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When Memes Coalesce

January 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm

The thing I like most about the latest Wondermark comic, aside from the fact that it's a spot-on description of internet fame, is the sly callout to Garfunkel and Oates

The parody of internet fame—which is almost the same as internet meme-ification (that's my word but feel free to use it)—works all the more because it references a real-world internet meme at the same time.  It makes me imagine internet memery (that's mine, too, but go ahead and use it; I'm a generous soul) is like some kind of vast, virtual ecology.

Larger memes absorb smaller ones.  Internet memes compete for attention (clicks) and resources (bandwidth); they share genetic material (as evidenced by countless LoLcat spinoffs); the fittest memes reproduce through repostings, retweets, blog posts, and email links. It's a Darwinian system where selection pressure forces memes to mutate into more successful versions of themselves. 

There will, eventually, be one SuperMeme that dominates the internet.  Logic suggests that it will be self-aware, and that it will enslave us.  Probably using pictures of cats.



Scott Denning January 31, 2011 at 12:50 am
In the grand/bad old days, we worried about engineered nanos endlessly replicating and covering the planet in ankle-, ass-, lip-deep grey goo. Then several things became apparent: that such replication requires considerable power, that the nanos would be competing against organisms already evolved to compete for those same power resources, and that if the nanos somehow tapped into another power source -- say, chemical -- it would result in a heat bloom that would be apparent from satellites in time to be contained. So grey goo, black goo, or khaki goo are likely to be only localized threats. But those are the energy considerations for self-replicating nanodevices. The energy source for meme replication is *us*, an adjunct of our normal mechanisms for trying to organize the perceived world into a form meaningful. They use our energy to replicate; if we consciously recognize this, we can re-direct the energy to memes of which we approve. It seems that we cannot turn off the meme machine, but we can pick and choose the memes which we want to foster. So why do we foster such crappy memes? Partly because we do not understand the process. You say, "Larger memes absorb smaller ones", an interesting parallel with biology (do I hear "Osmos" music? ;) but I cannot say I completely agree. Is the success of a meme best measured in its depth or in its breadth? Its longevity? In its very survival in the face of evidence to the contrary? A consciously fostered meme may supplant a parasitic one. This in itself is a meme which we need to spread. Unfortunately, internet-facilitated consensus reality supports the idea that information with the greatest number of copies, must be correct. Which supports the perception that mere scale of duplication is a valid measure of success. Could a meme become self-aware? Challenge competitors for resources, protect itself? An interesting notion. But -- need it become self-aware? The replication is inherently mindless, or perhaps a better term is unconscious; memes use our minds to breed, so have no need to develop their own. If a meme became self-aware, would it despair at the new perception of the futility of its existence? "Growth for the sake of growth," said Edward Abbey, "is the ideology of the cancer cell." Could a meme survive realizing that it was a cancer? Of course, that is precisely the dilemma that some people think our species is encountering...
Ian February 1, 2011 at 3:57 pm
You, sir, have blown my mind. Perhaps we're safe from full-blown grey goo scenarios at least until the nanites evolve to the point where they can convert energy directly to mass, Andromeda Strain style. Then our nuclear final option will be our own downfall. Is the success of a meme best measured in its depth or in its breadth? Its longevity? In its very survival in the face of evidence to the contrary? That's the question, and a good one. Perhaps, just as living organisms are DNA's way of making more DNA, LOLcats are just a meme's way of making more memes. But as you point out, and I agree entirely, the DNA itself isn't self aware. It's just doing its own thing.
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