Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Becoming the man of your memes

"Tread carefully for you tread on my memes" - Richard Dawkins

Evolution is fuelled entirely by the forces selection, previously in evolutionary history its entirely based upon how we interacted with our environment we grew arms, legs to fight, eat and build are way evolutionary success. We grew these to defend ourselves against the the forces of nature, previously the only way to evolve was physical, then the meme happened and that changed evolutionary history forever.

For those of you unaware of the term meme its a unit of cultural information that spread through a population under a similar, but not identical model of inheritance to genes. If you want an example of a meme I'm using the most successful meme in the world to communicate to you. There's no doubt in any biologists mind that the meme of language changed how we interacted with each other and therefore effected how we evolved. Next time you look look at larynx I would invite you to think think that nature designed this so we can physically be better meme-machines.

What we can take from this philosophically? Well it suggests that next stage of our evolution will be fostered on ability our to co-operate. Language evolved because created unparalleled way for us to work together, and it was so successful it spread to every part of the globe. I think its inspiring thought that success of our species will be built on a spirit of co-operation that is underpinned a natural mechanism that facilitates this process. Its an uplifting message that we're evolving to work better together.

Memes present a sense of transcendence to cultural thought, because although our own lives might be transient, our memes are long out live us. The society we live is built upon the collective memes that existed within since the dawn of language, each “meme pool” creating a collective cultural identity based upon individual experiences of millions of people throughout history. As each person dies, their memes are left behind in their friends, in their family and in their children to be tested for usefulness in a new generation, old, irrelevant ideas will be phased out superseded by the useful, the pleasant and successful ideas of the new generation. The world we live in is based on the collective successful memes passed down throughout history.

We can look at political history as an evolution of memes- from anarchy came tribal despotism then came the caste system that evolved into to a feudal monarchy that shifted toward nationalism, fascism then communism and now we have democracy. A facilitated selection of ideas based on societal need. Memetic evolution doesn't just happen by itself, the conditions need to be just right for selection pressure to be applied and primarily this happens by group scrutiny and collective action. Memetic evolution works in a telescopic manner, this means after long periods of inaction or very slow gradual change when the conditions fall into place the level of evolution is amplified massively.

Times of great memetic change are well logged by history- the renaissance overturned a 1,000 years of established political religion simply because people had new means to scrutinise (the resurgence of deductive science) and new ways to spread ideas (invention of the printing press). As a result exponential memetic adaptation and selection occurred, essentially in scientific terms this means it became a golden age of ideas.

I referred to this digital age as a “second renaissance” due to the onset of something scientists refer to as “punctuated equilibrium” which is the rapid evolution occurs to better adapt to a new environmental factors such as the new ability to communicate in word, picture, audio and video to a massive audience instantaneously. This evolution isn't physical its memetic and far from being the second renaissance I believe it can be considered the fifth renaissance to have taken place. The first took place on the onset of the photograph and had a limited but distinct effect because recording history suddenly became literal, wars no longer became glorious recollection of those who won it, but it became a history retold in the impartial images of suffering.

The third renaissance was one of audio suddenly which had a distinct impact on the second world war for it became a powerhouse of memetic transmission allowing Churchill to give his famous speeches to raise the moral of the British people that suffered so greatly under the blitz. The human voice over the word has such an emotive quality and hearing our leaders publicly allowed scrutinise their characters on mass basis for the first time. They no longer became distant policy makers but humans like ourselves. This personalisation of our leaders gave rise to two wonderful memes of meritocracy and egalitarianism- if he's like me, why can't I be like him?

This was furthered by the onset of the forth renaissance one of an audio-visual medium through television. This no doubt played a significant the evolution of the cultural meme of the civil rights movement because the suffering of African Americans was beamed into millions of homes world wide. When information becomes more accessible to individuals more people can get involved in the selection of memes, it becomes faster and more accurate. If I were take one unifying message on the evolution of memes it would be this- the defining feature of our memetic evolution is its search for unified truth and a war on injustice, a memes sole function is to reproduce but the successful memes that persist through out our history must meet one primary criteria, to make better world for us all. Suddenly evolution begins to offer us more than a reason for being what we are- it can offer us a philosophy of hope.

