Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Welcome to The Memestream

A very warm welcome to the memestream. I'm glad you could make it.

This site houses four short essays: You can choose to navigate using the 'meme streams' menu, or you can link to the next essay in sequence by following the hyperlinks in the last sentence of each piece.

The site is optimised for readability: the lines are double- spaced and the exact width of an A4 page. The font is size 12 throughout.

To make things easier for those reading my work for academic reasons (and you know who you are) the bibliography can be found on each page in the sidebar. Clicking the (bracketed) reference information will align your browser window with the top line of the bibliography. Cool huh?

For those who are here just out of interest, there are four rss feeds that contain the most recent articles on this essay's main topics. As well as these sidebar attributes, some words in the main body of my text will hyperlink you to relevant points on the internet, so that your understanding might perhaps be increased. I recommend you look at these after reading through, or opening them in a new browser window so that you don't lose your place in the text. Entirely up to you, of course.

Below is an interesting graphical representation of some of the ideas, I post it here because it was useful to me when writing this, so it might be useful to you reading this.

(click image to see fullscreen)

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Evolving Subject

This entry reflects upon Dawkins’ meme theory using my first artefact: a laboratory sealed jar of memes. A jar of memes may be an impossible object but is a useful metaphor allowing some unique thoughts on memetics to be gleaned. Indeed, this entry can be read as a reflection on the meme ‘memes’.

I chose to reflect on this jar of memes in order that some scientific objectivism might arise from their supposed embodiment within a sealed chamber, their ‘entrapment’ creating a sense of detachment between analyst and subject.

In his book 'Dawkins' God', Alister McGrath, a theologian with a PhD in molecular biophysics, states that memes “are, in the first place, hypothetical constructs, inferred from observation rather than observed in themselves; in the second place, unobservable; and in the third place, more or less useless at the explanatory level.” (McGrath 2005:129) This scathing attack on Dawkins’ idea forgets that despite an obvious lack of empirical evidence to their existence, meme theory is still a rather a useful device to the social scientist for thinking about the elements that construct minds and cultures. My jar of memes, however metaphorical, is still helpful.

Dawkins suggests that memes use the mind as both host and transmitting station for their own ends. These ends are their further replication and consequent ‘absorption’ into as many minds as possible. In this way memes can be considered ‘selfish’. Dawkins’ view is that memes are a “virus of the mind”. Adopting this perspective, let’s imagine that opening the jar of memes could ‘infect’ me with its contents.

This jar could very well contain anything: a recipe for soup; blueprints for a hover board; a comic book character; it might contain a memeplex, a cluster of memes which are ideologically-aligned and self-supporting. I simply do not know.

In an issue of Warren Ellis’sGlobal Frequency’, an alien thought-virus is transmitted through the air with the fecundity and copying-fidelity to sweep the planet, scrambling people’s minds as it goes. The jar of memes probably doesn’t hold a thought-virus this vicious, but we must be careful.

The jar begs the question; ‘don’t you want to know what I hold?’ And yes, I do. I have a strong desire to increase my knowledge of the world around me. My willingness to learn and my capacity to remember make my mind a well-travelled conduit for memes. Their ‘selfish’ nature and my desire for information present a mutual benefit. I learned this transactional process at a young age: if I want information, I go and get it. It is this philosophy that causes me to click my stumble-upon button so often, each click releasing a delicious new horde of memes into my head.

The digital age has seen the ideosphere swell with successful memes. My jar now exists on the internet as part of this website, so its continued existence in some form is secure in all who read this page, either in their minds or in their computer’s memory. The internet can be seen as a universe of highly adapted memes, whose copying fidelity is assured because of their digital nature, whose longevity is secure as long as their host pages exist; but whose fecundity is a feature only their usefulness to humans; we have the memes right where we want them, and can begin to use them to our advantage.

The self is both genetically and memetically constructed: our bodies are a biological fusion of two sets of genes, a mixture from both parents; our minds are empty vessels born into the rapidly mutating memeosphere. The rise of the information age has given us some power over the processes of memetic evolution, with the effect that one is freer to choose their memetic intake\.

Anthony Giddens (1991: 75) states that "the self forms a trajectory of development from the past to the anticipated future. The individual appropriates his past by sifting through it in the light of what is anticipated for an (organised) future." Consider that my jar of memes is sealed: it is my choice to open it. This choice arises from the vast choices that I could otherwise make from the meme pool. A meme must adapt if it is to survive, and so the most successful memes are those that are useful to us. Memes need to help us to help them.

