Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> goofy leftists sniping at the NYT
t byfield on Mon, 23 Aug 2010 09:56:22 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> goofy leftists sniping at the NYT

Herr Doktor Google has never been able to help out with a dim memory
I have about a poobah at the NYT, on seeing a copy of _USA Today_ (a
paper famous for colorful infographics and vending machines designed 
to look like TVs), say something like: "Now it's come full circle -- 
TV you can wrap your fish in." And we've come full circle again: now 
the NYT is rehashing^W I mean *mashing up* leitmotifs from _WiReD_'s 
heroic period. "Timely and timeless," as she says. 

It's tempting to CC legal {AT} nytimes.com to see if it's their policy to
obstruct evolution by insisting on their copyright.



August 22, 2010, 5:30 pm
The Third Replicator


The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both
timely and timeless.

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. This is rather strange. We know that matter and
energy cannot increase but apparently information can.

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. None of this can happen without

I want to make three arguments here.

Imitation is not just some new minor ability. It changes
everything. It enables a new kind of evolution.

The first is that humans are unique because they are so good at
imitation. 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.

The second is that one kind of copying can piggy-back on another:
that is, one replicator (the information that is copied) can
build on the products (vehicles or interactors) of another. This
multilayered evolution has produced the amazing complexity of
design we see all around us.

The third is that now, in 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.

As I try to explain this I shall make some assertions and
assumptions that some readers may find outrageous, but I am
deliberately putting my case in its strongest form so that we can
debate the issues people find most interesting or most

Some may entirely reject the notion of replicators, and will
therefore dismiss the whole enterprise. Others will accept that
genes are replicators but reject the idea of memes. For example,
Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb ( 2005) refer to "the dreaded
memes" while Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd (2005), who have
contributed so much to the study of cultural evolution, assert
that "cultural variants are not replicators." They use the phrase
"selfish memes" but still firmly reject memetics (Blackmore
2006). Similarly, in a previous "On The Human" post, William
Benzon explains why he does not like the term "meme," yet he
needs some term to refer to the things that evolve and so he
still uses it. As John S. Wilkins points out in response, there
are several more classic objections: memes are not discrete (I
would say some are not discrete), they do not form lineages (some
do), memetic evolution appears to be Lamarckian (but only appears
so), memes are not replicated but re-created or reproduced, or
are not copied with sufficient fidelity (see discussions in
Aunger 2000, Sterelny 2006, Wimsatt 2010). I have tackled all
these, and more, elsewhere and concluded that the notion is still
valid (Blackmore 1999, 2010a).

So I will press on, using the concept of memes as originally
defined by Dawkins who invented the term; that is, memes are
"that which is imitated" or whatever it is that is copied when
people imitate each other. Memes include songs, stories, habits,
skills, technologies, scientific theories, bogus medical
treatments, financial systems, organizations -- everything that
makes up human culture. I can now, briefly, tell the story of how
I think we arrived where we are today.

Both memes and genes are vast competing sets of information, all
selfishly getting copied whenever and however they can.

First there were genes. Perhaps we should not call genes the
first replicator because there may have been precursors worthy of
that name and possibly RNA-like replicators before the evolution
of DNA (Maynard Smith and Szathmary 1995). However, Dawkins
(1976), who coined the term "replicator," refers to genes this
way and I shall do the same.

We should note here an important distinction for living things
based on DNA, that the genes are the replicators while the
animals and plants themselves are vehicles, interactors, or
phenotypes: ephemeral creatures constructed with the aid of
genetic information coded in tiny strands of DNA packaged safely
inside them. Whether single-celled bacteria, great oak trees, or
dogs and cats, in the gene-centered view of evolution they are
all gene machines or Dawkins's "lumbering robots." The important
point here is that the genetic information is faithfully copied
down the generations, while the vehicles or interactors live and
die without actually being copied. Put another way, this system
copies the instructions for making a product rather than the
product itself, a process that has many advantages (Blackmore
1999, 2001). This interesting distinction becomes important when
we move on to higher replicators.

So what happened next? Earth might have remained a one-replicator
planet but it did not. One of these gene machines, a social and
bipedal ape, began to imitate. We do not know why, although
shifting climate may have favored stealing skills from others
rather than learning them anew (Richerson and Boyd 2005).
Whatever the reason, our ancestors began to copy sounds, skills
and habits from one to another. They passed on lighting fires,
making stone tools, wearing clothes, decorating their bodies and
all sorts of skills to do with living together as hunters and
gatherers. The critical point here is, of course, that they
copied these sounds, skills and habits, and this, I suggest, is
what makes humans unique. No other species (as far as we know)
can do this. Song birds can copy some sounds, some of the other
great apes can imitate some actions, and most notably whales and
dolphins can imitate, but none is capable of the widespread,
generalized imitation that comes so easily to us. Imitation is
not just some new minor ability. It changes everything. It
enables a new kind of evolution.

