When I say meme, you think GIFs, annotated JPEGs and TikToks. Dawkins’ original examples were “tunes, catch-phrases, fashions, pot styles and building arches.”
The immaterial language game needs a material carrier to travel to other brains — via sound and sight. Such idea transporters are known as media.
In a first-principle sense, a medium is a container that stores and broadcasts memes.
- A book broadcasts a story.
- A podcast broadcasts a conversation.
- A newspaper broadcasts news.
- Twitter broadcasts tweets.
But there's more to media than meets the eye. Essentially, all technologies and objects humans create are media: they store and project the memes that spawned them. The Chilean physicist César Hidalgo poetically speaks of crystals of imagination.
- Fashion broadcasts what’s trending.
- A pot broadcasts a style and technique of pot-making.
- A building arch broadcasts architecture.
- A car broadcasts the concept of car and, by implication, its parts: wheel, brake, combustion engine, gearbox etc.
"The world is but a canvas to our imagination." — Henry David Thoreau
The idea (software) programs the medium (hardware) to take on a certain shape. When the configuration's prime function is material utility (hammer, car), it’s a tool. When prime function is idea sharing (book, Twitter), it’s a meme.
- The Mona Lisa is 100% meme.
- Everyday handbags are ~80% utility to 20% meme. Louis Vuitton handbags more like 20% utility to 80% meme. Same idea for Skoda cars vs. Ferrari.
- Smartwatch (and smartphones) utility has re-dimensioned mechanic watches to mostly meme. Rolexes tell time but that's not why you wear them.
Memes become subject to mimesis as they emerge from the world of ideas into the world of stuff through media. They’re broadcasted by our bodies, language, objects and technologies. Gestures, symbols, words, writing, speech, manuscripts, poems, plays, prayers, paintings, papers, pictures, podcasts, churches, clocks, clothes, cars, computers, tunes, tweets, tiktoks and a whole lot more. All signal the ideas that make them. In the web of minds, memes are atoms and mimesis is the energy that moves them.
How to scale the mind
Ideas can travel from one mind to others aboard various transporters, ranging from the body away to written language, radio/tv and the internet. These technologies scale idea replication range so they spread faster and further.
The body is the mind's original medium.
It streams mental models through gestures, speech, writing, drawing, painting, sculpting, singing. Even facial expressions, tone of voice, the way we walk. We’re never not expressing the memes that make us.
Two minds can share memes when they speak the same language: certain expressions mean the same to both. Be it in gestures, sounds, images or symbols: the mind's magical world becomes audible/visible to ears/eyes in the objective world.
Language itself can be thought of as a meme. It's a mind product that gains meaning in relation to other minds.
Here's a (simplified) memetic explanation of written language:
- Alphabets are sets of symbols that store sounds so they become shareable across space and time.
- Each symbol (letter) expresses a phoneme — unit of sound. Which letter maps to which phoneme is intersubjectively determined. Symbol K reads sound K because multiple minds agree that it does.
- If you know an alphabet, you can read every word configured with the alphabet's letters. The alphabet is the arch-meme. Words are alphabet derivatives.
- One alphabet can be used by different languages. For example, the Latin alphabet is used by Spanish, English, German, Dutch etc. They're distinct meme sets downstream from the alphabet. And so you can read Spanish words because you know the alphabet meme without knowing the concepts Spanish language speakers assign to them, i.e. don't know Spanish language memes.
Human bodies have limited range. Memes have a hard time replicating to many minds via bodily expression because it doesn't share across beyond present space and time.
Speech, for example, only reaches others in the same place and time. To replicate, sound memes need to be re-constructed from memory. But minds are flawed storage devices so each copy comes out a derivative of the original. Anyone who ever played the Chinese Whispers or Telephone game intuitively understands this.
Technology is how we scale what the body can do. As per iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, “technology is an extension of the body.”
- Wheels extend feet.
- Clothes extend skin.
- Glasses extend eyes.
- Hammers extend muscles.
- Computers extend minds.
Idea technology extends minds through media with superior replication range. In crescendo:
- Pre-speech — Memes are stuck in minds and don't spread. Technically, they're not memes at this point, but mere mental models.
- Speech — Spoken language spreads mental models from individual minds into the shared web of minds. Replication is limited to place and time. Or flawed from memory.
- Writing — Alphabets unlock idea recording on durable material so memes can replicate across seas and centuries.
- Print — Printing press technology mechanises idea replication, making it faster/cheaper. More copies infect more minds provokes yet more memetic replication.
- Electronic — Radio/tv live-stream ideas in sound and images. Electronic devices scale speech culture. A speaker’s memetic scope multiplies from town square to the total audience of all reachable devices.
- Internet — As computers extend minds, the web of computers extends the web of minds. The internet is one huge meme library, readable by every connected device. Shackles of time/space come off: digital memes retweet instantly, identically and multi-directionally.
From memeverse to metaverse
A lot has changed since we first started sharing ideas in speech. Memes have moved further and further away from the body and its environment, sucking more of our attention away from the material world into a new layer of reality.