Why, oh why, does this fifth renaissance (far less punchy isn't it?) offer more than its previous efforts? To put it simply this is the first renaissance that belongs to us. Previously information networks belonged to other people, you might have a great idea, for example a sociological theory based on the selection of memes, but unless you knew someone who owned a printing press, worked at publishing firm or was some how involved with radio or TV it would be unlikely to go very far. Not only that, many ideas went unnoticed due the high cost in publishing anything through these mediums. For the first time in human history we have a huge access to the means of widespread meme production that's cheap, easy to use, accessible is through a medium that many of us already interact with on a daily basis. The excitement caused by the knowledge that everybody can contribute to the biggest “meme pool” in human history has led to a huge artistic surge because this is the first renaissance everybody can be a part of.

I've decided this is too much of an opportunity to miss and have pulled up my surfboard to ride memetic tidal waves of the information age in the form of desktop philosophy. Despite several tides of shit such as “kid with light saber” on Youtube but I'm already witnessing first sign of positive sociological change. The Junta of Myanmar republic attempted media lock down to hide slaughter of Burmese monks and one guy with a mobile phone uploaded his photos to the internet set several hundred people immediately to their blogs, word spread, the face book group had over a million members before the international pressure forced the Junta to stop the genocide. Memes once again exercised their seemingly innate ability to end injustice.

I hope this reflection has invited you consider the positive aspects of both physical and memetic evolution but will end with one further thought. We've never existed in a more connected age and this makes it most exciting time to be alive, as this is the first renaissance that encompasses greatest subsection of our planet to date. Our unrivalled capacity to communicate with one another will fuel a new age where truth becomes inescapable and injustice becomes more visible much easier to deal with collectively. The information age belongs to you but will be shaped not by its consumers but by its contributors. Wherever you are, whatever your doing, don't be bored.

The fact your reading this means you're already a part of this, but I would ask you to consider which part of this renaissance you want to belong to you.

Best of luck on your adventures.

Confessions of a science-killjoy- An introduction into a philosophical appreciation of evolution

I still don't know why it has taken quite so long to write this down, because recently for about the billionth time, I've had the famous “I hate evolution but I accept it” conversation. For those of you new to this particular discourse; it follows a familiar pattern. People often postulate that evolution is a depressing theory because it suggests the following things: Firstly, it suggests that we have have no free will as we are reduced to simple bags of chemicals acting out our biological destiny and secondly, that evolution favours the biggest, strongest and the meanest. Yet most of us will freely accept that we don't live in a society of evil, hulking, mindless, chemically driven drones and yet the persistence of these inaccuracies remain.

These two statements are provably false and any biologist with a decent understanding of the evolution of organisms by the process of natural selection will immediately refute them. I will offer my own brief rebuttal of these misrepresentations but I think far more importantly, I'd like to have a look at how a further understanding of evolution can enrich how we think about our lives. I would like to change the commonly held thinking that it is a depressing theory of fatalism but an uplifting theory of self-determination.

I think it's funny how science is often considered a “protestant killjoy” when my experience of science and particularly scientists, reveals a far grander worldview taught by some of the most colourful and humorous characters I've ever met. Everyone I know seems interested in people who study arts subjects- has any one really thought that a scientist might have a philosophy all of his own? Science is a constantly evolving art form all of its own, and I think should be examined as such.

No doubt that the arts affects science, the guiding hand of ethics, design and epistemology have contributed to how science works, but what about science affecting art? There I see the really exciting side of the modern age- the building of the world of information networks has triggered the biggest artistic movement in history, whether it is the millions of users of deviant art and its many digital canvas children, or the hundreds of millions of people who have decided to become movie stars for the first time on Youtube. It's a second renaissance fueled by a new digital printing press that isn't just limited to words, but includes sounds, videos and pictures instantly reproducible by anyone with a PC. You might say I'm just one of the new generation of desktop philosophers inspired solely by the fact that I can be read almost anywhere, by anyone at any time.