This shift of power has changed our evolutionary trajectory. The psychic self is born into a bustling world where ideas compete for space in the mind. We must discern what is useful from what is parasitic. We have great freedom to construct our identities and broadcast our ideas, and in the age of the memetic digital replication, those that are connected to the internet’s ‘meme stream’ are finding that their selves are becoming closer aligned with the virtual world. If memes are truly selfish, they will seek to change us by bringing us closer to their ultimate state: digital. We return to this discussion in ‘the cyborg subject'. Next though, is 'the taxonomic subject'.

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The Taxonomic Subject

This entry attempts to reconcile ape taxonomy with evolution theory, in order that a more fitting classification can be attached to one Mr. Todd Huffman, a voluntary cosmetic cyborg who implanted magnets into his fingertips, enhancing his natural sensory interface.

Huffman is an example of an individual who has chosen to enhance his body in order that his environmental needs are met. He has in a sense self-mutated his phenotype, undermining the necessarily slow process that is natural selection.

In him, we see that traditional taxonomies need to make room for a new class of Homo sapiens: the transhuman. Transhumanism can be considered a function of cultural evolution rapidly outpacing genetic evolution to the extent that our natural physicality no longer meets the needs of our environment. The meme pool is mutating at a rate far faster than the gene pool. Let us look at how:

Colin Groves states that “Although Homo (human) and Pan (chimpanzee) share a common ancestor subsequent to the separation of the ancestry Pongo (orangutan), it is obvious that far more morphological change occurred during human evolution, so that chimpanzees and orangutans seem to resemble each other more than chimpanzees resemble humans(Groves 2001: 6). Here the question is raised: how did we become so different from our ancestral cousins, the chimpanzee?

Both human and chimp are products of genetic evolution. This statement seems irrefutably true until one begins to consider the evolution that gave rise to the physical attributes we humans now possess: the extended frontal lobe. This allowed us to adapt to our surroundings in a more immediate way, whilst creating a social reality that allowed us to learn, communicate and copy. This was the start of cultural evolution.

The importance of the birth of this social world can be seen in this example: When Colossus of X-Men fame (genus Homo superior) was conceived, a particularly useful mutant gene arose in him that lets him turn into organic-steel in times his life might be at risk. His reproductive opportunities are increased by this mutation, furthering the likelihood of him passing on his genes to a wider populace. Other factors contribute to his attractiveness as a direct result of this mutation, but not as a function of it: his power made him a world-famous X-Man; his strength is enhanced to the point that he can beat enemies. Life-world knowledge of human sexuality, borne from cultural evolution, makes Colossus a highly prized mate to a woman: he is rich, famous and can protect you. It becomes clear that cultural attributions of attractiveness are as influential as genetic attributions.

Genetic mutations will persist if they offer a mutated subject an environmental advantage that will ensure the mutated genes will proliferate. Memes do the same, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one co-adapted memeplex attempts to altogether stop reproduction: contraceptives. Another seeks to nearly kill their host: extreme sports. Apes do not have these same conflicts. In this way memes are changing the way humans evolve.

Cultural evolution has overtaken genetic evolution as the shaper of things to come. The knowledge exists to now actually change our genes through scientific means. Homo sapiens are in control here. We can shape ourselves to suit our needs, nullifying the process of genetic evolution. We don't necessarily need good genes any more, because technology can repair alot of our problems.

For example, Cat Jones' Long QT Syndrome, a hereditary trait, need not afflict her life thanks to technology, but she will pass on the gene to future generations to deal with. This can be seen as a weakness of memetics taking over our evolutionary process.

Huffman’s implants represent a physiological fusion with the machine world as he can now sense electromagnetic fields around him. He chose this adaptation. Research is ongoing to simulate evolutionary processes in machines that also choose their own taxonomy. In Nolfi and Floreano’s ‘Evolutionary Robotics’ they discuss the problem of programming a robot to be evolvable: “For adaptation to occur, these systems must possess evolvability, i.e. the ability of random variations to sometimes produce improvement.” (2000: 17). In the human world, we have reached our potential for evolvability by our own unprogrammed means. We are like the evolutionary robots in their study, because we too “are free to select the way to solve a task by interacting with the environment” (2000: 18), another feature of the extended frontal lobe.

It is only 200,000 years since Homo sapiens arose; yet we are already seeking to adjust our genotype to more directly meet cultural needs. Marshall McLuhan would say that we seek to ‘extend’ our bodies into the world around us. We elaborate on his ideas in ‘the extended subject’.

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The Extended Subject

“All media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment” (McLuhan 1962: 13). This concept adds to my growing argument that human evolution is now a function of our own choices. McLuhan’s book ‘The Extensions of Man’ offers the useful suggestion that on an individual basis, we choose to extend our bodies through our technologies, with the effect that our culture is changed.

Changed, McLuhan would say, because once we extend, we auto-amputate the aspect we seek to extend, creating the need for society to change to accommodate the new self.

