Recognizing memetic infections and forging resistance memes

byJohnicholas7y26th Apr 201236 comments


What does an memetic infection look like? Well, you would encounter something (probably on the internet) that seems very compelling. You think intensely about it for a while, and it spurs you to do something - probably to post something related on the internet. After a while, the meme may not seem that compelling to you anymore, and you wonder why you invested that time and energy. The meme has reproduced itself. For example, Bruce Sterling's response to the 'New Aesthetic' is a paradigmatic example of memetic infection: he encountered it, he found it compelling, he wrote about it, I read about it and now I know about it. (Note that the word 'infection' has a stigma to it, but I don't mean it to be necessarily a bad thing. I will use 'disease' to mean 'infection with bad consequences'.)

Now, let me jump to an apparently unrelated concept - Viral Eukaryogenesis. If I understand correctly, Viral Eukaryogenesis is the theory that eukaryotes (including you and me) are inheritors of a bargain between two kinds of life - metabolic life and viral life, something like the way lichens are a bargain between fungi and algae. The nucleus that characterizes eukaryotes is supposed to be descended from a virus protein shell, and the membrane-fusion proteins that we use for gamete fusion (crucial for sex) are supposed to be descended from viral infection proteins. I am not a biologist, but my understanding of the state of biology is that it is an interesting hypothesis, as yet neither proven nor disproven. However, I'm going to talk as if it were true, because I'm actually trying to make an analogy with memes.

What is the advantage of the bargain between metabolic life and viral life? Perhaps sex. What is the advantage of sex? Perhaps defense against parasites and/or disease. What would a memetic parasite or disease look like? Well, it would be a memetic infection that, on the whole, leaves the individuals it touches worse off. For example, if someone spent so much time propagating the meme that their previous goals were harmed, then they would be suffering from a memetic disease. A cult might be a memetic disease. I have heard that abused children sometimes grow up to be abusers - that would be a memetic disease. Any sort of self-catalyzing pattern of behavior (particularly communication behavior) that on the whole harms the individuals exhibiting it is a memetic disease. A confusion or misunderstanding on a particular point that leads teachers to teach that point confusingly would be a memetic disease; for example, the story about Bernoulli's principle and airplane wings.

Note that just because evolution, genetic and memetic, has been going on for a long time, it doesn't mean that individual diseases are very smart; they can be very young, newly accidentally created and not very evolved. They are not necessarily very infectious. A self-catalyzing pattern within a single human could be a disease - a stimulus, perhaps textual, in a particular person's environment that leads that person to a pattern of thought that results in re-creating or preserving that stimulus is a meme no less for being transmitted from a past self to a future self. A robust pattern of relentless self-criticism reinforced with post-it-notes might well be a memetic disease, even if it doesn't seem likely to transmit itself from one host to another. A slowdown, a decrease in productivity after doing the same thing over and over again, might be caused by a gradual accumulation of parasitic self-catalyzing patterns - memes.

Many memes are self-immunizing - having seen it once leads to recognizing it and not re-transmitting it. It may be that a policy of free speech and rapidly mixing pattern of conversation gives better results than trying to quarantine memes. Still, some memetic diseases keep catching us despite having been caught before. How can we create and spread resistance to memetic diseases? Some memes 'work' (that is, propagate themselves) only if they're implicit - knowing an explicit analysis of how the meme functions in an unwitting host is sufficient to defeat it. This knowledge, if it's transmissible, is a resistance meme.

When you find yourself failing (at any scope - even small failures matter), deliberately write some text, an explicit analysis and explanation of the failure. The text is an attempt at a resistance meme to the cause of the failure. Archive these pieces of text and take good care of them. When you have an opportunity, for example in conversation with like-minded folk, bring these analyses and explanations, and try to shuffle, collate and merge them together into more potent forms - standard checklists and processes and methodologies with links to the mistakes that they were forged from. We fight memetic diseases by forging and spreading memes.

How do we know we're not spreading memetic diseases ourselves? We need to keep archives, something like breeding records - the initial text describing the failure is the start of an archive, a pedigree of a resistance meme. Without the evidence of failures averted, a resistance meme can become a disease in itself. I believe DHH's "Testing like the TSA" is relevant here - test-first development was intended as a resistance meme to certain pernicious, arguably self-catalyzing failures. As it became decoupled from actual failures, it turned into something like a religion; more parasitic than helpful. 

Another strategy might be, when you find yourself failing, simply to try something different, to change policy. Mutation might create a resistance meme, or a continuously changing environment might make you a moving (more difficult) target for parasitic memes. Stop thinking that the norm is stability - the norm is a Red Queen race.

(This post brought to you by Schneier's "Liars and Outliers".)


Possibly irrelevant rant:

Just as us eukaryotes are inheritors of a bargain between metabolic life and viral life, us humans are inheritors of a bargain between eukaryotic life and memetic life. We should not identify with our eukaryotic heritage over and above our memetic heritage. Humancentrism is analogous to racism or sexism. How do you want your descendants to act toward one another after humanity speciates? The boundary of the magic circle of compassion cannot be fixed at co-fertility of the eukaryotic halves of ourselves. I don't know where it ought to be, but fear-fueled bigotry is well-known as a human failure mode. We've formed alliances with utterly alien forms of life in the past, and those have been some of our best successes.