Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Internet Is Using Us

"We didn’t create the Internet for our own benefit but basically it used us to create itself, to spread around the planet"

Dr. Susan Blackmore

Click to listen: The Internet is using us!
29 seconds (449 KB) from Dr. Susan Blackmore's lecture at Pop!Tech 2005

A Meme Machine using an Audio-Memes Injector in the pre-iPOD era

Are you subscribed to more than a 100 feeds? Are you switching RSS readers because their refresh rate is not fast enough? Do you have a Blackberry? Are you seriously considering upgrading your iPod, because 60GB is really ridiculous? Do you watch movies only in a fast forward mode? Have you already killed all your spare time?

Do you feel free, as in freedom? No? Well, Dr. Susan Blackmore has an interesting theory that might just explain it all.

Humans are machines. We have been created and evolved to serve as containers for an external, immaterial substance called meme, which can be translated into any of the following: thought, idea, or the smallest chunk of meaningful, replicable information.

Our function, as meme machines, is to receive, store, reproduce, replicate and distribute memes to other meme machines (that would be you and me).

When a new idea pops up inside a human's head, it either means that a meme has just been successfully transmitted from the outside into the brainy container, or that a mash-up of previously existing memes occurred. This compulsory mash-up happens as part of the evolution forces driven by the memes. In other words, there's no "innovator's dilemma", because we – the meme machines – invent nothing at all. The most we're capable of is remixing some pre-existing memes.

Genes and Memes work in accordance with each other. Genes are in charge of creating the infrastructure, the machine (the body), while the memes are in charge of filling in those machines with content (the mind, consciousness, soul). Both genes and memes are selfish, i.e. they do what they do because of how they were designed. These parasites have neither desire nor hate; they are unsentimental.

Unfortunately (for the memes) there are more memes and genes than meme machines. Therefore, natural selection happens, i.e. the survival of the fittest. The memes that don't tip go through mutation processes – inside our brains - and then get redistributed.

Now let's talk business: what has been described so far is Mother Nature's business processes: production, reproduction, replication, distribution, mutation and so forth. And just like any business, the goal of evolution is to shorten time-to-market, while making these processes perform in a faster, better, cheaper fashion.

The entire human evolution could, therefore, be seen as serving this faster, better, cheaper of selfish memes' propagation. Languages, tapestry, paintings, printed books.... telegraph, telephone, tv… boats, cars, airplanes – these are all memes' distribution mechanisms that were pushed forward by the memes themselves.

And so, following this evolutionary path, the memes have made us create the ultimate memeplex – the Internet. Just think how cost-effective it is from a meme's perspective: the entire stack of meme machines is voluntarily connected into a single, global memeplex. Memes no longer have to travel and find meme machines; ideas can spread and evolve in an unprecedented pace and "at the fraction of the cost".


Regardless of the validity (what's that?) of the Memes' theory, I find that it explains few things, such as:

- Why the web has become social?
- Why information has been liberated from web sites?
- Why the information river has been created and why rss feeds were invented?
- Why our bodies will soon be connected to the Internet?
- Why real-time will never be fast enough?
- Why will we always seek faster cpus?
- Why storage space will always increase?

and finally…

Finally, it explains why we feel like shit (aka existential angst) about all this. It's because we're not free (as in freedom). We have been enslaved to the memes' factory line.

Here's what Dr. Blackmore has to say as a final note in her Memes, Creativity and Consciousness:

Free will and consciousness are wonderful delusions, and I know now that there is really no one inside here who is writing the books and articles, or looking at the world. It is all the pointless universe doing its stuff.


So Information is not as innocent, passive and beneficial as we've been trained to think. Information is a selfish, active, and immaterial substance that insatiably seeks to reproduce, replicate and distribute itself.

Thinking of it, I couldn't resist an automatic memes' remix, with a biblical touch.

Genesis; the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve; Two "no access" trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge; the original sin; and then the expulsion, mortality and an endless suffering.

We thought that the only harm done was the violation of God's arbitrary prohibition, for which we have been punished. Nevertheless, through these painful events humans gained the greatest treasure of all - knowledge.

But from a memetic standpoint, God's prohibition was far from being arbitrary: there was something evil in that tree. By eating from the tree of knowledge we have become infected by information parasites. Memes are overloading us, pushing us toward building more meme hosting facilities and faster meme processing technologies. The endless information river has become a never ending Via Dolorosa for us, and these are the real consequences of the original sin.

Well, this is just a meme - don't take it too seriously...


1. Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point describes the complex structure of salesmen, connectors, mavens, contexts and so forth that are used by the memes to get hold of our brains.
I'm not sure, though, that Gladwell will support this description.

2. Susan Blackmore's lecture at Pop!Tech 2005 can be found here.


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