There was a point in our ancestral past that we began to hunt with dogs. They had a better sense of smell than us so they were a useful tool, a McLuhanistic extension of the nose. In outsourcing our sense of smell, we grew to rely on our tools rather than our own senses. After several generations of co-adaptation, we had lost our sense of smell to the dogs, and we were left with the far depleted sense we now have.
Our tools changed our reality changed our physicality.

The aforementioned Mr. Todd Huffman took a shortcut when he chose to implant his magnets; he changed his physicality without the conduit of reality. This suggests that perhaps reality has adjusted far enough to let us all choose our physicality, an issue explored in ‘the cyborg subject’.

Huffman has extended his sense of touch beyond the normal tactile range, into the electronic and electromagnetic range. His implants give him a sixth sense one could only hope to experience after a painful and risky procedure. His nervous system now detects things it was not built to detect. He has in a sense, hacked his own code.

Since McLuhan was a technological determinist, believing that technology is the main cause of social changes in society, he might say that these magnets represent man’s need to interface more closely with the machine world that we so greatly rely on. What processes are at work that made Huffman desire to extend himself in this way? Meme theory would suggest that he picked up the meme to want to engage with new types of information, with the effect that never-before-experienced memes could flow across the logic gap into a new medium: the mind. McLuhan might agree with Dawkins’ theory of the selfish meme, considering that he takes the view that “man becomes as it were the sex organ of the machine world” (1964: 64). Both theorists consider that the self is subject to outside forces. Are we as free to choose as I would like to believe?

These implants may extend their bearer to perceive in an entirely new way, but like losing our sense of smell to the dogs, Huffman has lost subtle tactile sensitivity to his implants. This is known as the ratio of sense perception, something McLuhan considers the major contributor to societal change in the information age. He states that:

“We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions
of man - the technological simulation of consciousness.”

(McLuhan 1964: 3)

Gobsmackingly, considering the time this was written, ‘technological simulation of consciousness’ or Artificial Intelligence is now a highly researched field of academics making very real breakthroughs. An A.I. mind would be the ultimate extension of the self: but the ratio of sense perceptions would demand that our selves were ultimately nullified.

As we edge closer toward the extension of the self through digital means, we must demonstrate tighter control over our technologies if it is possible that we could lose this control. Huffman cannot remove his implants without destroying all tactile sensitivity in his implanted fingertips. His reality is changed forever. He did choose this though; there are those that are subject to their extensions not through choice but by necessity. I refer to medical cyborgs, which are explicated in the next entry ‘the cyborg subject’

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The Cyborg Subject

The cyborg is the interface of the organic with the technological; the technicizing of the human and the humanizing of technology, i.e. the body as both the hardware of machines and software for machines

(Fitzpatrick 1999: 97, cited in Bell 2000: 5)

In this statement we are offered the understanding that machines and humans are merging together for some mutual gain. We see this benefit very clearly if we consider the medical cyborg: a fusion of machinic and organic elements that improve, prolong or extend an otherwise vulnerable human life.

This entry reflects upon one Cat Jones, a medical cyborg whose heart is fused with an implanted cardioverter/defibrillator (ICD). These are the recommended implants for those that, like Cat, have inherited Long QT Syndrome. This means her heart beat is arrhythmic, too long, and beats less per minute than normal hearts.

This implant monitors her heart rate and if required it will ‘pace’ the heart for her if its rate drops to below 50 bpm, or ‘reboot’ the heart if it shuts down entirely. It is battery powered, requiring a change every five years or after each full defibrillation. It has an onboard memory, and stores information on all of its own and the heart’s activity. It has a wireless transmitter/receiver, allowing external diagnostics to be run without opening the chest cavity.

My battery-powered girlfriend visited the hospital for her annual diagnostics recently. I learned that heart specialists must now have technical as well as medical knowledge when dealing with these cyborg patients; that instruction manuals for these electronic devices are now a part of medical literature; and that diagnostic devices which monitor the electronic output of her implant now form the basis of her medical care. After the initial diagnosis, she relies more on technicians than on doctors. This is another interesting example of the closing gaps between the human and machine world. Ultimately, it would be better to replace all of Cat’s organs with electronics. This would ensure a long, healthy and efficient life. This is the direction that medical science is taking. Pepperell (1995: 180, cited in Bell 2000: 5) states that:

“All technological progress of human society is geared towards the redundancy of the human species as we currently know it. … Complex machines are an emergent life form. … As computers develop to be more like humans, so humans develop to like computers more.”

His suggestion is that we are being taught to assimilate machines by the machine world. This twist in our cultural evolution has already started a trend toward a more complete cyborg self: a fetish for technology.

