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family and in their children to be tested for usefulness in a new generation, old, irrelevant ideas will be phased out superseded by the useful, the pleasant and successful ideas of the new generation.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.

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