Notes: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore

I have been hearing the word "meme" for some time without really knowing what it means, so when I stumbled upon this book in a local bookstore (one of my favorite activities), I figured it was time to find out. Putting colloquial usage and some negative feedback received about the term into the back of my mind, I ventured forth into the text hoping to figure out for myself the value of the meme concept.

Without getting into the meta aspects of describing memes, most of the common usage of the word "meme" that I have heard is almost a literal conflation with "idea" or "thought." While these are fairly good approximations of the definition, Blackmore brings a more formal explanation that picks up where Richard Dawkins left off in The Selfish Gene. Predictably, Blackmore defines a meme in a genetic context, taking care to keep the two concepts separate, but frequently using genetic analogies to illustrate her points. To put it clumsily, memes, in Blackmore's view, are units of information that act as replicators conforming to evolutionary processes in that they are copied, recombined, and altered, and that are primarily transmitted from person to person by imitation or information artifacts – in a sense, information as virus. She brushes aside the argument that memes cannot be rigidly described by asserting that the exact definitions are not as important as the characteristics they exhibit, namely that they meet the Darwinian requirements of variation, selection, and retention/heredity in their ability to exist as autonomous replicators. On the surface this may be hard to understand, but if we look at genetics, we can see how the nonlinear relationship between gene segment combinations and the resulting phenotype demonstrates the hazards inherent in believing that the whole is merely the sum of its parts – that, to a point, the exact boundaries we have defined for gene sequences may not be as important as their ability to interact within an evolutionary framework. The precise definition of the structure of a meme is left as an exercise for the future.

Blackmore does a great deal of explaining (often repetitiously, which may or may not be a subtle form of meta-programming) how memetics conspired with genetics to develop the large human brain and human language, and she takes care to address the many possible alternatives to her theories in this regard. These explanations develop into a description of how memes dominate our activities as social beings and thus justify the enormous physical energy expenditure that humans exert while communicating, thinking, and reasoning, against the logic of biological advantage. Just as Dawkins explained for selfish genes, Blackmore proffers that much of what we do intellectually is dominated by the impulses of meme replication – that meme replication is in itself a competitive activity that is mostly separate from, but often cooperative with, genetic competition.

Towards the end of the book, she makes an assertion that should be very much of interest to archivists and information scientists. She examines the progression of information technology and transmission, from orality to literacy, then in the development of information artifacts from writing through books to the current state of networked information. She correctly assesses that information transmission is increasing in fidelity – the degree of accuracy to which information is being copied – then abandons her own admonishment against making direct comparisons between genes and memes in conjecturing that memetics has not yet developed the mechanisms for meme replication that rivals those evolved for reproducing genetic information. The archivists among you recognize this process as reminiscent of our core values of maintaining and providing access to authentic and reliable information. Neither paper nor digital archives, as efficient as they may be, are anywhere near as efficient in managing memetic information as cellular systems are in managing DNA.

Humanity has made great progress in the capture and storage of information, but we have only recently begun the difficult work of figuring out what to do with it all. We are reaching the limits of what our biological systems are capable of processing, thus externalizing out intellectual capacities and becoming dependent on our technological systems to do the work of processing the results of our memetic output. Where this evolution will lead us is anyone's guess, but it is certain that archivists have a key role to play in determining the outcome.