The desire to get closer to our technology is decidedly McLuhanistic. Witness subjects like Huffman, a cosmetic cyborg and early-adopter of machinic cyborg technologies (cosmetic because his extensions are non-essential and purely for his personal enjoyment). He is quoted as saying “In modifying my body I have ever so slightly altered the way I organize the world in my mind. I eagerly await the day in which I can integrate more elaborate senses into myself.” (Larratt, 2004). He seems now addicted to sensory input, and seeks to find further ways to become a ‘sex organ of the machine world’.

De Kerckhove (1997: 175) postulates that:

The last boundary to the true biotechnical relationship between human and machine is the interface itself. This may not necessarily be desirable, but it should not obscure the fact that we have been entertaining quasi-bionic relationships with our inventions all along.

He is correct that it is not wholly desirable to make this interface: a combination of moral and ethical issues arise through the manipulation of the pure human form. Homo sapiens are on a cultural trajectory that will see us merge with the machine world’s parallel trajectory. At the collision point, the next step in cultural evolution begins: transhumanism.

De Kerckhove suggests that despite our current addiction to “mainlining electricity” (1997: 179), we do not yet have the correct interface to co adapt further. At Reading University’s cybernetics department, a prototype bodily enhancement is being developed so that its developer can ‘feel’ the information on web-pages that they are browsing, by means of a wire inserted into the arm. It works by stimulating the nerves in the user’s arm with mild electrical impulse.

Is this the “mainlining electricity” to which De Kerckhove refers? This technology represents a further alignment between human physicality and the machine world, a sensory interface between the two universes. This has huge implications for how we might experience reality in the dawning age of transhumanism.

The meme for transhumanism is spreading like a thought-contagion, influencing some individuals to merge with the technologies that surround them. Our tools are becoming ourselves, and our reality is changing irreversibly to accommodate the new, auto-amputated self.

Technology has adapted to reflect our environmental needs: machines can pump your heart for you. We look to the machine world for enhancement of the self: the nervous system can integrate new electronic senses. Genes are redundant in the age of the transhuman: the meme is the new currency of human evolution. The meme has flourished on the internet, perhaps accelerating humanity’s further integration with the machine world. Digital memes are working us over, shaping our trajectory as we enter the next phase of evolution, transhumanism.

I think I know what was in that jar of memes: Homo superior.

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3196 words in total


Bell, D. and Kennedy, B. M., eds (2000). The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge.

De Kerckhove, D. (1997). The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality. London: Kogan Page.

Fitzpatrick, T. (1999). 'Social Policy for Cyborgs'. Body & Society, vol. 5, No. 1, 93-116

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Groves, C. (2001). Primate Taxonomy. London: Smithsonian Institution

Larratt, S. (2004). 'The Gift of Magnetic Vision' retrieved on 12th December 2006 from the World Wide Web. Available at http://www.bmezine.com/news/pubring/20040226.html

McGrath, A. (2005). Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Oxford: Blackwell.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press

McLuhan, M (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Nolfi, S. and Floreano, D. (2000). Evolutionary Robotics: The Biology, Intelligence, and Technology of Self- Organizing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT

Pepperell, R. (1995). The Posthuman Condition. Oxford: Intellect Books

Sunday, December 10, 2006

So What's a Hypomnemata Anyway?

The hypomnemata is a special type of notebook used in ancient greek society by variety of common people such as tradesmen, philosophers, theologians, and students to keep personal records and fomulate opinions about the experience of the self. This habitual type of personal notekeeping was coming into vogue in Plato's time (ca. 4th century BC) and represents one of western culture's earliest technological advancements to create a conscious logos.

This new technology was as disruptive to ancient Greek society as the introduction of the computer into private life today. The hypomnemata served the growing cultivated public in many ways - as account books, public registers, guides for conduct, and individual notebooks serving as memoranda.

In The Care of the Self, the third volume of Foucault's The History of Sexuality, he writes: "As personal as they were, the hypomnemata must nevertheless not be taken for intimate diaries or for those accounts of spiritual experience (temptations, struggles, falls, and victories) which can be found in later Christian literature. [...] [T]heir objective is not to bring the arcana conscientiae to light, the confession of which -- be it oral or written -- has a purifying value."

Plato's theory of anamnesis recognized the new status of writing as a device of artificial memory, and he developed the hypomnesic principles for his students to follow in the Academy. The hypomnemata constituted a material memory of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering these as an accumulated treasure for rereading and later meditation. They also formed a raw material for the writing of more systematic treatises in which were given arguments and means by which to struggle against some defect (such as anger, envy, gossip, flattery) or to overcome some difficult circumstance (a mourning, an exile, downfall, disgrace).