I’m Gonna Wash That Meme Right Outta My Hair

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Definitions, Propaganda and Disinformation


Here’s a collection of articles about Memetic Engineering spanning the last 10 years:

What is Memetic Engineering? (from Wikipedia)

Memetic engineering is a term used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene concerned with the process of modifying human beliefs. Memetic engineers do this by exposing people to differing belief systems (or memes). Other authors who have discussed memetic engineering include Leveious Rolando, John Sokol, and Gibran Burchett.

According to Dawkins, the effect a meme has on society is based on the application of the meme within a society rather than any qualities essential to the meme. For example, Dawkins explains that, “Race” and “Racism” are memes comprised of several other memes, some of which have positive connotations in societies that reject racism.

According to Dawkins, typical memetic engineers include scientists, engineers, industrial designers, ad-men, artists, publicists, political activists, and religious missionaries.

Dawkins states that much of theology and other theoretical aspects of religion can be viewed as the careful, even worshipful, handling of extremely powerful memeplexes with very odd or difficult traits.

Memetic Engineering
by James Gardner
May, 1996

What if culture – even consciousness itself – were nothing more than an artifact of the interaction of selfish memes, ideas capable of replicating and co-evolving with supreme indifference to their impact on human hosts?

A meme-centered paradigm of human culture and consciousness is, to say the least, disconcerting. In Consciousness Explained, cognitive theorist Daniel Dennett captures the horror graphically:

    I don’t know about you, but I’m not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dung heap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora. It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic. Who’s in charge, according to this vision – we or our memes?

A meme-focused vision of culture and consciousness acknowledges forthrightly that memes are not mere random effluvia of the human experience but powerful control mechanisms that impose a largely invisible deep structure on a wide range of complex phenomena – language, scientific thinking, political behavior, productive work, religion, philosophical discourse, even history itself.

But consider the matter more closely. What if it were possible to construct a new science of the meme – memetic engineering – analogous to the discipline of genetic engineering? Such a science would allow us to manipulate complex patterns of replicating memes and achieve consistent and predictable manifestations in the form of a precisely altered cultural phenotype. Who would then be in charge of the course of cultural evolution, our selves or our selfish memes?

This may sound like science fiction, but a possible precursor to memetic engineering has already been studied at the Santa Fe Institute. The 2050 Project – an effort jointly pursued by SFI and the World Resources Institute – used a computer modeling tool called Sugarscape to construct a “cartoon history” that mimics the true history of ancient Native American tribes, such as the Anasazi, and then assesses the impact of changes in various cultural inputs – availability of resources, migration patterns, altered assumptions concerning diffusion of cultural mores – on alternate histories that might have transpired but were foreclosed by intervening events in real history.

The objectives of this research, breathtaking in their implications, were described by the investigators in Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up, a project monograph:

    The broad aim of this research is to begin the development of a more unified social science, one that embeds evolutionary processes in a computational environment that simulates demographics, the transmission of culture, conflict, economics, disease, the emergence of groups, and co-adaptation with the environment, all from the bottom up.

Research initiatives like the 2050 Project hold out the prospect of such a new kind of social science, as well as the possibility of a new science of memetic engineering. While predictions about the pace of scientific innovation are notoriously risky, my guess is that by the beginning of the 21st century the embryonic field of computer-based memetic studies either will reveal itself as an intellectual dry hole or will prove to be a technology of extraordinary power.

If the second scenario comes to pass, what are the long-term implications for our self-image as a species – endowed as we are with at least the illusion of free will and blessed, perhaps uniquely among the creatures of this earth, with the baffling gift of conscious thought?

First the dark scenario. Memes might come to be viewed explicitly as the primary actors in the drama of human history, exerting an iron-fisted control precisely analogous to that of Richard Dawkins’s “selfish genes” in the pageant of biological evolution.

