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January 27, 2007


"In his novel Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson uses the term [actually a name from mythology] Nam-shub to indicate a self-replicating meme." I am truly enjoying this novel. The plot involves a neurolinguistic virus - language that causes physical changes to brain cells: a radical version of the co-construction of meaning.

At the root of this tale's "philosophy of language" is binary code (computer programming is all done in 1's and 0's). Stephenson plays the mind-as-computer analogy to the extreme, suggesting that the insertion of a certain meme (Enki's nam-shub) into language altered cognitive functioning. In other words, that this "speech with magical force" (p. 211) introduced a disease into human thinking. Maximizing complexity, the argument Stephenson presents is that religious belief is the carrier of this disease.

So, what is a meme? The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 (The Selfish Gene): "A unit of cultural information that represents a basic idea that can be transferred from one individual to another, and subjected to MUTATION, CROSSOVER, and ADAPTATION" (Glossary based on Flake); a "viral encapsulated idea, with built-in feedback loop" (adapted from "a broad theoretical model of human communication, which [Weaver] defined as 'all of the ways by which one mind may affect another'; premised upon Shannon's foundation of "electronic signal transmission and the quantitative measurement of information flows"; and (originally) "a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one generation to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation); 'memes are the cultural counterpart of genes'" (Princeton WordNet).

Dawkins' original definition (focused at the level of the gene) has been expanded to apply to a wide range of cultural phenomena, including a particular use in blogging. I have to challenge the deliberateness of someone "post[ing] memes on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis" because it implies a guarantee that whatever is posted will be picked up. As I understand Dawkin's sense, what makes a meme a meme is precisely its operation at a level "below" or "pre" consciousness - at the genetic level. The question might be the extent to which such changes can be (if ever?) intentionally co-constructed through increasing attention to consciousness at the level of, say, the synaptic connections of the brain's neural net.

Posted by Steph at January 27, 2007 9:14 AM


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