Given the almost completely indispensable inter-relation between the fields of art and science, I think it's probably about time that science gets the artistic appreciation it deserves, and where better to start than that cold, remorseless theory of evolution. I want to examine how it is in fact a theory that offers hopeful and relevant messages for coping in the modern age. I want to examine how an appreciation of the evolution of genetic memory can add an element of transcendence and responsibility to our existence. Lastly, I want to examine the way in which the new evolution of cultural memes can give an uplifting idea to how our minds are evolving currently.

Finding beauty in commonality

I wish we would embrace a little pragmatism sometimes, I respect that life-goals obviously need to be a little bit ambitious but making them unrealistic serves no one and one of the most painful things we can do is walk a path we are unsuited for. We need to be able to criticise ourselves effectively, to get what we want that involves analysing our strengths, weaknesses and make reasoned assumptions about what we can achieve and what we are likely to achieve. Not just what we want. How many of you have asked your friends what you think you should do? If you find what they say jarringly different from what you want its probably time to have a think about who you are. Never be quick to dismiss the opinions of others they always have reasons for having them. Never view your ambitions as absolute.

Now consider this for a moment, Robert Burns cottage attracts many tourists from across the globe. It is a boring place. A fairly ordinary cottage of no particular architectural or historical note in a fairly bland part of Ayrshire. There is nothing remarkable about the place. Yet tourist flock to see what he saw and yet they cannot. The bizarre contradiction is that Burns poetry takes the ordinary and makes it come alive with a poetic vision of the world. The importance is not what you see but rather how you choose to see it. He made the humble Louse, mice or Haggis items worthy of poetic idolatry. I think this is an idea that can be carried across into our personal lives and goals. When did the pleasure of an ordinary life get so eroded by the media's thinking on what we should be doing and how much we should be earning? I wish people would stop hating the ordinary, it forces the world to be such an ugly place.

Burns teaches that there is grandiosity in the most average of lives, a richness and depth that exists if only we would choose to see it. Everyday billions of people take a wry smile as they look at the clock and see five minutes to finishing time. A very ordinary experience but we keep smiling. I would invite you to keep smiling. Doesn’t commonality have its beauty too?

This doesn’t mean we should all focus on being mediocre, one of lovely things about being human is we have an unrivalled capacity to develop ourselves, it is very much the defining feature of our species. This level of investment does not have to be a chore at all, I for one love having hobbies and see it as far more critical in my personal development than my studies. I might even suggest to you, that making yourself a more rounded individual, one capable of greatness of any kind is probably easier than you imagine. Do you really know what you like doing? Do you spend two hours a week doing it? Even if you and your hobbies get lost to time, if you are 20 now and die at 65 you will have spent 4,680 hours doing something you loved doing. This can be anything from reading a good book, drinking a cup of tea or staring at a lap top screen hoping some words will appear on the page… Although the latter contains quite a tidal mixture of grief and happiness. Numerical value aside (and I do love numerical value) just investing time in oneself carries inherent value not only for ourselves but others too. A silly little Harvard professor called William Lyon Phelps thought similarly on the issue.

“The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others.”

Quite simple ambitions aren’t they? What this quote says to me is that what we do isn’t important, its what we love doing that is. It only makes sense that we might attempt to combine the two. When that’s not possible take solace in the fact you at least have another 4,000 or so hours to look forward too. Having a nice chat is precious. Treat it as such.

Finally as last time, I wish to finish on somewhat of a personal note. I want to concentrate on the “moral” aspect we often forget about ambition. I had originally planned to talk about Abraham Lincoln who to his merit had a lot of engaging things to say on developing moral ambition. Alas his was superseded by a far better candidate- my mummy. My mum like many mothers is quite unremarkable, half educated from a shitty part of Glasgow and a single mum and to this day is phenomenally poor. Yet in a very ordinary past time of reading to her child she at a very young age imparted the moral wisdom of Rudyard Kiplings “Just-So Stories” They are lovely tales I would recommend to anyone regardless of age. These memories to this day fill me with a great deal of happiness and influence my writing this. She only sought ambition of the moral kind and no other. Simply to love her son. This made her happy and is something 98% of mothers do. She taught me there is incredible beauty to be had in the living the ordinary life.

