The story of the printing press demonstrates the interdependence of culture and technology.
A meme integrates two functions:
- Concept — Immaterial idea/value/concept embedded in the medium. The inter-subjective reality to spread. Culture.
- Copy — Material medium that embeds the immaterial concept. The inter-objective reality that spreads. Technology.
In first-principle terms, memes are culture and technology in one. Ideas can't spread without technology. To become inter-subjective (culture), the subjective requires an objective medium. The medium is the meme's replication technology.
Concept~Resonance * Copy~Replication
Concept and copy-function combine to direct how far the meme travels in culture.
It models as an equation:
- Resonance — The extent to which meme impresses minds to re-share. The more it resonates, the more you'll replicate in various ways, the more mimesis it drives. GIFs nobody find funny, die on arrival. GIFs that strike chords with many, go viral.
- Replication — How fast the medium enables the concept to be shared from one mind to many. It takes days to copy an article by hand, minutes by press and seconds by internet.
* Reputation — Proof-of-resonance
There's a third variable: reputation. Who made the meme/art matters. The more resonating memes you create, the more attention every new creation commands. Reputation compounds through proof-of-work.
When The Weeknd was unknown in 2011, music aficionados took years to vibe with his YouTube mixtapes. Today, every track he drops gets millions of listens and shares in the first hours. Inversely, negative reputation builds resistance to the artist's work. Examples abound in this age of cancel culture: Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Joe Rogan — to name a few.
Repeated resonance builds reputation. Once in place, reputation guides resonance and sets the pace for replication:
The copy function's replication capacity aggregates a bunch of secondary features:
- Time-to-read — How long it takes to read the meme. Reading precedes replication. You can watch about 2000x TikToks in the time needed to read an average book. And share it 2000x by the time you can share the book.
- Time-to-copy — How long it takes to replicate the meme. Copying books by hand takes days, by print hours, by internet milliseconds.
- Shelf life — How long copies last. Speech evaporates instantly and so can only reach people same place same time. Material books can travel so they can be read across seas and centuries. Digital files last as long as the hardware they're stored on.
- Fidelity — How close copies are to the original. Speech copies always differ because they need to be re-created from flawed memories every time. Hand-copied paintings and books are subject to human error and bias. Digital copies are identical.
- Streaming bandwidth — How many minds can read a copy at the same time. You can talk to everyone that can hear your voice. A video reaches everyone near the screen. Only one reader per book at a time. Billions can simultaneously watch the same YouTube video online.
Technology always advances to achieve less with more. New technology compounds from existing technology to, in turn, become an improved foundation for yet more efficient future technology. As such, the copy function's various inputs upgraded throughout history.
Printing press technology subverted Church memetic monopoly by slashing time-to-copy, making meme replication more affordable.
Digital memes have overcome historic replication limits: near-zero time-to-copy, near-infinite shelf life, 100% fidelity and near-unlimited streaming bandwidth. Online, they mostly compete for maximum resonance in the lowest time-to-read possible. To infect as many minds as quickly as possible, unlocking wide-scale replication.
Better technology unlocks faster meme replication and underlying self-expression — mimesis between mes. Culture grows ever-more fluid and fertile as a result.
Mimetic replication scales as a power law. That means the meme claims exponentially more attention with every replication.
- When I tweet a meme, my 2,000 followers might retweet it to their followers.
- If each of my followers has an average 100 followers, the meme would theoretically reach 2,000*100 = 200,000 minds in its first replication cycle.
- If each of those 200,000 followers has an average 100 followers, the meme's theoretical reach becomes 200,000*100 = 20 million minds in the second replication cycle.
Of course, my tweets never remotely reached 20 million minds, because only a few followers actually retweet. Actual reach is determined by meme resonance, itself conditioned by reputation: the same meme will resonate (and thus be retweeted) more if tweeted by Elon Musk than by me.
The point: if my memes are theoretically only one retweet order away from as many minds as live in Chile, try wrapping your head around Elon's mimetic gravity at ~91m followers. At an average 100 followers each, his first-order retweet reach is ~9b minds — the population of planet Earth.
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand exponential growth." — Albert Bartlett
How small gets really big
Human intuition typically struggles to grasp exponential growth. Seemingly small numbers suddenly look mind-blowingly big.
We're more familiar with linear growth. If you charge $10 an hour, you'll earn $20 in two hours, $80 in an eight-hour work day and $400 in a week. Growth is constant.
Exponential (or super-linear) growth, in contrast, accelerates because the existing number is a factor in its own growth and so the increase is bigger every time.
Viral growth makes for a textbook example because existing infections cause new infections:
K = I * R * K₋₁
- K = number of people infected with the virus today
- I = average number of people an infected person is exposed to per day
- R = infection rate, i.e. probability of exposure leading to infection
- K₋₁ = number of infected people on the day prior
Things go fast because K is a factor in its own change. If K gets big, the rate of growth itself becomes big.
Let's run a simple simulation with following assumptions:
- Infection rate (R) is 5% and the average person is exposed to 40 people each day (I). We'll also assume R and I remain constant, so we can write (I * R) = (40 * 0.05) as a single multiplier = 2. This number approximates the first C19 reproduction rates before lockdowns in many countries.
- Say that patient zero attends a public market on Day 0 and super-spreads the virus to 499 others, so Day 1 starts at 500 cases.
Because moving forward x days is the same as multiplying by the constant x times, these equations can be written shorter using exponents, e.g. Day 24 = 500 * 2²⁴ = 8,388,608,000. Hence, exponential growth.
