copy me (and innovate)

The topic that I will delve into here is about the “instructions” that often come with memes. Sometimes these are implicit and sometimes explicit. For simplicity we will look at these in two categories.

1) “copy me”

2) “change me”

The simplest meme in fact is the simple instruction “copy me” as Blackmore described. In most cases this means as closely as possible. We know there are inherent mutations that can occur in the copying process. There is some loss of fidelity depending on the medium of the meme being copied. And while there are several examples of ideas which command faithful replication (religion for example), there are others that reject it (read on).

Some ideas come with the two instructions listed above; 1)”copy me”  and 2) “change me” or “innovate”. There is a natural and obvious tension that exists between these two instructions, and indeed each set of memes can emphasize on over the other.

There are plenty of examples of memes where “copying” is met with negative selection pressure rejected. The concept of plagiarism, patenting and copywrites and encryption are examples of barriers put inplace to prevent copying memes. There are legal examples, but there are social stigmas attached to followers, posers, yes-men and those who are obviously copying the ideas of others.

To be fair there are also examples where modifications of a core idea are not tolerated. The enforcement mechanisms can be legal or social here too. These examples invoke responses of heresy in unfaithfully mutated religious practices, vandalism in the unauthorized alteration of art, and people look down on the knock-off LV handbag that you bought on the street.

Before delving into the second instruction “change me” let’s return briefly to the genetic analogy. When we think of biological examples we know that evolution is only possible from mutation and recombination. Yet mutation is heavily guarded against in our cells. DNA repair is going on constantly, and environmental mutagens are typically avoided. There is one key example in the body where mutation is promoted. Antibodies in the immune system are one example. There is no biological example where the mutation is directed but in the immune system it is encouraged. In biology the only direction of mutation is selection.

With memes, some mutation is inevitable in the copying process, even when faithful replication is demanded. The interesting examples are where mutation is part of the instruction. The examples of this required mutation or innovation exist in music/entertainment,  science, and business.

Most types of music are fairly faithfully copied. Beethoven’s symphonies are much the same today as they were at their original composition. Baroke style tends to enforce strict rules and these pieces are faithfully copied. Let’s take  jazz as a counterexample. There is a fundamental format, but no required set of notes in many cases. While it is important that members of the ensemble stay in key, or with a certain type of rhythm it is prescribed that the notes not follow any particular occasional  order. Other forms of entertainment like standup comedy, while they may tell “your mom jokes” or even the”knock-knock”. If comedians continue to tell the same jokes they get booed off the stage.

Science has strong instructions for both copying and innovation. The entire progression of science is build on both faithful replication and encouraged mutation. Faithful replication is needed to disseminate scientific principles in early education. By the time students reach graduate school it is no longer ok to repeat previous proofs or experiments. New research principles must be formed and plagiarism is not tolerated.

In businesses there are still memetic elements that are copied and shared such as best practices, organization structures and even product offerings. However, there are market forces that drive innovation, and legal requirements set up to prevent too much copying.

The idea of directed mutation is a key difference between memes and genes. These examples suggest that ideas are likely to be changed on purpose with every transition. This type of mutation fits in with selfish meme theory. In the genes, every mutation risks debilitating the function of the gene, but directed mutation can be much more effective.

Ultimately, you may have noticed that the meme instructions mirror the social forces that we like to talk about so much on this blog. The meme host mind that copies is exhibiting “conformity”. The host that exhibits more innovation is exhibiting “individuality”. The elements of each of these are defined by the social forces in the community. Or through the lens of selfish-meme theory; the communities are defined around the types of memetic instructions that exist.


About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
This entry was posted in cultural practice, social forces and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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