publishing; but many people make their own web pages. So this is a 3 part process: 1 more storage, 2 quicker retrival and 3 more people can add to the pile. Part 4 that is developing now is the synthesis and linking of various data. So what will part 5 in this evolution of writing? >>from cave walls to scrolls to Gutenberg to libraries to the net<<

  2. After reading this line by Blackmore:

    “They are digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines. We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from one replicator to the next.”

    …I was glad that you included the video by someone like Wesch, who is, as you say, actively looking into the ways in which people use and interact with online media. Blackmore makes it sound like humans are just passive recipients that are somehow controlled by the choices/actions of machines. Kind of like Dawkins’ argument from a long time ago, just slightly reworked.

    Great post.

  3. You may recall that Ms. Blackmore started out her research career with a PhD in Parapsychology(?)and headed up sympathetic investigations of “paranormal” activities before abruptly denouncing the whole business. Perhaps her take on digital information is a case of overcompensation?

  4. What I find so curious about this general line of thought — from selfish genes, to brain hopping memes, and now temes — is the move of projecting agency onto something that really has little or no capacity for independent action. In the case of the gene, sophisticated people know that the gene requires a complex apparatus for replication, and so forth and so on; but even there I suspect that the idea of just bracketing all that as though it doesn’t exist, that that is attractive. It’s nice to think of genes as agents of their own replication in the way that people are the agents of their actions. Why is that so appealing even to those who know better?

    As for memes and temes, they’re running under metaphor pure and simple.

    This is an ideological matter, but it’s not clear what the ideology is.

  5. Actually, as much as people hold negative views of the idea of memes (see Mind Hacks’s “meme silliness,”),am all too positive about memes typifying the actual nature that depicts human beings. We all are imitators, copying others because we livein a society, where no one is an island. Come to think of memes in this way, we shall only realise how we all are no other than memes wrt large. You may not know it but you are imitator.

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