The Value of Viral Memes

Note: “Memes” on this blog is used as it is in the field of memetics, representing units of ideas that are passed from person to person, not in the sense of “funny cat pictures on the internet.”

“Mitochondrial memes” are memes that are passed vertically from parent to child, like “it’s important to eat your dinner before desert” or “brush your teeth twice a day or your teeth will rot out.”

“Meme viruses” (I try to avoid the confusing phrase, “viral memes,”) are memes that are transmitted horizontally through society, like chain letters and TV news.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time warning about some of the potential negative results of meme viruses, but today I’d like to discuss one of their greatest strengths: you can transmit them to other people without using them yourself.

Let’s start with genetics. It is very easy to quickly evolve in a particular direction if a variety of relevant traits already exist in a population. For example, humans already vary in height, so if you wanted to, say, make everyone on Earth shorter, you would just have to stop all of the tall people from reproducing. The short people would create the next generation, and it would be short.

But getting the adult human height below 3″ tall requires not just existing, normal human height variation, but exploiting random mutations. These are rare and the people who have them normally incur huge reductions in fitness, as they often have problems with bone growth, intelligence, and giving birth.

Most random mutations simply result in an organism’s death. Very few are useful, and those that are have to beat out all of the other local genetic combinations to actually stick around.

Suppose you happen to be born with a very lucky genetic trait: a rare mutation that lets you survive more easily in an arctic environment.

But you were born in Sudan.

Your genetic trait could be really useful if you could somehow give it away to someone in Siberia, but no, you are stuck in Sudan and you are really hot all of the time and then you die of heatstroke.

With the evolution of complex thought, humans (near alone among animals) developed the ability to go beyond mere genetic abilities, instincts, and impulses, and impart stores of knowledge to the next generation. Humanity has been accumulating mitochondrial memes for millions of years, ever since the first human showed another human how to wield fire and create stone tools. (Note: the use of fire and stone tools predates the emergence of homo Sapiens by a long while, but not the Homo genus.)

But mitochondrial memes, to get passed on, need to offer some immediate benefit to their holders. Humans are smart enough–and the utility of information unpredictable enough–that we can hold some not obviously useful or absurd ideas, but the bulk of our efforts have to go toward information that helps us survive.

(By definition, mitochondrial memes aren’t written down; they have to be remembered.)

If an idea doesn’t offer some benefit to its holder, it is likely to be quickly forgotten–even if it could be very useful to someone else.

Suppose one day you happen to have a brilliant new idea for how to keep warm in a very cold environment–but you live in Sudan. If you can’t tell your idea to anyone who lives somewhere cold, your idea will never be useful. It will die with you.

But introduce writing, and ideas of no use to their holder can be recorded and transmitted to people who can use them. For example, in 1502, Leonardo da Vinci designed a 720-foot (220┬ám) bridge for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople. The sultan never built Leonardo’s bridge, but in 2001, a bridge based on his design was finally built in Norway. Leonardo’s ideas for flying machines, while also not immediately useful, inspired generations of future engineers.

Viral memes don’t have to be immediately useful to stick around. They can be written down, tucked into a book, and picked up again a hundred years later and a thousand miles away by someone who can use them. A person living in Sudan can invent a better way to stay warm, write it down, and send it to someone in Siberia–and someone in Siberia can invent a better way to stay cool, write it down, and send it back.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835

Many modern scientific and technological advances are based on the contributions of not one or two or ten inventors, but thousands, each contributing their unpredictable part to the overall whole. Electricity, for example, was a mere curiosity when Thales of Miletus wrote about effects of rubbing amber to produce static electricity (the word “electricity” is actually derived from the Greek for “amber”;) between 1600 and 1800, scientists began studying electricity in a more systematic way, but it still wasn’t useful. It was only with the invention of the telegraph from many different electrical parts and systems, (first working model, 1816; first telegram sent in the US, 1838;) that electricity became useful. With the invention of electric lights and the electrical grids necessary to power them (1870s and 80s,) electricity moved into people’s homes.

The advent of meme viruses has thus given humanity two gifts: 1. People can use technology like books and the internet to store more information than we can naturally, like external hard-drives for our brains; and 2. we can preserve and transmit ideas that aren’t immediately useful to ourselves to people who can use them.


