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 m) 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.

Tesla vs. Edison

... and fight! 220px-Thomas_Edison2

It has become popular of late, especially on the left, to love Tesla and hate Edison. (Warning: that is a link to the Oatmeal, which is very funny and will suck up large quantities of your time if you let it, but if you aren’t familiar with the leftists hate of Edison and valorization of Tesla, it’s a necessary read.)

Edison, (1847 – 1931) was an American-born (son of a Canadian war refugee of Dutch descent) auto-didact, inventor, and businessman who was awarded over a thousand patents. His most important inventions (or inventions produced by his lab,) include the first actually useful lightbulb, the phonograph, the first movie camera and a device to view the movies on, the electrical grid necessary to power the lightbulb, the movie studio necessary to make the films for people to watch, and the scientific research lab.

He was friends with Henry Ford, a community volunteer, deaf, and a general humanitarian who abhorred violence and prided himself on having never invented an offensive weapon.

His worst mistake appears to have been not realizing what business he was in during the “War of the Currents;” Edison thought he was in the lightbulb-selling business, and since he had invented a lightbulb that ran on DC, he wanted everyone to use DC. He also seems to have been genuinely concerned about the high voltages used by AC, but DC just drops off too quickly to be used in non-urban areas; to get the country electrified required DC. Edison not only lost the Currents War, but also got kicked out of the company he’d founded by his stock holders. The company’s name was later changed to General Electric.

His political views were fairly common for his day–he advocated the populist position on abolishing the gold standard, tax reform, and making loans interest free to help farmers. Religiously, he was basically a GNON-believing deist. He preferred silent films over “talkies” due to being deaf, and had six children, three of whom went into science/inventing, one with a degree from Yale and one from MIT.

The idea that Edison was “merely” a businessman or CEO is completely bollocks. He was not only a brilliant inventor, but also understood how his inventions would be used and created the systems–both human and mechanical–necessary to bring them to full fruition.

Edison's lab in Menlo Park
Edison’s lab in Menlo Park

 

Tesla (1856-1943) was a Serb born in Croatia back when Croatia was part of the Austrian empire. By all accounts, he was exceedingly brilliant. His father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest, but he received a scholarship to the Austrian Polytechnic University, where he burned like a meteor for his first year, earning the highest grades possible in 9 subjects (almost twice the required course load.) In his second year, he became addicted to gambling, then gambled away his tuition money in year three and forgot to study for his finals. He flunked out and ran away.

A couple of years later, his family raised money to send him to university again, which was another fiasco, since Tesla didn’t have training in two of the required subjects and so couldn’t actually attend.

Nevertheless, Tesla managed to get work at a telegraph company and was eventually invited to the US to work under Edison. Here he did excellent work, but quit over a rather stupid sounding misunderstanding about pay, wherein Tesla expected to be paid far more for an invention than Edison had in funds to pay anyone. Edison offered a raise instead, but Tesla decided to strike out on his own.

Tesla attempted to start a business, which ended badly (it sounds like it went south because he wasn’t focusing on the stated goals of the company,) and left him a penniless ditch-digger.

He then hit on a series of successes, including the polyphase induction motor, which ended with him quite handsomely employed by one of Edison’s competitors, Westinghouse, but even here he had difficulties getting along with his co-workers. Eventually it seems he established his own lab and convinced investors to give him $100,000, which he promptly spent on more lab equipment instead of the new lighting system he’d promised. His lab was later sold and torn down to pay off debts.

Tesla received yet another major investment, $150,000 to build a wireless telegraph facility, but appears to have blown the money on stock market speculation. He did manage to finish the project, though without any more funds from his now very jaded investors, but eventually he had to sell the building, and it was demolished.

Many of Tesla’s inventions were clearly brilliant and far ahead of their time. Others are delusions, like his mechanical oscillator. Tesla claimed it nearly brought down the building; Mythbusters built one themselves, and it did no such thing.

There is a kind of brilliance that slides easily into madness, and Tesla’s was clearly of this sort. He was too adept at pattern matching (he could do calculus in his head) to sort out real patterns from ones he’d dreamed up. He never married, but once fell in love with a pigeon at the park, feeding it daily and spending over $2000 dollars on it when its wing was injured.

