To pick up the discussion on memes, culture and design, I am posting the reply below on behalf of Basile Zimmermann, whose account does not have the permission yet to post directly to the mailing list for some reason.
I have been working on memes for some time and I eventually came up with my own answers. Most of my conclusions and arguments below are in this book: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/waves-and-forms
I try to summarize what I see as the main points raised the last two days and I comment on these:
> In the "On Human-centered design" thread, Fernando Galdino brought up "meme theory." Can anyone tell me why thinking about memes is useful?
> If genes are the smallest bits of DNA that can be copied and then do something, what are the smallest cultural bits?
> The proponents of meme theory give vague descriptions of what a meme is, make broad claims about what memes do, and (unexplained) assertions about how they do it.
> It is clear that Blackmore has managed to think about memes without doing much thinking about the sort of thing that the meme is meant to describe.
The notion of memes is useful because of its descriptive power. Anthropologists have discussed similar things for a long time, but Dawkins' formulation does something different, it singles out "what" is being imitated and the fact that we can recognize "it" in its later instances. The success of the notion of meme is somehow proof of its usefulness. The problem is that memetics scholars never succeeded in defining the discrete unit of memes—what memes are physically made of—and how to account for their insufficient copying fidelity, therefore denying them explanatory power.
In order to find solutions, I have tried to recycle Aristotle's distinction between matter and form. I ended up defining two concepts of "waves" and "forms". They play a similar role as "the smallest cultural bits" which Gunnar Swanson refers to. A "wave" is a perturbation of matter, it's the smallest part of a "shape". It circulates in the same way that a wave goes across the ocean or sound waves across the air. And a "form" is an aggregate of waves identified by a human being. (I will quickly describe these concepts at the end of this email.)
Gunnar Swanson and Fernando Galdino
> How do these bits replicate?
> Have you seen carnival in Europe, Brazil and New Orleans? What "pasta" is in China, Italy and the US? What beer is in so many different places? Like animals, memes adapt and mutate over time.
> Moves, reproduces and adapts I would say.
An interesting thing when looking at memes as forms, is that there are only three possibilities when a forms circulates: it can be either a) created, b) conserved, or c) dissipated. For instance, you can create a sand castle, copy a sand castle, or destroy a sand castle.
Don Norman, Gunnar Swanson and Lubomir Savov Popov
> an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.
> Name three "elements of a culture or system of behavior" that may *not* "be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation."
> But my understanding that my friend John loves peanut butter is not a meme. Why not? Ah, to answer that question is to explain what it is that makes a meme. A meme is a unit of knowledge that also has sharing, transmititive, viral properties is why it is useful to have a name for that sort of thing: Not everything is a meme.
> Moreover, memes change as they are spread, and studying these changes is a valuable contribution to the social use of knowledge. (It is related to studies of the spread of rumours -- a rumor is a form of meme.)
> A meme is a unit of knowledge that also has sharing, transmitive, viral properties is why it is useful to have a name for that sort of thing
A key problem with memes and the notion of "culture" is that they connect with so many things. I understand this as a reason to go down to something very basic To me, everything can be a "form". For instance, this email that I send is a form: it circulates from my computer to other people's devices through the mailing-list. And, I am using "waves" to account for changes (i.e. something can be the same form but have a different content, e.g. different fonts for this email in each device, –things can be similar and different at the same time).
Luke Feast, Keith Russell
> A simple thought experiment shows that meme theory lacks explanatory power in some cases of culture evolution involving human communication and language use.
> Replication is defined by fidelity. A replica Rolex watch is a copy of an authentic Rolex watch (...) the stability of some cultural items is better explained by the mechanism of reconstruction. Scott-Phillips (2017, p.3) gives the following example (...) "Consider a lecturer’s notes, written on the board. (...) copied by a student, but with a spelling error. A second student, (...) corrects the spelling error (...) In this example cultural stability is not maintained by high fidelity copying but by the students' cognitive ability to recognise that the notes are a token of a particular type of cultural item and then to reconstruct and reproduce another token of that type. I think the difference between between replication and reconstruction is pretty intuitive to many designers.
> think expression rather than reconstruction? (...) it is not a reconstruction, it is again, an originary event.