Homeschooling Corner: Introducing Mr. Poop & Custom Dice

I happened to have a poop-shaped pinata sitting around (Why? Look, sometimes these things just happen) of the pull-the-flap-on-the-bottom variety rather than the smash-it-with-a-bat kind, so I decided to add a little fun to our day by filling Mr. Poop with school-related ideas written on strips of paper. Give Mr. Poop a shake and a scrap of paper flutters out–today’s idea was to design your own game, which the kids are working on now.

I’ve decided to incorporate the Cub Scout handbooks–which have lots of useful information about subjects like first aid, water safety, civics, history, etc.–into our rotation. (The Cub Scouts have a different handbook for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.) Today we learned about knots–mostly square knots–complemented with The Camper’s Knot Tying Game. Knots are practical for anyone, but also good practice for kids with fine motor difficulties.

Over in Professor Astro Cat, we’re collecting space dust, keeping a moon journal (the eclipse was well-timed for this) and made impact craters in the sandbox. The book recommends spreading out newspaper indoors and using flour or cocoa powder, but sand, outside, is much easier to clean up. (Walmart sells beautiful colored sand for like $4 a bag. I sprinkled some green on top of the regular brown sandbox sand to simulate Earth’s surface.)

Custom Dice

There are lots of interesting dice–math dice, fraction dice, letter dice, place value dice, etc. Customized dice are easy to make: just take a cube (you probably have a building block or letter cube or some Legos lying around,) cover it with paper, and write whatever you want on the faces. (Note it is probably best to write on the paper before applying tape, as many pens won’t write properly on tape.) I have a custom die with +,-, <, and division signs on it that I use along with custom “numbers larger than six” dice for math games. (“Looks like you rolled 5,000,000,000 divided by 7,000!”) (For smaller kids, you may want to stick to + and -.)

I’m still trying to work out good ways to teach history. I’ve got some rudimentary ideas, but I’ll save them for later.

The Echo Chamber, the Forge, and the Fire

Based on a few of comments from readers, I’ve been thinking about the importance of three different rhetorical zones: the echo chamber, the forge, and the fire.

Echo chambers get a lot of criticism, as well they should. But they are not all bad. Sometimes you’re tired after a long day, and you just want to be around people you know and like, people who already share your beliefs and interests. Friends are largely an echo chamber; hobbiest societies (eg, bowling, gardening, gaming,) are devoted to enjoying an activity together, not arguing; church is definitely an echo chamber (hence the phrase, “preaching to the choir.”)

And this is fine and even good. No one needs to get into a debate while gardening nor do they envision being called to give a spirited defense of their faith in debate with an atheist when they set out for church on Sunday morning. There is a time and a place for everything.

The Forge is where you go to discuss and debate ideas with people who are generally sympathetic to them/you. These are people who will call you on your bullshit and hold you to high standards, challenge flaws in your thinking or point out problems with your methodologies or ideas, but do so to be helpful. Writers’ critique groups, debate societies, sports practice, the general practice of science, and feedback from your boss/coworkers are all generally supposed to fall into this category.

Where the echo chamber is supposed to be fun and comforting, the purpose of the forge is to make you (or your ideas, or products, or whathaveyou) stronger.

The Fire is where the products of the forge go to battle against each other. The fire is the blind taste test, the open market, capitalism, the place where no one cares about you, only whether your ideas/talents/products are good enough to out-compete everyone else’s.

The fire is where Coke outsells Pepsi, where Obama defeated Romney, where the Allies defeated the Axis, where Harry Potter outsold whatever else was published that year.

Most of us are not cut out for the fire. Perhaps we could be big fish in the context of a a small pond, but in a big pond, we’re small fish. Very few of us are going to be truly successful–not only are you vanishingly unlikely to write the next Harry Potter, you’re vanishingly unlikely to get get published by a real publisher at all. Not only are you highly unlikely to win the Super bowl, you’re probably not even going to be a professional athlete.

Luckily, society doesn’t need everyone to be big fish. Society needs most people to be supportive, to work in the Echo Chambers and Forges. After all, behind ever successful person who makes it in the Fire, there are hundreds if not thousands of people toiling away to help them refine their ideas/products/skills before they set out. Professional athletes spend thousands of hours honing their skills in practice with their own team members, family, friends, neighborhood leagues, highschool teams, etc. Popular products spend thousands of hours in brainstorming, testing, development, etc.

Big fish or little fish, we all have our roles to play.

And a special thanks to everyone who has helped make this blog, well, if not great, then a lot of fun