Survival of the catchiest

Language games, ideas or concepts take root in collective consciousness through:

  • Utility — The language game helps the mind achieve desired results.
  • Replicability — The language game easily jumps from one brain to another.
  • Establishment — The language game is carried by artefact/structure (bible, church) and ritual (prayer).
“We cannot evolve faster than we evolve our language because you cannot go to places that you cannot describe.” — Terence McKenna

Useful language games

Utility, at its core, is about survival. We use stories to condense nature’s overwhelming complexity. Stories are never literally true, but true enough to be practical and replicable. They're maps that guide us through the territory that is life.

The map is not the territory but approximates it well enough for us to reach goals. When the map errors and the territory hits us in the face, we're forced to learn and update the map, i.e. fill in the blind spots. Stories need to evolve with reality to remain useful navigators.

The idea of God, for example, came about by itself in many places at many times in history. Not because it’s clearly true, but because it plausibly calms existential uncertainty in a scalable manner. Religion authenticates the mind’s will to eternity, promises ultimate justice and fosters community.

From a utility perspective, the god story makes sense.

“We read stories to find out who we are. What other people — real or imaginary — do, think and feel guides our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

Self-multiplying language games

Utility leans into replicability: how easy a language game jumps from brain to brain.

Successful ideas resonate with the ego to parasitise the brain, turning it into a multiplication machine. Gods live on through words, art and music.

Humans are imitative creatures. We naturally mirror the ideas that inhabit our minds through language and art. Not necessarily because we like the idea — we also share out of hate and other emotions— but because we want others to know what we think of it. It’s how we express identity: the individual ego asserts itself in collective culture by engaging with ideas in the inter-subjective. The idea, meanwhile, gains sway over an increasing number of minds with every mimic or share.

Reflexive idea sharing is known as “mimesis”. From mimesis, Richard Dawkins coined “meme” as the word for a self-replicating language game.

Meme means "unit of cultural transmission”. They're stories/ideas/concepts packaged in media so they become perceivable by eyes and ears: shareable. One me introduces an idea into the web of mes through speech, writing, painting, photography.

In the web of mes, memes inflate in proportion to how many other mes mimic (replicate) them — or shrink from ignorance.

Think of memes like viruses or genes, but for culture: they exist to infect, to multiply across as many minds as possible. Genes multiply biology through bodies, memes multiply culture through minds.

Old ⇄ new

Eventually, the meme becomes established in behavior and environment.

Establishment defends traditional (old) memes, even when they lose utility. To overcome traditions, progressive (new) memes need to win over minds with utility and replicability.

The god meme, for example, has long been retired by secular societies as grand narrative, but, to this day, lives on in buildings, rituals and institutions.

As I write this, the bitcoin meme (money backed by code) is challenging the established fiat meme (money backed by government).

Old ideas are proven. New ideas might work better, but carry risk: we don't know all unintended consequences. They must go through the mill of objection and scrutiny before they are to be adopted.

This cultural clash between habit and creativity drives human progress. Its trajectory across time is what we call history.

“The conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used. But it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through objection, opposition and contempt. This is the trial heat innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.” — Will & Ariel Durant

All downstream from the meme

  1. Minds model the world through language.
  2. Expressed outwardly in language and media, these mental models come alive in the web between minds as memes.
  3. Memes multiply across the mind web through mimesis. Mimesis is the mind’s instinct to mirror the mental models it interacts with. Viruses jump from body to body via infection. Memes jump from mind to mind via mimesis.
  4. Memes socialise strangers, scaling human cooperation from families to tribes, societies, nations and religions. At first to escape nature, eventually reprogramming it through technology to reflect the memes in our minds. And so humans moved ever further away from nature into daydreams. From African savannahs into farms, churches, factories, corporations and spaceships.

The bigger point is that most of reality is made up by memes that mutated through history. The first memes were creations of the mind, but as new humans were born into existing cultures, the axis shifted. It's now the memes that make us. Memes invent technology, build structures, allocate capital, rule markets, elect leaders, decide wars, distribute wealth, program how we behave and define how we see ourselves.

"Most truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions." — Friedrich Nietzsche

From 50,000 years ago until today, mimesis has skyrocketed as media technology (writing → printing press → tv/radio → internet) makes meme replication faster and cheaper.

Part 3 expands on how memes extended minds further away from nature into complex intersubjective reality that is now becoming increasingly digital.

Memetic examples

Some examples making the point of how mimesis shapes reality.