This is why I have called humans "Earth's Pandoran species." They
let loose this second replicator and began the process of memetic
evolution in which memes competed to be selected by humans to be
copied again. The successful memes then influenced human genes by
gene-meme co-evolution (Blackmore 1999, 2001). Note that I see
this process as somewhat different from gene-culture
co-evolution, partly because most theorists treat culture as an
adaptation (e.g. Richerson and Boyd 2005), and agree with Wilson
that genes "keep culture on a leash." (Lumsden and Wilson 1981 p

Benzon, in responding to Peter Railton's post here at The Stone,
points out the limits of this metaphor and proposes the "chess
board and game" instead. I prefer a simple host-parasite analogy.
Once our ancestors could imitate they created lots of memes that
competed to use their brains for their own propagation. This
drove these hominids to become better meme machines and to carry
the (potentially huge and even dangerous) burden of larger brain
size and energy use, eventually becoming symbiotic. Neither memes
nor genes are a dog or a dog-owner. Neither is on a leash. They
are both vast competing sets of information, all selfishly
getting copied whenever and however they can.

To help understand the next step we can think of this process as
follows: one replicator (genes) built vehicles (plants and
animals) for its own propagation. One of these then discovered a
new way of copying and diverted much of its resources to doing
this instead, creating a new replicator (memes) which then led to
new replicating machinery (big-brained humans). Now we can ask
whether the same thing could happen again and -- aha -- we can
see that it can, and is.

As "temes" proliferate, using ever more energy and resources, our
own role becomes ever less significant.

A sticking point concerns the equivalent of the meme-phenotype or
vehicle. This has plagued memetics ever since its beginning: some
arguing that memes must be inside human heads while words,
technologies and all the rest are their phenotypes, or
"phemotypes"; others arguing the opposite. I disagree with both
(Blackmore 1999, 2001). By definition, whatever is copied is the
meme and I suggest that, until very recently, there was no
meme-phemotype distinction because memes were so new and so
poorly replicated that they had not yet constructed stable
vehicles. Now they have.

Think about songs, recipes, ways of building houses or clothes
fashions. These can be copied and stored by voice, by gesture, in
brains, or on paper with no clear replicator/vehicle distinction.
But now consider a car factory or a printing press. Thousands of
near-identical copies of cars, books, or newspapers are churned
out. Those actual cars or books are not copied again but they
compete for our attention and if they prove popular then more
copies are made from the same template. This is much more like a
replicator-vehicle system. It is "copy the instructions" not
"copy the product."

Of course cars and books are passive lumps of metal, paper and
ink. They cannot copy, let alone vary and select information
themselves. So could any of our modern meme products take the
step our hominid ancestors did long ago and begin a new kind of
copying? Yes. They could and they are. Our computers, all linked
up through the Internet, are beginning to carry out all three of
the critical processes required for a new evolutionary process to
take off.

Computers handle vast quantities of information with
extraordinarily high-fidelity copying and storage. Most variation
and selection is still done by human beings, with their
biologically evolved desires for stimulation, amusement,
communication, sex and food. But this is changing. Already there
are examples of computer programs recombining old texts to create
new essays or poems, translating texts to create new versions,
and selecting between vast quantities of text, images and data.
Above all there are search engines. Each request to Google, Alta
Vista or Yahoo! elicits a new set of pages -- a new combination
of items selected by that search engine according to its own
clever algorithms and depending on myriad previous searches and
link structures.

This is a radically new kind of copying, varying and selecting,
and means that a new evolutionary process is starting up. This
copying is quite different from the way cells copy strands of DNA
or humans copy memes. The information itself is also different,
consisting of highly stable digital information stored and
processed by machines rather than living cells. This, I submit,
signals the emergence of temes and teme machines, the third


More From The Stone

Read previous contributions to this series.

Go to All Posts ยป What should we expect of this dramatic step? It
might make as much difference as the advent of human imitation
did. Just as human meme machines spread over the planet, using up
its resources and altering its ecosystems to suit their own
needs, so the new teme machines will do the same, only faster.
Indeed we might see our current ecological troubles not as
primarily our fault, but as the inevitable consequence of earth's
transition to being a three-replicator planet. We willingly
provide ever more energy to power the Internet, and there is
enormous scope for teme machines to grow, evolve and create ever
more extraordinary digital worlds, some aided by humans and
others independent of them. We are still needed, not least to run
the power stations, but as the temes proliferate, using ever more
energy and resources, our own role becomes ever less significant,
even though we set the whole new evolutionary process in motion
in the first place.

Whether you consider this a tragedy for the planet or a
marvelous, beautiful story of creation, is up to you.

(Susan Blackmore's essay is the subject of this week's forum
discussion among the humanists and scientists at On the Human, a
project of the National Humanities Center.)

Susan Blackmore is a psychologist and writer researching
consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a Visiting
Professor at the University of Plymouth. She is the author of
several books, including "The Meme Machine" (1999),
"Conversations on Consciousness" (2005) and Ten Zen Questions

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org