MIT Notes – Quick Overview

[The meme bits of the notes (see below) are on pages 61 and following.]

1. Meme definition
– Susan Blackmore defines a meme as “that which can be imitated
– One problem with this is the definition’s looseness.
– Dan Dennet defines a meme as “a packet of cultural information
– In this definition, memes spread like symbionts, invading the cultural host.
– Still doesn’t allow clear meme identification

– Both definitions perhaps capture too much – memes can be 4 note jingles, pop songs or albums.
– NB. Darwin developed theory of evolution without a clear idea of what a gene was.
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Meme Recap

So recapping to get my thoughts in some sort of order –

1) I started off looking at memes as an entry point into the world of learning, creativity and innovation.
2) As a metaphor, memes roughly equate to genes. They are patterns of information that propagate themselves through books, brains, videos etc. They are roughly analogous to ideas.
3) Memes have a number of academic problems with them – not slight ones either – but are a popular metaphor for thinking about ideas and how they spread/evolve.
4) Possibly thanks to the evolutionary nature of the metaphor, the network of people across which a meme spreads, and the meme’s propagation mechanisms have gained importance, or at least they need to be examined more closely.

So where now?
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Mr O’Reilly’s Meme Maps

Thought this article by Mr O’Reilly was interesting for a number of reasons.

1. I hadn’t seen the idea of meme maps before. As much as anything it seems to be an indication of how much the meme meme has propagated.

2. If we assume that the meme is a useful metaphor for understanding thinking and innovation, then one thing this article makes clear is that, certainly in the digital world, to understand fully how memes propagate we need to understand something about the P and something about the P2P. That is People, and People to People Networks.
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Non-Scientific Memes

Memes are fairly common concepts in the world of blogs, and they tend to be receptor/phenotype free. David Gagne has put down the bloggers definition:

meme: any expression (usually the smallest/shortest possible) that can convey meaning; an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture

The Weblog Dictionary @

Real Live Memes

This is great!

a) There’s that research on reading words as a whole (though every time I’ve been shown these things there’s always a misspelling – in this one it should be “important” not “importent” (when the letters are unjumbled) – sorry – pedantic

b) More interesting is the data on the propagation of the meme.

[And if you haven’t seen the research, try reading this to get a flavour of it:
David Harris’ Science & Literature
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Problems with Memes

Found a good, clear article here which picks up four problems with memes.

Briefly these are:
1) the definitions of replicators/phenotypes are confusing or ambiguous
2) the evolutionary model associated with memes is Lamarckian (3 legged dogs have 3 legged puppies) not Darwinian
3) memes often used instead of genes (i.e. memes are often called in to play as explanations for cultural preferences when simpler/more rigorous sociobiological explanations can be used)
4) the notion of self – the idea that, while being at the mercy of genes and memes, we can pick and chose the memes that help us.

Meme problems:

Replicator Definition

Erm, there seems to be lot of disagreement here. Two views that kept popping up were:
a) Dawkins’ idea that a hen is an egg’s way of making another egg, and
b) Daniel C. Dennett’s extension of that view into meme territory, the idea that scholars are libraries ways of making more libraries.

Right. Back to replicators. They come hand in hand with phenotypes. Dawkins – and I’m going to stick with you on this one if that’s all right Rich? – has explained them like this:
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Meme Definition

There’s a bundle of stuff about memes to sift through. There’s already a scholarly journal on memetics (the study of memes). Anyway, starting at the beginning, Richard Dawkins was the bloke who first started the meme meme rolling. He talked about them in his book The Selfish Gene, but in his next book The Blind Watchmaker, he defines a meme as

“[A] pattern of information that can thrive only in brains or the artificially manufactured products of brains, books, computers, [etc.]. [These replicators] can propagate themselves from brain to brain, from brain to book, from book to brain, from brain to computer [etc.]. As they propagate they can change – mutate. These mutants may be able to exert a kind of influence that affects their own likelihood of being propagated.”

Examples of memes are: tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions and ways of making pots or building arches.
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