  • In 2005, Pepe the Frog was a goofy feel-good character in Matt Furie's 2005 comic Boy's Club. Fifteen years later, he was an officially listed hate symbol, flown on white supremacist banners as they stormed the US Capitol. What happened? Furie gave up control over what Pepe means when he posted him on his MySpace in 2008. From there, the internet took over at a speed and scale no one can control. Pepe was recontextualised over and over, used by different communities in different contexts to express different emotions. The meme most infamously proliferated on 4chan and Reddit. These message boards are literal meme factories, programmed to conduce a memetic competition for attention. Posts that get lots of engagement float to the top, those that don't sink into oblivion. It's here where replicable memes algorithmically emerge and internet culture is born. The problem is that users are anonymous and so not accountable for what they post. When there are no consequences to actions, it pays to shock, outrage and offend — known as trolling, the national sport on these platforms. More and more, Pepe the Frog was featured in racist imagery and eventually appropriated by the alt-right, who'd trollingly worship him as a dark overlord in the metaphorical cult of Kek. Furie has since taken steps to regain control over the narrative. With some success: Pepe was used in the Hong Kong protests as a symbol against dictatorship. Pepe's story is masterfully told in the Feels Good, Man documentary (highly recommended). Above all, it demonstrates how no individual mind can own an idea. A meme obeys only culture itself and means what people say it means.
The memetic transformation of Pepe the Frog
  • In objective terms, a nation is a group of people living together in a territory. In subjective terms, it's a network of stories of why that is meant to be. The nation exists in collective memory, on which it's continuously re-imprinted by flags, anthems, rituals, education, sports, art, movies, books, people — as well as enforced by institutions. The mythical charges the material with meaning people mimic through behavior: they act as citizens.
  • Money has been universally useful to foster collaboration through trade and individual motivation. It's replicated with every exchange, backed by institutions and ubiquitous in art and behaviour. A world without money is unimaginable at this point. Yet, just under the surface, the money meme is still in constant flux. Not even fifty years ago, money was still backed by gold. Today, questions about the shelf life of government-backed money are plentiful. Fiat money is at risk of being toppled by digitally programmed money (bitcoin).
  • Communism emerged in Russia because it promised to work for more people than tsarism. In spite of being institutionally and violently enforced, it eventually broke down under the weight of its unfulfilled promises. In contrast, Chinese communism survived (and thrived) by mixing in other memes (like capitalism) and maintain utility as a result.
  • In June 1940, Nazi Germany overran Belgium and the Netherlands, drove British troops from European mainland and forced France on its knees in just six weeks. These early WWII victories are historically explained as the result of Blitzkrieg or Lightning War, a military strategy whereby enemy forces are crushed in a single surprise strike, carried out by a huge concentration of tanks, artillery, motorised infantry and aircraft. Blitzkrieg was supposedly revolutionary at the time. Except, the word (meme) was never used by German strategists but instead invented by Western journalists to excuse swift Allied defeats. It wasn’t revolutionary either: Bewegungskrieg (war of movement) was pioneered by the Prussians centuries before. The main predecessor state of later imperial Germany, Prussia was quite small, sparsely populated and relatively poor. Because it couldn’t win prolonged wars against more resourceful enemies, its military strategies prioritised speed and aggression in large numbers. Bewegungskrieg faded out of memory in WWI because defensive artillery, trenches and barbed wire ground it to a halt. When arms were motorised in the interwar period, Germans could restore traditional strategies. And yet, the Blitzkrieg meme dominates to this day. It is catchier than Bewegungskrieg (more replicable) and, to the victors who wrote history, a more useful explanation (excuse) for early failures.
  • Like other drugs, caffeine alters your state of mind in an addictive way. Unlike many other drugs, coffee and tea are not only legal, but essential to public life across the planet. In fact, coffee rules morning rituals, streets and social scenes precisely because it promotes the ruling cultural order built on capitalist productivity. Established because useful and constantly replicated. It hasn't always been this way. In various times and places, coffee was outlawed because of its association with free-thinking individuals whose ideas threatened ruling political regimes.
  • iPhones and AirPods beat out predecessors with obvious utility. Now, they are imprinted on your mind every time you go outside.
  • On January 25th, 2021 GameStop was a random video game retailer largely unknown outside the US. Selling video games from physical stores in an age of e-commerce and lockdowns, it was sinking into irrelevance. One day later, its $GME stock soared ~93% as a Reddit community collectively short-squeezed multi-billion dollar hedge funds betting on GameStop's demise. The story blew up, others joined the squeeze, and meme'd diamond hands: don't sell no matter what. $GME would rise from pocket change to a $500 peak in a matter of days — pushing hedge funds onto the verge of bankruptcy. Wall Street was given a taste of its own market manipulation medicine. Overnight, $GME went from four meaningless letters to an international symbol that united millions in protest against institutional finance. One Reddit post stirred a storm of mimetic energy that moved markets and public sentiment on a massive scale.

More examples will be contextually discussed throughout the rest of the series.

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