Out of the brain, onto the web

Until the invention of writing, memes could be driven to extinction by the death or forgetfulness of their hosts. Writing gave memes a way of storing themselves that was not subject to the limited capacity, faulty retention and finite life of human brains. They might lie dormant, but they stood a chance of being reactivated by some future reader.

For example, the words and music for your national anthem are encoded in your brain, placed there because you were forced to sing it at school. If you are like most of us, you can struggle through the first couple of verses and then dry up, because you don’t get to practice the rest of it.

However, the same notes and words are maintained with greater fidelity and longevity on paper and electronic media, and the many verses of God Save the Queen are stored, even if the majority of the British can sing more of the Sex Pistols version than they can of their national anthem.

Another break-through has been digital storage. An argument I’ve heard when I advanced this idea to my friends was that ‘if digitisation is so good, then [insert name of god here] would have invented it for us’. Well, you might argue that [insert name of god here] did invent it, because our genome is stored digitally - in base four, and the digits are known as Adenine’, ‘Cytosine’, Guanine’; and ‘Thymine’.

With this digital system, we could write down a human being on a very large sheet of paper as a set of about 25,000 base four numbers, each of which is about 100,000 digits long: the process which makes our eggs and sperm is equivalent to photocopying this sheet of paper.

Our children are the synthesis of the genes of their parents: that they are not monsters (at least, until they turn thirteen) leads us to conclude that the digital nature of the gene vastly increases its copy fidelity.

The storage of memes has also been helped by digitisation - consider how the mechanisms for spreading music have developed:
  • for most of human existence, songs and tunes could only be spread through imitation (copy-the-product);
  • the invention of musical notation and later sheet music added a copy-the-instruction mechanism
  • the spread of music really took off with analogue storage mechanisms such as tapes and vinyl discs;
  • finally, the digital storage of music vastly increased copy fidelity and ease of transmission.
The music didn’t invent the iPod, but it made us want to invent it.

The role of modern media in spreading memes

The transfer mechanism for memes has also vastly improved. Sue Blackmore thinks that the first memes pre-date language, as they were transferred by visual imitation. The introduction of speech proved a better mechanism, as it does not rely on line of sight and works in the dark, but speech has no longevity and has poor copy fidelity. Writing solves this, but suffers from relatively low ‘reach’ in that copying and learning to read are expensive.

This was solved to a degree in medieval Europe, where monasteries existed to make copies of holy texts (and vice versa: the holy texts existed to make copies of monasteries). Of course, the invention of printing made possible mass transfer of memes, including the meme of printing.

In the 19th Century, digitised electrical transfer mechanisms such as the telegraph increased reach and transmission speed but decreased the richness of the messages: the complexity of the memes that could be transmitted was reduced. Later forms of electronic transfer such as radio, television and email increased the complexity of the messages that could be transmitted and still managed to get to a widespread audience but with the same message to everyone.

As Evans and Wurster (2000) first pointed out in Blown to Bits, the introduction of the World Wide Web radically increased the degree of richness - it allows customisation of messages to recipients, it allowed interaction between transmitter and receiver (via a computerised host) and it allowed pictures, words and sound to be bundled together.

There are other qualities of the World Wide Web that improve the transmission of memes: it allows hosts to seek out ideas via search engines instead of passively receiving them, it allows related memes to be easily linked, and it has vastly reduced the cost of reaching a wide audience through static pages or blogs. In fact, a special class of software called a ‘memetracker’ has been developed to track the spread of ideas from one blog to another to see which ideas are gaining traction.

Of course, this raises all sorts of implications as the old media rules are rejected by the YouTube generation. The people who created the content believe they have a right to profit from it, while the younger generation believe that the information ‘wants’ to be free, in both senses of the word. Memes have to spread or they will become dormant.

Blackmore (2010) has recently advanced an argument that a new type of creature has arisen: books, typewriters and telephones store information or pass it on with varying degrees of fidelity, but they do not select the information they copy. However, the Internet is increasingly based on software that selects information on our behalf, making decisions on how to copy, select and vary information. Rather than genes, which play out their selection battles in our bodies and environments, and memes, where our brains select (consciously or unconsciously) the information we pass on, these new 'temes' are evolving on our technological base.
Meme Storage