As I understand it, the circulation of a form relates to issues of modifiability (i.e. whether the shape can be easily changed or not). And then things can get really complex. The example of the reconstruction is a nice one. I agree with Keith Russell, to me it would be two different circulation paths: one for the notes, which changed a little because of the first student's mistake, and a second one with "correct English language" which circulates from the second student to the latest version of the notes.
Lubomir Savov Popov, Gunnar Swanson
> meme is a unit of analysis. (This is my starting point.) And a concept of a very high level of abstraction that can encompass anything and everything.
> Several questions: Analysis of what? For what purpose? What is the substrate of this concept in our case? (Or, what kinds of substrates are encompassed in our case. I intent do go to a lower level of abstraction and have more substantive information about memes.)
> There are some ridiculous statements online, for example: the meme resides in the brain. And then I read that memes jump from the mind of one person to another. Well, this is not good even for a sixth grader.
> The authors of the concept of meme evidently tried to create a methodological apparatus for analyzing the diffusion of cultural traits, but could not make it. And their followers are not making it as well.
> Maybe someday the concept of meme will be developed into an useful tool. Let's hope.
> The dried batter of their hope for a cake still sticks to the term "meme." If we are going to bother to chip it off, there should be a damned fine cake pan in there and we should think about whether we want to bake a cake that size anyway.
Here is a quick introduction to my own attempt at a proper definition of "memes" (which I call "forms", because the viral aspect of the diffusion is not included). I also tried to work around neurosciences, but it would take too long to include this part here. I hope you'll like it. I copy paste from a document that I wrote some time ago for colleagues who don't have the time to read my book from cover to cover.
WF argues that a core difference must be noted between two aspects of the physical world, each one with very different sets of basic properties:
– Matter is made of unique entities (e.g. atoms), and these entities cannot be created, destroyed, or multiplied
– Shapes of matter are made of multiple entities (e.g. waves), and these entities can be created, destroyed, or multiplied
To comprehend WF’s main ideas, imagine that you are on a playground with children; some are in a sandpit building a castle, others are seated at a table making figures with modeling paste. Playing with them, you press your left hand in the sand and leave an imprint; a moment later, you also make an impression with the same left hand but this time on a piece of modeling paste. On the basis of this example, we can consider the following aspects of physicality. First, the matter–atoms structure of your left hand, the sand, and the modeling paste. To keep things simple, let us say that atoms are located inside each of these physical objects. Each atom is physically unique, and each of the objects is also unique. Second, the shape of your hand, which is transmitted to the sand and the modeling paste. In a similar way that matter is made of atoms, we consider that the shape is made of lower-level elements that we call 'waves'. If a human being observes the shape of your hand on the sand and on the modeling paste, s/he will recognize it as being the same imprint, even if there are differences between each instance (e.g. caused by the material structure of the sand versus the modeling paste, or caused by variations in the pressure by your hand). From this, we can say that human beings have a specific ability to identify something we provisionally call 'shapes of matter'. We call any shape, –any “aggregate of waves”– that is identified subjectively by a human being, a 'form'.
An example of how WF can be used easily is the issue of the materiality of the digital. If we imagine one sends a picture by email to a friend, and the friend looks at the picture first in his mailbox on his smartphone, and then again on his personal computer. From classical physics’ point of view, the image on the smartphone and the one on the computer are different entities: their sizes, their location, their respective physical contents vary in many ways. At the same time, for a human observer, they are “the same picture”. In other words, the two images are at the same time different and identical, which ends up in a contradiction. WF is a tool to describe things that are different and similar. It tells us why the pictures on the smartphone and the computer are different (they are made of different matter) and why they are similar at the same time (they share a similar content of waves). It also explains why each instance of the picture may have a different trajectory, depending on the matter structures that host it (e.g. printed, it may become more robust than if it’s recorded on a hard drive where it can be easily erased).
A difficult point when using WF is that in most cases a description is relative to the person who is making it. How do we know that the picture in the smartphone and in the computer are similar? Because a certain person says so. This shortcut into the realm of human beings is necessary because the human brain has a very unique capacity of identifying shapes of matter ("contents of waves"); of saying what and what are similar, and to argue about it. It is this ability to perform such an operation efficiently (and to perform interpretation, but this is another story) that makes humans different from animals.
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