That knowledge makes me happy too.

Thanks mum.

Finding who we are and what we want, remembering Information does not equal wisdom

We live in an exciting time, never before has opportunity been easier to come by and social mobility in the UK even in a time of mass recession is at an all time high. But this opportunity creates a new era of personal responsibility for us all. In the 20s the only responsibility we had was to learn the trade of our fathers. Now in the age of subsidised university, funded apprenticeships and research grants just working out what we want to do is difficult. Arthur C .Clark, a famous Astronomer has this offer us to dealing with information overload in our tech heavy age

"The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information — in the sense of raw data — is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these."

So how do we navigate this minefield? I might suggest chasing some of this wisdom that Clark talks about. Firstly we need to re-evaluate what are idea of success is. Success is another word that strikes me that has taken on a rather strange meaning, when we say “David is a success” we refer almost entirely to David’s financial position or status in the community. Yet what we are saying is this person is a success at being a human, yet the attributes we see as humanitarian values, Honesty, Integrity and kindness don’t necessarily factor into the equation. Its quite easy to see why, and its where Clark's quote comes alive for me.

Information does not equal wisdom.

Think about that for a second. What information do we receive everyday albeit passively? It is of course the media which is obsessed with the “American Dream”. Almost every media outlet exclusively talks about those of money and status in our communities. Not a single American sitcom or drama isn’t about Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists or Politicians. We take these fictional dramas and are passively fed money and status and beauty is everything. Here the information doesn’t feed a higher wisdom it serves only to mislead. One of the pitfalls of the information age is the invention of passive media such as radio and TV. Previously many people would read books slowly and at their own pace and as such naturally have a critical eye to it. I've certainly never sat through a class that teaches me HOW to criticise the media that most people are exposed on a far greater basis than books.

Media now is so fast and over bearing we tend to accept what we're given simply because analysing the sheer volume we receive daily would take a lifetime. Passive media's negative impact is that many false premises go through unnoticed to mass audiences. One of these is that successful people have the most money. History seems quick to forget Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Mozart. They all died penniless but they died knowing they had contributed something unique and something they loved doing. If ambition is designed to ensure our happiness through person-development refined by a moral lens then I think it can be said the media often sells us “False ambition”. Developing our sense of self-knowledge is the only true way of understanding our needs and therefore our ambitions. Be aware of what makes you happy.

When did we stop asking ourselves what we want and just accepted that success is those the media deems to be successful? Its an easy trap to fall into, discovering what we want is difficult and varies on mood, where we live and who we surround ourselves with. That doesn’t mean that ambition is meaningless it just involves facing some very disarming truths about ourselves. What am I good at? and perhaps the ugliest truth of all What am I bad at? Some of you may think the answer to that question is easy, but I know for a fact that many students have massive problems facing themselves.

The university systems biggest flaw is that it doesn't necessarily develop peoples innate talents it just ask us all to do the same things. As a result we begin to think are things we should be good at, before examining the things we are good at. Result- I've had at least a dozen friends who have wanted to be university professors who don't like reading. Some of them even hate their chosen subjects. Because they are students they strive to be the best student they can be which although admirable, doesn't have to be made into a career choice.

The sad truth is many maybe even most people I know don't even realise what they're good at, some people can't understand that if you have degree but love cooking you should probably be a chef and not an academic. That if your people skills are off the chart chances are you’ll prefer a job in PR or management than a lonely career as a writer. Science can be fascinating while the reality of working in a lab can be monotonous and far throw from the almost intoxicating depths of scientific theory.

What we study now does not define us or what we want. Its just a phase.