In his personal life, he was extremely rigid–working and eating at the exact same times every day, eating a very restricted diet, and wearing a fastidiously neat and regimented wardrobe. He was extremely thin and slept very little–perhaps only 2 hours a day. (There are a vanishingly few people in the world who actually do function like this.) He was critical and harsh toward people who didn’t meet his standards, like fat people or secretaries whose clothes he thought were insufficiently attractive. Despite not having any children of his own, he believed the unfit should be sterilized and the rest of the population coerced into a selective breeding program. He also said some unflattering things about Edison upon the man’s death, which is kind of rude.

To prevent him from sinking further into poverty, his former employer, Westinghouse, took pity on him and started paying his hotel bills, (Tesla seems to have not thought of living in a house.) Tesla spent much of his final years claiming to have built a “Death Ray” and claiming that various thieves had broken into his hotel room to steal it.

Upon his death in 1943, the government seized all of his belongings just in case there were actual Death Rays or other such inventions in there that the Nazis might try to steal. The box with Tesla’s Death Ray turned out to have nothing more than an old battery inside. The investigator concluded:

“[Tesla’s] thoughts and efforts during at least the past 15 years were primarily of a speculative, philosophical, and somewhat promotional character often concerned with the production and wireless transmission of power; but did not include new, sound, workable principles or methods for realizing such results.

To be frank, I’ve talked to homeless schizophrenics who sound a lot like Tesla; the line between correct pattern matching and incorrect pattern matching is, at times, easily crossed.

 

The modern habit of shitting on Edison and glorifying Tesla stems from the tendency to see Edison as a stereotypically American businessman who wickedly and cunningly stole ideas from from smarter people to build up his own wealth and reputation. It feeds into the notion that Americans (white Americans, especially,) have built nothing of their own, but stolen all of their wealth and a great many of their ideas from others. Here Tesla–attractive, urbane, brilliant, and most of all, not tainted by the blight of having been born in America–gets to stand in for the usual victimized classes.

Ironically, Edison’s political beliefs line up with the Progressives of his day–that is, socialists/liberals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Tesla, at least as far as the Wikipedia describes any of his beliefs, favored Nazi-style forced sterilization and eugenics. In daily life, Tesla may have been a nicer person than Edison (it is rather difficult to tell from Wikipedia articles what people were like personally,) but I question a left that denigrates one of their own Progressives while upholding a man whose political beliefs are, at best, anathema to their own.

Regardless, Tesla’s failures were not Edison’s fault. Edison may have screwed him on pay, but he didn’t gamble away Tesla’s tuition money, make him fail his classes, nor convince him not to marry. Edison didn’t make him blow his investment money on the stock market or wander around NYC at all hours of the night, feeding pigeons.

Edison, deaf since childhood, didn’t have half the advantages handed to him as Tesla. He had all of three months of schooling; no one ever sent him to university or gave him a scholarship to waste. He may not have been as smart as Tesla, but he was still an intensely intelligent man and adeptly capable of carrying out the business side of the operation, without which no research could get done. Without funding, you don’t have a lab; no lab, no research. Humans do not live in isolation; someone has to do the inglorious work of coordinate things so that other people can reap the benefits of a system set up for them to work in.

Ultimately, Tesla was a brilliant man who should not have been allowed to run his affairs. He needed the structure of a boss, a wife, parents, family, etc., to keep him on track and stop him from doing idiotic things like gambling away his tuition money.

Familial supervision during college could have ensured that he graduated and gotten him on the path toward a tenured position. Perhaps he would have rubbed shoulders with the likes of Einstein and Curie at the Solvay Conference. A boss would have ensured that the strategic, business ends of things–the ends Tesla had no great talent for–got done, leaving Tesla to do the things he did best, to reach far more of his full potential. (In this regard, Edison had advantages Tesla lacked–a wife, family, and a country he had grown up in.) But Tesla was too rigid to submit to someone of inferior intellect (real or perceived), and his family back in Europe was too far away to help him. Loneliness is madness, for humans are social animals, and so brilliant Tesla died alone, poor, and in love with a pigeon.

Tesla's wireless telegraph tower, 1904
Tesla’s wireless telegraph tower, 1904

Just imagine what Edison and Tesla could have created had they put their animosity aside and worked together.

Part 2 coming soon.