20 May 2013

That Mind Virus Wants to Suck the Attention Out of Your Brain But Has to Call Itself a Meme Before You'll Let it Do That

If I remember correctly, when Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" he was not thinking about Facebook. Dawkins was trying to find a way to describe the cultural equivalent of a gene as a way to talk about practices that become a part of a culture. He thought it might add a little formality to the notion of social evolution as companion to species evolution, the mutation of memes changing peoples and cultures in the same way that the mutation of genes changes species. Practices that spread, like democracy and blue jeans, are memes. It's a great idea, and meme itself has become an incredibly pervasive meme. It's also radically mutated to look a bit like a virus.

Now, every bright shiny object on the Internet has become a meme. Or at least it gets called that. Of course a video of the world's smallest monkey eating elbow macaroni does capture consciousness, just like the Bill of Rights or the idea that we ought to drive on the right side of the road. But it doesn't actually inform behavior, doing less to inform who we are than distract us from that. Instead, it's just a distraction, a way to transform consciousness  into page views (which, in turn, can be transformed into advertising revenues). 

Consciousness is under assault. It's odd. Never before has humanity been more free to live as they wish and yet never before has the world offered so many alluring enticements from one's own thoughts, making it difficult for the individual to define novel ways to live. From movies and TV shows to books, art, museums, and lectures, the world offers thousands of options for structuring our consciousness for us, even outside of work. Worse, many of these same memes can become viruses, not so much structuring consciousness as distracting it. 

But I digress. To be distracted is to be human in this Information Age. We all do it. Trust me that I daily exceed the average quota of things found fascinating. But the notion that we're being distracted by something as sexy as a meme is a form of self-delusion. These aren't memes: they're badly mutated versions of Dawkins' original meme, something more akin to a mind virus than gene. I'm not suggesting that we stop being amused, intrigued, shocked, and entertained; I just that we owe it to ourselves to properly label the sources of all that.

[This blogger will leave you to determine if the preceding rant was a public service announcement, something akin to a meme, or was itself a mind virus, the blogging equivalent of a onomatopoeia.]

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