Memetics: An Introduction
The term meme was originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976.
Every individual is constantly subjected to informational transfer via all sorts of mediums such as words, songs, slogans, videos, visual images, styles of clothes, facial or hand gestures, etc. These bits of data are known as memes.
The concept “mimeme or mīmēma (μίμημα)”, wherein Dawkins derived the word from, wasn’t new to Classical Greek philosophers, but it would take the Military over two thousand years to learn how to control and weaponise the flow of information.
In Western Philosophy and Psychology there exists the concept of Innatism. A doctrine from the Age of Enlightenment that holds the belief that our minds are not a blank canvas. We are born with ideas and/or knowledge already ingrained in our brains.
Memes don’t die. Information behaves exactly like energy in the sense that it cannot be destroyed, simply repurposed. Memes get repurposed. Ideas may lay dormant for many years, only to change from one state to another.
Memetics is the science that deals with cultural information transfer based on Darwinian evolution. Ideas can successfully propagate and affect the decision-making of both the individual and the general public, as propagation doesn’t necessarily imply that a concept is factual. Memetics combines Online Data Collection and Metrics Tools with Game Theory, Biology, Psychology, and various social sciences.
Brief Psychological Background
Memetics relies heavily on various psychological aspects as well as tugging into personal emotions and feelings. For the purpose of introductory memetics, we will review two basic psychological phenomena known as Rosy View and Declinism.
A Rosy View
Every moment in the past was always better. At least it seems that way. Nostalgia has a way of making us remember the past with fondness. Our everyday problems make us look back and recollect only the happier memories. But the past, just like the present, was riddled with similar hardships.
The bad moments we remember are those that will stay with us throughout our lives, shaping our personalities. Those terrible moments are the building blocks of our entire personas. Our phobias, manias, anxieties… etc.
Closely related to nostalgia there is a psychological phenomenon known as Rosy Retrospection. It is characterized by judging past events disproportionately more positive than they were in reality.
Rosy Prospection is the tendency for people to anticipate future events as more favourable and positive than they end up being.
A kind of ‘anti-Rosy’ can also occur when past experiences are remembered as worse than they were.
The operations of these processes are collectively referred to as “Rosy View”. From this phenomenon derives the English idiom “seeing things through rose-tinted glasses”.
The difference between Nostalgia and Rosy Retrospection is a cognitive bias, whereas nostalgia is not necessarily based on a prejudiced viewpoint.
Objectively, it is hard to quantify a subjective experience. On recollecting thoughts from the past, one person can feel simply nostalgia, or positive rosy while recounting the events or musing over them. If the same event involves several people, it can also be the case that one or more experience anti-rosy. Therefore the same experience can be seen as extremely positive for some and extremely negative for others.
While it is hard to quantify a subjective experience, it is also possible to discern how people recollect certain events by asking them to recount the experience over the years and note the differences in said recollections.
[It] can have harmful consequences such as negative affect, anxiety, ineffective coping, unethical decision-making and behaviour, and, in extreme cases, suicideThe sense of self-continuity as a resource in adaptive coping with job loss. Noa Sadeh, Rachel Karniol. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 2012
Nostalgia is often used as a political tool to appeal to people and manipulate public opinion through emotion rather than logic. By invoking the idea of an idealized past, it can provoke social and cultural anxieties that make nostalgia an especially effective tool for political persuasion.
The more uncertain times are, the more people report feeling nostalgia and longing for a past that was, in their eyes, better than the present. It is not about going back but about stopping a process of rapid-socio-political change in which a large section of society really does feel left behind.
Nevertheless, there is a correlation between Nostalgia, Rosy and Declinism.
Declinism is the belief that a certain structure, such as a country, society, institution or company is heading towards decline and inevitable collapse. Declinism feeds on nostalgia but differs from it in that it includes a negative evaluation of the present with respect to the past, that extends into the future. It is thinking that “We were OK then, we are bad now, and we will be worse”.
Both Rosy Retrospection and Declinism are important concepts to understand since they can influence people in various ways.
As we age the perception of our memories also changes. As older adults, we remember things from the period of life between the age of 10 and the age of 30. This recall of early-life memories is referred to as the reminiscence bump.
