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Dave Snowden

Think trope not meme

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Our humanity is our killer app.gif There are some words that irritate the hell out of me for the concepts they embody. One of those is the whole idea of memes and the associated practice of memetic science which in some manifestations ends up with memetic engineering. Come to think of it any association of engineering with anything involving humans or human systems can be added to that list of irritants. Now I need to distinguish casual day to day use of the trope of memes from the academic use by those who should know better than to use a false metaphor that itself arises from the most basic misunderstanding of human systems namely social atomism. Most people when they talk about memes are really talking about tropes and the distinction is important. I’ve copied definitions in at the end of this post.

The main problem with the idea of memes is that (ironically) it is the wrong trope. It assumes that the correct metaphor for cultural transformation is the gene. Not only that it takes the very particular approach to causality that is implied by Dawnkin’s Selfish Gene so brilliantly criticised by Mary Midgley. The assumption that a meme is like a gene is bad enough, but then we get the assumption that the gene (and by implication the meme) is the primary unity of analysis. In fact human systems are too (sic) complex for such simplistic linear ideas. Another excellent line of criticism came from blogger Neuroanthropology back in 2008. A post that includes this brilliant quote:

Worst of all, memetics sucks the air out of the room for a serious consideration of the ways that culture, knowledge, technology, and human evolution might be interrelated. That is, like a theory of humours and vapors in illness, it provides pseudo-explanations in place of just getting the hell out of the way of serious thought.

Aside from the causality issue we have the assumption that transfer is individual to individual. Social atomism is the assumption that society is an aggregation of individual choices and decisions. It’s a trope of Northern European and American thinking that has been persistent in many fields for several centuries. In one extreme it manifests as fundamentalist free market economics in another as the Calvinist concept of the elect. From a complexity perspective both of these are wrong a priori as a complex system is never aggregative or reductionism in its nature. Interestingly along with the dispositional not causal issue this is one of the most difficult things for some people to grasp about complexity. There is a whole school (I use the word in the sense of fish not scholarly pursuit) of thought which focuses on individual change, self-awareness and the like which has purloined the language of complexity to try and give scientific creditability to a new age fluffy bunny ideological stance on human nature.

The reality is that in a complex adaptive systems relationships create meaning far more than the individual. Common use of metaphors and habitual practice over time create assemblages that act as downwards constraints on behaviour and which escape the bounds of their creators to have independent existence. Metaphors carry associative meaning that emerges from use over time, not from an individual. It is interactive use and application which allows them to act as enabling constraints; making communication easier associative meaning as well as creating common identity through common use or practice. The key point here is that we don’t have linear causality, what we have is an emergent property of multiple interactions over time which has created a disposition. As such we have more ability to control and shift it if, and this is a very big if, we can map the current dispositional state. Our first offering to help this is Culture Scan which has been the theme of my posts this week and my daily frustration as small details delay launch!

Definitions

trope |trəʊp| nouna figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression. both clothes and illness became tropes for new attitudes toward the self. my sense that philosophy has become barren is a recurrent trope of modern philosophy. perhaps it is a mistake to use tropes and parallels in this eminently unpoetic age. a significant or recurrent theme; a motif: she uses the Eucharist as a pictorial trope.ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: via Latin from Greek tropos turn, way, trope, from trepein to turn.meme |miːm| noun1 an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.2 an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.DERIVATIVES memetic adjectiveORIGIN 1970s: from Greek mimēma that which is imitated, on the pattern of gene.

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