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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Memetic Compression

One of the problems with the meme construct is that many memes would seem to exist independently of other memes and perceptions while simultaneously depending on other meme’s existences. The simple “units of cultural transmission” that Richard Dawkins first spoke of would appear to be paradoxically complex. It seems to me that the nature of something like a meme is not entirely perceptual. It rather seems to be a set of instructions related to gathering and utilizing perceptions. I say that this seems to be the case because there are so many examples of cultural “transmissions” that are dependent on perceptions. Recalling a simple jingle requires knowledge of western structured music and scales. For someone from the middle east who was familiar with the maqam scales of music, western music might not only be difficult to remember but perhaps not even seem like music at first. And only those of us with a certain level of experience would be able to recall a bird song note for note on the first try.

Some memes, on the other hand, seem capable of transmitting a concept with only vague perceptual references. WWII is a meme (and a dense one). I was in no way involved with World War II but I definitely have a set of perceptions (many of them likely fictional) that revolve around that particular meme. I also have an entire set of memes that are inherited to the meme of WWII — memes like German, soldier, guns, planes, war. Here again, a meme such as soldier is not so much one perception that exists in my mind but rather an amalgamation, a pattern of perceptions. I’ve seen lots of soldiers and when shown one that I’ve never seen before I will likely be able to categorize him/her correctly.[1]

I don’t think this is at all damaging to the model of the meme — in that it is not necessarily simple in its construction. When we think of certain memes like a song or a fad, at least part of the attraction to the memetic model is the simplicity of examples such as this. But consider this: you can possess a meme for which you have no reference. In this sense a kind of memetic compression can occur in which highly complex memes become much simpler ones. On the surface, this kind of compression would make sense in that it would reduce the “byte” size of a meme and allow for a higher copy fidelity. “The ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle” becomes pi (or better still: π). Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity becomes E=mc2. [2]

It may not be the case with you, but it is possible to know the concept of pi without being able to precisely define it or even use it. You cannot understand the meme for pi unless you know what a circle is. Or if you were to only know it as a number (3.1415…) then you would not be able to know pi without perception of numbers. And if someone knew pi only as its relation to a geometric shape while someone else knew it to be the number only, do they possess the same meme? Or is it possible that memes come with their own set of instructions? If all you had for pi was the initial direction: “the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle” you would be able to deduce most of the above information for yourself. But if all you had was the symbol and the sound you wouldn’t be able to come up with much.

In effect, you’d have no ability to uncompress the meme for pi. But you would possess the necessary knowledge to direct yourself to more knowledge. You could type “pi” into google. You could ovehear the mention of pi on television or in conversation. You would be able to ask about pi. And the information you gathered about it would eventually collect around the symbol and the sound. In this sense, it is possible for people to possess the same meme in that they possess the compression of a pattern. It’s just that only some people “uncompress” it.

In other words, it is possible for people to possess different perceptions but similar patterns, or memes. To return for a moment to the example of solider, it is likely that you and I have different perceptions, different examples from which to draw, but we can agree to a similar pattern or abstraction of our perceptions. And the further benefit to a model of this kind is that many dependencies are eliminated. We could agree to the concept of soldier but disagree about the concept of war and vice versa.

It’s a useful model but I should point out that in no way am I making an attempt at neurology. There is no “compression” engine in the mind — although it may itself be a kind of compression engine of perception. And a meme is still far from something concrete in my mind. But for the moment, it is a useful model of thought and culture and applying concepts like compression and density to memes fills the model out in a useful way.

[It also creates new possibilties that I will touch on soon here at banapana: the antimeme and webmeme.]

[1] It is completely reasonable to assume that there are cases of individuals, though, who would not agree with my categorization of any female as a soldier. And it is important to recognize that this is a cultural distinction.

[2] This is another good example because even if I possess (and I really am speaking form personal experience) these two memes and I know they are related, I’m not entirely sure that they’re equivalent. I know the E=mc2 breaks down to “Energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared” but I’m not entirely sure that this is the special theory versus the general theory. I’m even pretty sure that I knew that at one time but have since forgotten — which perhaps speaks to the staying power of the meme E=mc2.

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