What if all cultural interactions, theories, beliefs, and communications could be boiled down to a single unit of measurement, quantified, and then consolidated? What if thoughts were not quite as spontaneous as we would like to believe, but rather followed the same rules as other forms of evolution? If a tortoise is composed of bits of data, these are called genes. If a culture is composed of similar bits of data, these may be called memes.
The word meme has come up often in the past decade in reference to the emerging culture of the Internet. With no single media outlet dictating the fads, beliefs, and popular culture of the current generation, the internet meme is an overt method by which an idea is transmitted and then spread. But while an internet meme is relatively easy to identify, there are other subtler memes we may be looking at every day.
Richard Dawkins, who coined the word meme in his book “The Selfish Gene” noted that bits of cultural information can be transmitted from one brain to another without either necessarily being consciously aware of the transaction. These memes could just as easily be described as viruses of thought. The terms “viral” and “viral marketing” are no coincidence in light of this analogy.
So what does the recognition of the meme offer the future? Theories about how memetics could be used vary. Already political pundits are attempting to engineer their own memes as they run the crucible of the electoral process, now aware of what the term implies – and the power behind it. But this early stage of meme manipulation doesn’t require anything all that new. In the past, societies dispersed information through a more or less overtly conscious method through advertising. Today in a world of 24-hour news networks it is necessary that a few words become so important that they must not only be observed, but shared infectiously by those who observe them.
With the assistance of Edward Louis Bernays, an early utilization of memes took place in the 1920’s to assist the tobacco companies in selling more cigarettes, despite a major social taboo against women smoking in public. Until that time, cigarette smoking by women was seen as a scandal if not in specific designated settings. Appealing to the emotions already present at a first wave women’s liberation rally, Bernays first engineered the situation to encourage the women to smoke in public and then turned around and spoke to newspaper reporters, suggesting the decision had been wholly theirs and that the smokers were calling the cigarettes “torches of freedom.” It was a masterful, if not cynical move on the part of the advertisers. In an Orwellian twist, soon smoking was erroneously equivocated to freedom and the progressive modalities which were beginning to emerge.
Of course media took the center stage in most forms of communication. By 1950 some 10% of American households were receiving their information from the home television set. And now in 2012, over half of Americans over the age of 12 are connected to Facebook. Thought viruses, public opinions, and cultures can now change in the blink of an eye under the trusted visage of friends and family. Ideas spread with or without the assistance of social engineers.
But what happens when this memetic genome is mapped as fully as the human genome? Will the information be used to help, or dominate us all? To use history as a guide is to invite a most disturbing answer.