Because rosy retrospection causes individuals to feel and believe that the past was better than it actually was, it can cause the present and future to look worse in contrast, which is why rosy retrospection can frequently lead to Declinism.
Another prevalent cause for Declinism is “Kids these days”. Adults’ tendency to assume that the youth of today is lacking in comparison to the youth of their time.
The pervasiveness of complaints about “kids these days” across millennia suggests that these criticisms are neither accurate nor due to the idiosyncrasies of a particular culture or time—but rather represent a pervasive illusion of humanity.Kids these days: Why the youth of today seem lacking. By John Protzko, Jonathan W. Schooler. Science Advances, 16 Oct 2019 EAAV5916
Two main cognitive mechanisms have been identified as contributors to mankind’s perpetual tendency to denigrate juveniles: a “person-specific tendency to notice the limitations of others where one excels” and a “memory bias projecting one’s current qualities onto the youth of the past”.
Records of Declinism can be traced as far back as the Homeric and Archaic periods of the Greek World. Such beliefs had been ingrained in the popular and religious culture of the time thanks to the works of renowned poets such as Hesiod and Homer.
[Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances.Rhetoric. Aristotle, 4th Century BC.
A common legend back then spoke of the Five Ages of Man. The Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Heroes, and the ‘present’ Iron Age (at the time of Hesiod’s writing). The passing of every age signifying a progressive decline in mankind.
A plausible explanation is that these ideas and myths travelled through the Aegean Sea into the East, sprouting counterparts in Hindu scriptures that spoke of the 4 Yuga (or ages) of men.
However, historical idiosyncrasies across different periods and geographically uncommunicated cultures show a commonality between ideas and beliefs that transcends time and space. For instance, after the fall of the Olmecs, the Mayans flourished with a fully-fledged Pantheon of Gods, legends about the Ages of Men and other common worldwide myths such as the Flood.
While some myths are based on facts, scholars tend to recount the course of events as merely historical and unbiased facts. Little to no thought is given to the history of ideas and their transmission and how information affects public sentiment both at an individual level and at a larger group scale.
Reality is a lot more complex than mere facts. “Culture is a dynamic evolving process in which words and ideas act as the transmitted units of evolution.”
The Idea of a Meme and Meme as an Idea
The 19th and 20th centuries saw a paradigm shift in the study of sciences thanks to the development of the scientific method and empiricism brought forth by the Renaissance period and the Age of Enlightenment.
Ground-breaking new theories were put forth in the areas of linguistics, semiotics and philosophy. Words were conceived as living units of cultural evolution residing in the human brain and subject to natural selection. Neurological parasites that enter into a symbiotic relationship with its hominid host.
By the mid-20th century, various terms were proposed to define the fragments of information which propagate themselves as units of cultural evolution. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976.
Dawkins hypothesized that little pieces of cultural information, memes, are transferred between people “brain to brain” and also via human imitation much the same way that physical attributes are transmitted between people by means of interpersonal and social interactions.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain An idea often takes shape in more than just one human brain. Sometimes the same idea occurs independently to the minds of different individuals at very different times or even recurrently to various people throughout history. Alternatively, the cultural environment may be ripe for an idea which occurs independently to the minds of different individuals at roughly the same time in history.via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.Symbiosism, Symbiomism and the Leiden definition of the meme. Prof. George Van Driem, Leiden University.
The Leiden school of thought in linguistics defines a meme as ‘a neuroanatomical unit corresponding to a sign in the Saussurean sense, i.e. the neuronal correlate of a meaning along with the neuronal representations of its associated phonological form or grammatical manifestation.’
Current literature has many definitions for the word meme. Most of them being variations of Dawkins’s original notion of a unit of cultural transmission.
A more pragmatic definition of the term meme was developed by DARPA and the U.S. Military and put forth in 2008:
‘A meme is information which propagates, persists, and has impact’.
Memetics as a scientific discipline arose in the 1990s. Memetics studies cultural information transfer and propagation based on Darwinian evolution. It combines Mathematical modelling and Data Collection tools with Game Theory, Biology, Psychology, and various social sciences like Linguistics and Semiotics.
