Paul Kelly on Fri, 12 May 2000 05:06:07 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> It's not me it's my genes, or is it my memes?

At 9:49 AM -0400 5/7/00, Ana Viseu wrote:
>Memes are ideas that replicate
>themselves by jumping from brain to brain.  Urban myths--such as the woman
>drying up the cat in the microwave--are examples of memetic replication.

Urban myths are always the most convenient and obvious examples of 
memes. But do memes have an explanatory power outside of rumours, 
fads and legends already optimized for repeatability? How about the 
wheel? Why didn't the Mayans invent the wheel? Was it because they 
had no contact with the infectious meme? Or was it because their 
culture was infertile ground for such a technology? If the latter 
then we fall back on the old disciplines to explain why Mayans didn't 
have wheels: history, geography, economics, etc. How much explanatory 
power do memes really have?

>The first, and already stated above, is the de-responsibilization that
>comes along with such a view.  If not we but the memes themselves are
>responsible for their replication then who is the accountable actor: the
>individual, or the meme?

Here's a typical Dawkins passage:

"A human child is shaped by evolution to soak up the culture of her 
people. Most obviously, she learns the essentials of their language 
in a matter of months. A large dictionary of words to speak, an 
encyclopedia of information to speak about, complicated syntactic and 
semantic rules to order the speaking, are all transferred from older 
brains into hers well before she reaches half her adult size. When 
you are pre-programmed to absorb useful information at a high rate, 
it is hard to shut out pernicious or damaging information at the same 
time. With so many mindbytes to be downloaded, so many mental codons 
to be replicated, it is no wonder that child brains are gullible, 
open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion, easy prey to 
Moonies, Scientologists and nuns. Like immune-deficient patients, 
children are wide open to mental infections that adults might brush 
off without effort."
("Viruses of the Mind" ,

This is an incredibly naive view of the mind and learning, akin to 
Karl Popper's "bucket theory" of mind which he spent his whole life 
arguing against. If you believe this then you believe we are 
completely at the mercy of the environment and that only scientific 
experts should be put in charge of raising children.

>This leads directly into the third point, that of the reduction to
>information.  If we are but our genes and memes, and these are composed of
>information, then it follows that we are also information.

Information reductionism was an underlying assumption of every other 
Wired article when I used to read Wired (probably still is). Here's 
an article on DJs from 2.08:

"There are different DJs for every different music style -- techno, acid jazz,
hip hop, ambient -- but all of them are essentially doing the same thing:
manipulating information. Recorded music is stored information, and the
best DJ has the best record collection -- the best information. This consists
of the most current, updated information (recent releases); the most solid
base of information (standards and classics); and the most esoteric, rare
pieces of information (out-of-print records). The one who can manipulate
information in the freshest style (cutting, scratching, mixing beats) is the
best DJ."

Gee, and I thought music was about having a good time. Wired's cover 
story on Dawkins (3.07) followed the release of his _River Out of 
Eden_ which "extends his life's work into a unified evolutionary 
theory arguing that all life, at its core, is a process of 
digital-information transfer."

So, if life is digital information and programmers work with digital 
info, that makes programmers like... Gods! Here's where digital 
utopian dreams finds their pseudo-scientific justification.


                     Paul Kelly:

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