This is the disquieting vision that Daniel Dennett proffered – the human mind as a mere meat computer, conscious human beings as puppets dancing to the blind watchmaker’s hidden melodies. But is this a fair reading of the philosophical implications of memes? Perhaps not. If we consider the matter carefully, we can glimpse a subtler message lurking between the lines of this emerging discipline. It is the same message implicit in the new science of evolutionary psychology, articulated by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal:

    Understanding the often unconscious nature of genetic control is the first step toward understanding that we’re all puppets, and our best hope for even partial liberation is to try to decipher the logic of the puppeteer.

So too in the realm of human culture, our best hope for eventual liberation from an endless succession of dangerous ideologies and blinding prejudices – our best chance for overthrowing the tyranny exercised by blindly replicating memes indifferent to their often devastating impact on the mortal vessels they selfishly commandeer – may lie in a 21st-century enlightenment centered, at least in part, on a rigorous new science of the meme.

James Gardner previously served as features editor of Yale Scientific Magazine.
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Memetic Engineering
by Alex Burns
May 15, 2001

Coined by zoologist Richard Dawkins in his controversial book The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), the ‘meme’ is the study of ideas, behaviours, and skills which replicate and transmit themselves via imitation (using the human mind similarly to the way that a virus does in a biological host).

Memes are ‘replicators’ that compete to get themselves copied into as many minds as possible. Dawkins’ original examples included catchphrases, clothes fashions, and new ways of building arches. By implication, the mind can be fashioned, manipulated, and controlled just as the physical body is by genes.

Important early scientific studies were conducted by Daniel C. Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter (particularly columns for the prestigious Scientific American magazine) in the early 1980s. Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas (New York: Basic Books, 1983) explored memetics from the perspective of abstract mathematics and linguistics. A climate of viral metaphors (Ebola, AIDS) and a rapidly growing hedonistic cyberculture (influenced by evolutionary psychology) helped popularise the memetics field in the 1990s.

Memetics met with academic opposition from socio-biologists including Edward O. Wilson, and Dawkins himself expressed concern about memetics becoming an empirical science of culture. Dennett and others developed slightly different interpretations of memes from Dawkins, and the academic world has consequently been slow to adopt the new science.

Memetic Engineering developed from diverse influences, including cutting edge physics of consciousness and memetics research, chaos theory, semiotics, culture jamming, military information warfare, and the viral texts of iconoclasts William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Genesis P-Orridge. It draws upon Third Culture sciences and conceptual worldviews for Social Engineering, Values Systems Alignment, and Culture Jamming purposes. An important example of macro-historical memetic engineering analysis explaining how domination, patriarchy, war and violence are culturally programmed is Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1988), which outlines her very important Dominator and Partnership Culture thesis.

The savvy memetic engineer is able to isolate, study, and subtly manipulate the underlying values systems, symbolic balance and primal atavisms that unconsciously influence the individual psyche and collective identity. A highly educated but susceptible intelligentsia, worldwide travel, and information vectors like the Internet, cable television, and tabloid media, means that hysterical epidemics and disinformation campaigns may become more common. This warfare will be conducted using aesthetics, symbols, and doctrines as camouflage that will ultimately influence our cultural meme pool. These contemporary Life Conditions (Historic Times; Geographic Place; Existential Problems; and Societal Circumstances) are explored in books like Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), John Brockman’s The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996), and Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co, 1996).

Fictional descriptions of memetic engineering include Isaac Asimov’s seminal Foundation Trilogy (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), George Gurdjieff’s difficult but ultimately very rewarding artificial mythology Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (New York: Penguin USA, 1999); Neil Stephenson’s awesome novels Snow Crash (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1993) and The Diamond Age (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1996); and Robert W. Chambers’ unearthly The King in Yellow (Buccaneer Books, 1996) tome, which influenced seminal horror author H.P. Lovecraft.

NOTE: For a lengthy list of interesting links about memetic engineering, some of which may be out of date, visit this disinfo.com site.

Via Blog about Gafna
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