Where attention goes, energy flows. For most of history, >99% of attention was tuned to physical environment. Then TV, computers and phones entered the scene. Today, many spend >50% of their attention budgets on screens. Our lives are increasingly lived online:
- Work — From working in buildings to laptops and phones. From meeting rooms to Slack and Zoom.
- Community — We care more about online followers than offline neighbours. Spend more time on Instagram, Twitter, Discord and Reddit than in bars.
- Play — More people today play online games than offline sports.
- Identity — More people care about how we look online than in real life. Profiles, tweets and stories is how we advertise who we are.
Technology doesn't have a reverse gear, it ruthlessly pursues more for less. More immersive media will integrate virtual with real to a point where they'll feel like one. Sounds preposterous? Imagine explaining tv to medieval farmers or FaceTime to WWI trench soldiers. What is real today was preposterous just twenty-five years ago.
Reality adds a layer
The inter-objective world lags behind our inter-subjective fantasy because material programming is held back by laws of nature and economics.
- Ideas for new technologies (like vaccines, nanobots and Mars Rovers) can only become objectively real when their material configuration obeys the laws of physics. If not, they remain fantasy or useless object.
- Material media (like books, vinyls, paintings, hammers, fighter jets) cost economic resources to replicate on a per-unit basis. Building 10 fighter jets takes ~10x the resources of 1.
Not so in the cloud. Here, the only constraint is computing power. Whatever you can imagine can be digitally programmed as code that instructs computer devices what sounds and images to render. Once digitised, books, videos, hammers and fighter jets all become the same: computer files that can be replicated — retweeted — ad infinitum for near-zero cost per unit.
Digital mind web
As through a wormhole, computer technology makes ideas visible, audible and experienceable in a very scalable way. Digital media front-run material media because they can mimic fantasy way closer and faster. In-between the inter-objective and inter-subjective now sits a digital reality layer, recently branded as the "metaverse": the web of minds extended in digital media.
The digital shift has been unfolding for the past twenty years. Two barriers have been dissolving.
- The publishing barrier is about who can create digital memes and thus actively participate in digital culture. On the early web, you needed actual programmer skills to publish websites. Today, smart devices and programmed tools enable everyone to write tweets, post beautiful pictures and lip-synced short videos with minimum effort. Gamers can create characters, tools and maps with mere mouse clicks. Effortless digital self-expression.
- The virtuality barrier is about how real digital experiences feel. To many, the metaverse idea sounds alien because their experience of the web is a newsfeed they only intermittently interact with as they pull phones out of pockets. It makes more sense to gamers who are more cognitively involved for longer timespans. Slowly but surely feeds, chats and meetings will engage more senses for longer. They'll become like video games we'll want to keep playing.
The metaverse happens when digital life matters more to you than material life. Many already spend most wakeful time on screens. That trend will only intensify. It's normal if you aren't ready to admit to yourself you're already in the metaverse because your character formed in real life. Imagine, however, how kids grow up today and you'll intuit there is no way back.
The medium is the meme
Marshall McLuhan is most famous for “the medium is the message.”
When we hear a tune or see a GIF, we don't think of the idea separate from its medium. It’s one, undividable meme.
Book, car, pot, tune, tweet, TikTok, or simply the words you use: a medium’s form and function define the meme to the point where they become one and the same. This plays out across multiple levels:
- Spoken words are subject to voice, volume, tone, pace, and personality of the speaker.
- During the 1960 US election, Richard Nixon had higher approval ratings on radio. JFK's looks got him more cheers on TV.
- Donald Trump's sensational style maps perfectly onto social media algorithms, programmed to maximise engagement over truth.
- Books leave room for interpretation (your mind makes its own movie), feature more contextual detail and allow to step into inner worlds of characters. Movies require less creative energy to process. They define what happens through video and audio, leaving you to guess underlying motives.
You can't interact with ideas without interacting with the media that carry them. Therefore, McLuhan argues, media define culture more than the ideas they project. The same idea affects society differently when it's communicated in speech, manuscript, newspaper, tv, YouTube, podcast or TikTok.
McLuhan considered history through the lens of idea technologies listed earlier:
- Oral tribe culture
- Manuscript culture
- Gutenberg galaxy (printing press)
- Electronic age
Today, internet culture is fragmented across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, YouTube and TikTok. Behaviour on these media platforms is a result of underlying form, function and incentives rather than the ideas they project. As humanity's total attention span gets sucked into an evermore immersive web of digital memes, McLuhan's message has never been more necessary. Digital arenas for meaning-making are to be carefully designed so its cultures unite rather than divide.
Who should rule the memes?
Who designs and controls the web will define the future to come. That, of all parties, it is Facebook (now Meta) who feels chosen to lead the way should raise your eyebrows.
The more important question, however, is whether the future of human culture should be entrusted to profit-maximising companies with predatory algorithms at all. Probably not. How about we build it all together, as self-expressing humans engaging in genuine connection?
NFTs, as we'll see, trace a path to an open and decentralised metaverse, built from the collaborative creativity of all its creators. A world free of natural constraints and dictating central institutions can have vibes and tribes for every individual.