Memetics is gaining increasing currency in the mainstream. Why should you care about it?
The Personal Perspective
From a personal perspective, memetic ignorance will take control of your thoughts out of your hands. This seems extreme, but it’s very logical.
Memes are units of information that are replicating. We replicate memes every time we think (internally), or communicate (externally). But because we have limited mental resources, only those memes that are most likely to be repeated end up being repeated.
The result is that we are always at high risk of having our mental resources hijacked by very fertile memes, without even being aware. Some examples: Donald Trump, Justin Bieber, “the economy”, a catchy ad jingle, a catchy song hook, or Harambe.
Powerful memes can make you feel very strong emotions, take up mental cycle after mental cycle of your processing power, and even keep you up at night. They’re the cause of celebrity gossip, half of the news industry, and the goal of every entertainer.
If you want to direct your own thought, you should be aware of memetics. Because otherwise, you’ll be ignorant as to how memes can end up hijacking your thoughts and pushing your life in certain directions, all while tricking you into thinking you’re in control.
The Societal Perspective, And Beyond
Even if you’re aware of these forces within yourself, most people aren’t. Society is becoming increasingly helpless at defending itself from memetic contagion. We cannot help but look at a car crash; and we can’t help but read about things like outrage. So, increasingly, content creators repeat these things in the war for attention. And they become more and more entrenched.
Smart actors are ever-more engaged in memetic warfare. This is more than just lobbing an insult or two at a political opponent – it’s trying to rewrite the entire narrative binding society together. You’ll have seen hints of this with some of the accusations leveled at Russia recently, but they’re everywhere. This trend will become increasingly prominent as technology advances.
And as technology advances, memes themselves become closer to living things. They already replicate, but AI and machine learning are helping them reproduce themselves, without any human interference. When this happens, what will the world look like? What if computers are communicating between each other in languages we don’t understand, and have access to tech like 3D printers to manifest this all in the physical world?
An understanding of memetics will help you identify these threats where they’re occurring, and be robust to them where possible.
How To Get Involved
Memetics is in its infancy. It hasn’t moved too much since Dawkins coined the term, but the internet changed everything. We’ve never been in such a memetically fertile environment. Memetics is changing the way people think, guiding how the world functions, and setting our path to the future, daily. But without an understanding, it’s hard to even see this happening.
Your first step should be to step back and seriously, critically, examine what information you’re exposed to, and how it moves around. Looking at how information moves includes everything from within your own brain, to in your community, to society as a whole. This can help you identify which environments are particularly fertile for memes, which memes work in which scenarios, and so on.
Second, take a dispassionate view of individual units of information. Meditation teaches us to simply see thoughts occur, acknowledge them, and let them go. You should take a similar approach to information. Resist the urge to repeat it, or to let it affect you. Observe it, note what you need to, and let it go. You’ll be much less affected by the news, entertainment media, gossip, etc. by doing this, and happier too.
Third, get involved memetically. Become a creator. Our society has encouraged nothing but consumption, which makes us all meme-absorption machines. But this creates a large, soft, underbelly for skilled memetic manipulators. If all you do is consume, and let the most potent memes guide what you consume, then an extremely viral meme can come in and wipe the whole thing out. Or drive mob violence. Or create societal breakdown.
Memetic understanding and more emphasis on creation in our society would lessen memetic effects. This would be equivalent to a huge boost in critical thinking – or a 10-ish IQ point jump for society as a whole.
And it will be sorely needed with the threats to come.