The early approach to memes posited that once an idea catches on, it propagates itself from brain to brain, much like a contagion does. In essence, ideas could “infect” individuals and societies in the same way that viruses infect a host.
Ideas can successfully propagate and affect the decision-making of both the individual and the general public, as propagation doesn’t necessarily imply that a concept is factual.
Memes can be classified into two separate groups according to their effects: external memes (e-memes) and internal memes (i-memes).
- E-memes: E-memes are “manifested by their effects on human behaviour and culture”.
- I-memes: I-memes are “manifested by their effects on an individual’s neuronal behaviour and brain”.
The impact of i-memes can be quantified using an array of tools and techniques such as:
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or other kinds of neuro-imaging; genetic profiling; psycho-phamacological manipulations; psycho-physiology (EMG, ERP, and EEG), behavioural measures; psychological testing, blood chemistry; hormone analysis; and neuro-chemical reactions; and single neuron recording.TUTORIAL: MILITARY MEMETICS. Social Media for Defense Summit Alexandria, Virginia. 24- 26 October 2011. Dr Robert Finkelstein
Information behaves exactly like energy in the sense that it cannot be destroyed, simply repurposed. Memes do not die. They get repurposed. Ideas may lay dormant for many years, only to change from one state to another.
Since memes can be thought of as organic lifeforms, as such, they possess a ‘meme lifecycle’ that is dependable on variables such as propagation, persistence, entropy and impact.
For a meme to be successful, it needs to go through four stages: assimilation, retention, expression and transmission. These four stages are closely related to the above-mentioned variables.
It is possible to measure the amount of information conveyed in any message, Memetic Entropy, using a function identical to that of Boltzmann’s formulation of entropy. The only difference is that is applied to the Mathematical Theory of Communication measures, based on the ideas postulated by Claude Shannon.
It is possible to derive from the measure of entropy the Memetic Fitness Factor. Memes can be thought of as organic lifeforms. As such, the ‘meme lifecycle’ is dependable on variables such as propagation, persistence and impact. All these variables take into account things like the amount of information being conveyed (in terms of bits), the type of language being used and the target population.
The measure of these variables gives rise to what is known as the ‘memetic fitness factor.’
As it turns out, the different metrics and sub-metrics yield a surprising amount of information, not only in terms of data transfer but also in terms of how it affects the individual receiving said information.
By 2016, Memetics had rebranded itself to the more commercial name of Psychographics. “It goes beyond classifying people based on general demographic data, such as age, gender, or race. Psychographics seeks to understand the cognitive factors that drive consumer behaviours. This includes emotional responses and motivations; moral, ethical, and political values; and inherent attitudes, biases, and prejudices.” – CB Insights
Hundreds of Psychographics companies appeared on the Internet almost overnight. The groundwork was laid for the then-candidate Donald Trump’s digital campaign. Teams of managers, staffers, paid operatives, and volunteers spreading the message on social media.
What happened next was the rise of a Military Technocracy. A mixture of the old Military Complex and Right-Wing corporate lobbyists whose interests are “to protect the company against changes in government policy.”
A very sophisticated psychological cyber warfare strategy was put in place. “We have an army of digital soldiers”.
Battlefield Intelligence tactics were used among White Supremacy groups and 4chan users for Astroturfing, vandalism, violence, and spreading disinformation.
The political discourse swiftly shifted to the Right. Free speech was replaced with Aleksandr Dugin’s “Conservativism”14. The “idea of information” in America was replaced by a “special Russian truth”.
The goal was simple: destroy freedom in the United States and install authoritarianism.
The same tactics are employed by the Left, creating chaos and division. In reality, both powers are fighting for dominion over the Digital Realm; each allying each other with other global Super Powers to achieve complete hegemony.
Memes are more than just images with or without text. They can be thought of as ideas, but the actual definition is that they are information which propagates, persists, and has an impact.
Ideas propagate from brain to brain and also via imitation and repetition. They do not need to be factual to propagate.
How people perceive and process information is highly influenced by their state of mind.
Political propaganda is designed to appeal to people’s emotions rather than logic. A common tried and tested political tool is using the idea of an idealized and much better past.
This particular point appeals particularly to people above the age of 30. In fact, the older the person, the more likely he or she is to internalize this particular type of propaganda.
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