On paper, this virus infects the entire world population in less than a month's time. In reality, spread slows over time because patients either die or recover to become immune. Humans will also work together on policy (lockdowns bring down exposure) and technology (vaccines bring down infection). Nevertheless, the scale remains planetary.
Like viruses biologically multiply through bodies, memes culturally multiply through minds. Memes too go pandemic when high infection rates capitalise on high exposure.
- Infectiousness reflects the meme's intersubjective resonance. The more resonance, the higher the probability of cultural infection per exposed mind.
- Exposure reflects the meme's technological features to reach maximum minds in minimum time. Like some viruses jump across bodies quicker because of biological features, some memes jump across memes quicker because faster-to-read, faster-to-copy, longer shelf life and higher streaming bandwidth.
Instant connectivity allow internet memes to spread across multiple millions of minds with minimal energy. Resonating memes thus come to dominate internet culture in no-time — especially when passing through super-spreaders like Elon.
The viral equation written in memetic terms:
K = I * R * K₋₁
- K = number of minds infected with the meme today
- I = average number of minds an infected mind shares with per day
- R = infection rate, i.e. probability of share leading to infection
- K₋₁ = number of infected minds on the day prior
Maximum memetic transmission
To thrive in the cultural environment, memes mutate across media chasing maximum reproducibility.
Religious stories first spread slowly and scatteringly mouth-to-mouth, then scaled uniformly through books that established rituals, values, traditions and institutions.
At the same time, religions evolved from worshipping many Gods to just one. The common argument is that people came to recognise their many gods as expressions of the same divine unity. The story of one all-unifying divine force not only makes sense to the human psyche, it is also more scalable in oral lore. One grand story is easier to tell, remember and retell than a multitude of smaller ones and so it comes out on top in memetic competition. Over time, the many god stories organically converged into one.
Written symbols then stored and standardised the stories in books that stand the test of time, containing — though certainly not eliminating — their ambiguity. Today, religious stories are still told in conflictive ways because of different interpretations, but the source material doesn’t change with every replication. The Bible isn’t constantly rewritten to the same extent stories slightly change every time they are orally retold, as exemplified in games of Telephone and Chinese Whispers.
Reproducible memes are easy to:
The stickiest memes are simple and visual. A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words. Literally: the slowest books spend pages on describing contexts an image can convey in seconds. Neurologically, our brains process images ~16x faster than text. Showing beats telling.
Most people understand GIFs, captioned .JPGs and TikToks as memes over others because they’re the most intuitive and shareable expressions of ideas. They convey a maximum of meaning in a minimum of time and can be retweeted in a matter of seconds. Quick-to-read and quick-to-copy. The most replicable (most memeable), they represent the most archetypical examples of the concept meme itself.
Leonardo's lucky strike
Here's a story that makes the point of culture-technology interdependence.
Leonardo Da Vinci is an icon of Western culture. Painter, scientist, inventor, engineer, architect — the man embodies Renaissance like no one else.
"Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Realise that everything connects to everything else." — Leonardo Da Vinci
Yet, in his time, the average Joe(lle) had never heard of Leonardo. How could they? His science was in notes and drawings, his art in castles and churches. Even in the eyes of elites with access, it appears Leonardo was overshadowed by Michelangelo and Rafael.
Leonardo's ascent from elusive to icon is best explained through the particular story of one of his most seminal paintings: The Last Supper.
Painted on the walls of Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie church, The Last Supper's only reached locals. By Leonardo's death in 1519, it had reportedly deteriorated into ruin and seemed destined for anonymity.
Less than a century later, The Last Supper was most ubiquitous memes in Europe. What happened? For its sheer size and relative absence of optical effects, The Last Supper happened to be a perfect match for copper engraving: printing press-style technology to replicate images. Copies of various versions and sizes pop up all over Europe. The Last Supper becomes the first mass-distributed visual meme in history — a viral .JPEG avant-la-lettre. Leonardo's reputation scaled along, easing resonance for his other work.
This story is not to question Leonardo's creative genius but to assert how technology — the copy-function — steers culture.
For attention assets to claim great cultural capital, resonance is required. But it's replication that scales.
- Resonance determines potential cultural energy: what can be. It's the ratio of replicators to total minds. Out of a 100, how many spread the word?
- Replication realises potential as kinetic cultural energy: what is. It's the speed at which the asset can multiply to reach its total addressable market of minds.
Faster memes can beat more resonating memes. Fast memes are quick-to-read and quick-to-copy — like the most viral internet memes.
Artists have no choice but to work with the technology available to them. But they can optimise idea expression for maximum scale. That is, to simplify: to express the idea in a way that is easy, intuitive and quick to get. Great artists tell monumental stories in a matter of seconds. Instant recognition.
"An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way." — Charles Bukowski
Simple-to-read but also simple-to-copy. The Last Supper is iconic because it's both.
By hand, replication of The Last Supper was expensive and slow — no way around it. When engraving emerged, replication skyrocketed because of the way Leonardo coincidentally painted it: simple.
Other artists may have caught tailwinds from technology and held in higher regard by culture today. Impossible to know for sure, but consider the scale at which the abundance of The Last Supper copies turned heads to Leonardo's work over others. Not only then but after: his bolstered reputation favoured the public’s attention to more of Leonardo’s future work.
Human attention is a finite resource and we tend to like what we already know. Coincidence biased Europe to fanboy Leonardo.
Copy-function better predicts cultural impact than concept. Badly communicated ideas are bad ideas.