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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Where Do Memes Begin?

In his 1991 work “Consciousness Explained” Daniel Dennett discusses Richard Dawkins’ idea of the idea replicator (the meme [google dfn.]). He provides a list of what he would consider memes but eliminates certain basic concepts from the list, leading to the question: Where does the meme begin? In his discussion on memes [google dfn.], Daniel Dennett points out that memes should be considered to be more than simple ideas. He refers to “the ‘simple ideas’ of Locke and Hume (the idea of red, or the idea of round or hot or cold)” as ideas that would not qualify for the status of a meme. Some ideas that he includes in a list of potential memes are wheel, Impressionism, calendar, and chess. He lists about 14 concepts in all that do seem to have a distinctiveness about them but brings to bare two questions: are not some of these memes in effect combinations of simpler memes, and if so what sort of basic requirement could there be for a meme to be considered a meme?

A potential requirement for the status of meme would seem to be that it is a concept that is not innate but based on some notion of imitation. While vocabulary concerning temperature might have to be taught and the word “cold”[1] a meme in itself it is certainly clear that the concept of cold (without verbalization) is not something that needs to be taught. A better example is Impressionism because it is not a simple symbol that represents a simple concept. In fact, to understand Impressionism it is clearly important to also be able to understand art and a little bit of art history. And there are a myriad of levels on which one could understand something like Impressionism. The best description of the technique I could give (not being much of a student of art history) would be that “it’s a little bit fuzzy”. However, a deeper understanding of Impressionism could lead to descriptions of brushes, techniques and a far more elegant understanding. If Impressionism as a meme is (as it has to be) reliant on the existence of other memes, what are the basic memes necessary for understanding it?

I only intend to start this basic line of questioning in this particular entry in order to point out what is to me an interesting similarity here to information theory. If there can be considered to be a basic requirement for a meme, and hence a way of reducing complex memes, then is there a way to relate it to a basic unit of information? According to information theory we can suppose a basic unit of information to be “yes” or “no” (represented as 1 or 0 for computers or ‘on” or “off”). Information doesn’t discern between what is true and what is false, it merely provides a groundwork for an individual to make a choice. In other words, if I have something behind my back and ask you to guess what it is, you might ask “Is it bread?” Whatever answer I give you reduces the current possibilities and is therefore information, true or false. You will make a decision (in this case a guess) based on the information and uncertainty will be reduced. In some sense, then, information is empty — it is what it is and isn’t by definition tied to any concepts. Tying memes to information theory, at first glance, offers an opportunity to examine efficiency of communication. I could describe to you “a period in art history where a school of thought existed in which artists painted an impression that they received…” etc. or I could say “Impressionism”. One clearly seems more efficient and the more efficient communication is based on a more complex meme.

That potentially frames the meme as a unit of information compression. And the ones and zeros of the matter don’t at all need to be as concrete as ones and zeros, but rather those most basic perceptions handed over to the brain by our sensory organs. Within this construction one could see why it is reasonable for a blind man to possess certain complex memes that relate through senses other than sight but would find it difficult to discuss any matter of Impressionism. Even for someone who doesn’t entirely understand the complexities of Impressionism, they know that it revolves around their sight (and likely what Impressionistic works they’ve viewed).

The difference between a perception and a meme, the actual line, is still not all that clear, but one clear delineation appears to exist in that perceptions are atomic — incapable of being broken down. Memes on the other hand not only appear to be capable of being compressed but compression seems to be a natural way to track their formation. I think, upon further exploration, that the compression of memes is tantamount to their evolution. Information in this form had gradually reduced it byte-size in order to take advantage of the limited capacity of the human mind’s ability to retain information as information in the environment has increased dramatically over the course of human civilization.

[1] The word cold can be thought of as both the concept and the construct that defines it. An easier way to relate this would be to use a heiroglyph — say a blue octogon — that could just as easily represent the concept cold. Without having been taught the meaning, or inferred it through experience, the symbol is meaningless. The symbol in itself then is a representation of a concept.

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