The Speculist: Monday Videos -- Meta-memes and Capability


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Monday Videos -- Meta-memes and Capability

Two videos about memes (both of which I think we've linked before) to provide some food for thought to kick off the week.

First, Dan Dennett has some concerns about dangerous memes:

I note with interest how easily Dennett and at least some members of his audience assume the stance that no ideas are worth dying for. Apparently believing that any particular idea is worth dying for is symptomatic of toxic memetic infection (no matter what the idea is.) Okay, stipulated. What about the general belief that some ideas are worth dying for, without specifying which?

(Full disclosure -- I happen to believe in this particular meme.)

The general belief that some ideas are worth dying for is an interesting meme -- it endorses certain other memes. It is kind of a meta-meme. Is my belief in this meta-meme just evidence of toxic meme infection on my part? And where did meta-meme come from? Did particular notions of ideas being worth dying for evolve from this more general principle, or did we abstract this principle from observing that we had a bunch of ideas-worth-dying-for memes?

Also, what if Dennett and his audience members have simply been infected by a meme that states that no idea is worth dying for? Is their belief therefore as valid (or invalid) as mine? If we're both just carrying viruses around, I guess mine is the toxic one because it might lead to my death -- defending "freedom" or "justice" or some other virus-induced delusion -- whereas Dennett and his gang will go on living thanks to their more practical-minded memes.

If I argue that my meme seems to have some nobility or at least morality to it, while Dennett's is just crass cynicism, that's just more meme infection, right? Well, here's the thing. Even if notions such as "one ought to be kind to others" or "one ought not to steal" or "there are some ideas worth dying for" are just mind viruses that I'm suffering from, I prefer these viruses over the alternative, even if that last one is potentially toxic.

Of course, what does it even mean when I state that I have a preference for one set of memes over another? Do we get to select our memes, or are they preselected for us based on memes we've already absorbed?

Next, Susan Blackmore asks whether there might be a third replicator in addition to genes and memes:

So if memes are reproducible ideas passed from person to person, what are temes? Perhaps temes are reproducible capabilities passed from person to person. So using our 20,000 year time scale to track the progress of human capability, let's break it down.

Period Teme
20,000 years ago How to Build a Fire Cave Paintings
5,000 years ago The Wheel Story of First Guy to Be Run Over by One
500 years ago Gutenberg Printing Press Gutenberg Bible
100 years ago Electric Light Bulb Origin of Species
Today Movable Type The Speculist
Tomorrow Space Elevator Uploaded copies of ourselves

If "uploaded copies of ourselves" strikes you as pushing the limits of what can be described as a "meme," you're not alone. Just as encoding and transmission mechanisms are rapidly converging, so are memes and temes. We can draw a bright clear line between the Movable Type software we use to produce this blog and the blog itself. But is it as easy to draw that line with Facebook? Where does the idea part stop and the technology / capability part start?

Blackmore seems to argue that temes are a relatively new replicator and that the distinction between them and memes becomes more important going forward. I'm not sure I agree. It seems to me that we've had both of them all along. Our temes may be physically reshaping us now, but no more drastically than our memes have socially and culturally reshaped us in the past.

UPDATE: Reader Naomi Most points out that I have failed to grasp the true distinction between memes and temes -- it's the substrate of replication (human brains vs. computers) that makes the difference, not what kind of information is being replicated. Still, I think there is value in distinguishing ideas from capabilities. But that is a distinction within the overall set of memes, rather than being a distinction between memes and something else.


On the "idea worth dying for" issue, I wonder if a given expression or instantiation of an idea being worth dying for might be a better statement of the sentiment? It's quite easy to imagine how a given example of the idea of Nationhood might or might not be considered "worth dying for". I suspect very few German soldiers assigned to the Eastern Front in Feb of 1943 were all that fervent to die for National Socialism, but I'm a convinced sceptic. That they were soldiers at all makes it likely they were at least willing to run the risk of doing so. Is even a bad application of an idea worthy of risking death to defend? A question I would like the chance to put to any of my surviving Vietnamese competion-as-was sometime.

My initial suspicion is that an idea's worth is directly correlatable to the extent of an individual's sense of investment (of self or other worth) therein.

Have to think about the other a bit more.

Blackmore doesn't do the greatest job of explaining her own point about why we need to define a Third Replicator.

Genes, memes, and temes all have one thing in common: they "replicate". The different between them comes down to their plane of replication.

Genes replicate biologically. Memes replicate within the human sphere: brains and media (books and other communications that have endpoints in the human brain).

Temes are so defined as replicators that act purely within the technological world -- no human brains required. Proto-temes include computer viruses and "maker bots".

The examples you cited as "temes" are thus not actually temes -- they're memes. They may represent technology, but they have to be replicated with human brains as a medium.

The reason Blackmore insists that the birth and flourishing of temes will be such a dangerous time for our planet is that, without brains being needed to replicate this type of information, replication and variation will happen at the speed of electricity rather than the speed of human thought.

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