Sunday, October 01, 2006

Memes and the City.

Of late, it occurs to me to consider the transmission of culture and ideas. Within the last week, I have lent out three books, borrowed three more, and made an agreement to exchange dvds with another party. I received a book as a gift, read one I had on loan, and had several recommended to me. In addition I have written reviews and thoughts of books and films on this site. None of these transactions have been the direct result of influence from conventional media sources. I could easily make myself believe that they reflect personal interactions of volition. They could be interpreted as expressions of willful intention and free exchange of ideas. But perhaps that would be naive.

Another way to look at it is that we are merely vehicles for the transmission of these collections of ideas. This involves the memetic theory of Richard Dawson. A very simplistic explanation for this process would be to liken ideas to genes. Ideas are propagated through their encoding in cultural works that are exchanged through the interactions of information consumers, or carriers... that's simply you and everyone with whom you come into contact.

Sure.. my partners -in-exchange and I made choices. We assessed each other's interests and made recommendations based upon our perceptions and the resultant conclusions. But was our agenda really consciously formed internally, or were we simply acting out our roles in service of these ideas? We carry perspectives formed by previous encounters with these ideas. We have propensities for the reception of certain ideas... and resistances to others. These resistances are commonly referred to as biases. Are these biases received or self-generated? Do we act through free will or determination? Perhaps your answer to that question is itself pre-determined by your biases... and the wheel spins round and round.

For me, these ruminations lead to thoughts about where I have chosen (or been fated) to live. I have never lived outside an urban environment, but I have visited and worked outside cities. My preference for city-living is reinforced by the amount and diversity of cultural transmission that occurs in them. Cities are the petri dishes of cultural evolution. In an ordinary day, I have the opportunity to interact with multitudes of meme-carriers. Ideas spread like viruses in cities. Sure, we are sometimes quick to develop antibodies to protect us- healthy immune systems that keep us skeptical... but I believe that only works to accelerate cultural evolution.

Nowadays it is possible to live outside the urban center and still be exposed to a wide variety of ideas. Not too long ago, people in isolation relied on the one-way transmission of information from radio, newspapers and network television. But the internet is causing a revolution in the spread of information. There is a constant expansion of opportunities for becoming meme-carriers. Yet there is something immediate and tangible about the random encounters still available only among the multitudes. It's not so easy in the city to pick and choose the ideas we are exposed to. Diversity and mutation further the sophistication of ideas. Weaker strains don't seem to live as long as in places where there is less competition.

Draw your own conclusions... if you can.


Anonymous Michael Breen said...

Memetic theory is mental masturbation.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

It would be interesting to read a post where you elaborate on that sentiment.

6:00 PM  

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