LogoMarsden, P. (1998). A Review of: Shifting the Patterns: Breaching the Memetic Codes of Corporate Peformance by If Price and Ray Shaw.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2.

Memetics on the Edge of Chaos

A Review of:

Shifting the Patterns: Breaching the Memetic Codes of Corporate Performance by If Price and Ray Shaw, (1998). Management Books 2000 Ltd, UK. ISBN 1-85252-253-4

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex

Shifting the Patterns (STP) is the first of a new generation of books that attempts to apply a memetic stance to describe, explain, and suggest solutions to real-world issues and problems. The memetic stance involves taking a `meme's-eyes view' of the social world, and analysing social phenomena as if human agents were vehicles for these replicating cultural traits (Marsden). The authors apply such a memetic stance to corporate culture and management theory, and in doing so develop a broadly memetic understanding of organisations.

Essentially, STP is an excursus into the idea that companies are both constructed and constrained by the patterns of beliefs and rules (memes) that produce behaviour, and ultimately determine commercial performance. To change the patterns of performance, it is necessary to change the patterns of beliefs and rules (both explicit and implicit) that determine that performance. To this end, the authors argue against the application of quick fix management fads, and for a deeper understanding of the patterns that code for performance.

According to Price and Shaw, company performance is largely the product of the unchallenged and blind application of past patterns of behaviour. The authors urge us to realise that we are not simply narrators or passive victims in this process; rather we are creative actors in the ongoing production of these patterns. We have the power to shift the patterns. The authors promote a velvet revolution in corporate culture where managers rebel against the proverbial "tyranny of the replicators" (Dawkins 1976/1982), see the strings by which they are moved, and take the first step to freedom (and, of course, improved performance).

STP is both engaging and stimulating, drawing together many themes of contemporary management theory and presenting them in one broadly memetic framework. In doing this, the authors demonstrate the flexibility, power and potential of the memetic stance. The book provides useful chapter by chapter summaries as well as comprehensive listings of sources for further reading. Whilst the specific recommendations in STP for corporate strategy and management theory are interesting in their own right, the focus of this review will restrict itself to an assessment to the authors' particular application of meme theory.

Importantly, STP is not a book about memetics, rather it uses the memetic stance as a vehicle for providing a critique of companies that can become mindless structures replicating themselves through time and space, and where employees can become largely passive cogs in the corporate machine. In Chapter 4: The Pattern's Eye View, the authors borrow from meme theory by "set[ting] out an unconventional perspective on companies, arguing that they are best interpreted as vehicles, or hosts, for a meme's - or pattern's - replication."

Rather than adopting the conventional view that individuals are the hosts for memes, this "unconventional perspective" holds that companies should be understood as the proper hosts for memes. Embracing 19th Century organicism (Spencer 1969), the authors suggest that organisations can be understood "as `living', self-organising, self-maintaining entities", and these entities are the proper hosts for memes. Specifically, the meme concept is introduced as a heuristic device for understanding the components (sets of beliefs and rules) of the patterns which define the organic company.

Memes (beliefs and rules), both explicit and implicit, are held to coalesce into paradigms that can be understood as "memomes", that produce the phenotypic expression of the company; its pattern and performance. This unorthodox understanding of the relationship between meme and organisation such that "as the organism is to the gene, so the organisation is to the pattern or meme" is not without problems, particularly when compounded with the organism/company (dis)analogy. (Organisms are not physically bonded, rather relations between their constituent parts are purely informational: Organisations themselves do not reproduce whereas organisms do: Unlike organisms, organisations have phylogenies: Organisations do not have needs themselves, unlike organisms.)

Just as the company/organism analogy is problematic, the authors seem to exacerbate problems in the already partial gene/meme analogy by conflating `pattern' and `meme': It is not clear whether they understand memes as the nodes of patterns or relations between them, or indeed, both. However, the problem becomes yet more confused when the authors employ a more conventional understanding of memes, as socially inherited cultural instructions. Finally, the authors' blanket statement that memes are also the stuff of "mental models, paradigms, languages, traditions, habits and rules; inter-related units of a cultural or economic code; widely shared patterns of perception, communication, understanding, appreciation and tradition" stretches the meme concept to such an extent that it loses not only explanatory power and heuristic provocativeness, but also meaning. Importantly, the authors seem to confuse the issue of whether individual brains or companies are hosts to memes. In arguing that companies are both sets of rules, and hosts of those rules, the authors appear to be arguing that a set of memes somehow constitutes a host. This is deeply confusing and results in the loss of any potential clarity and coherence that the memetic stance might have.

The ambiguity over what the authors mean when they are referring to memes is further exacerbated by a tendency to switch freely between loose gene and virus analogies. Memes are held to code for organisations, whilst at other times they are presented as viral "antibodies to change" that hijack the organisation for their own reproduction. This confuses both the unit and the level of evolution. It is not at all clear whether rules evolve, organisations evolve, or more amorphously, patterns (of rules, behaviours and organisations) evolve. The definition of the meme as proposed by the authors does little to clear this ambiguity.

"An organism is coded via chemical strands of DNA, sections of which form genes, the smallest units capable of being copied. An organisation is coded via `ideas and images of the mind', abstract strands of thinking, perception and language, the smallest units of which can be thought of as memes which may be interpreted as: the smallest element capable of being exchanged, with an associated sense of meaning and interpretation, to another brain."

`Abstract strands of thinking' aside, the cogency of STP only holds together if memes are conceptualised as rules or instructions that code for an organisation. This would render the framework presented by the authors broadly compatible with Cloak's cultural ethology of i-culture and m-culture (Cloak 1975). Indeed, the authors might have usefully exploited the clarity of Cloak's framework in the development of their own position.

The authors' central tenet is that that these rules/patterns/organisations/memes/abstract-strands-of-thinking evolve selfishly to their own, rather than their human hosts', agenda, a `fact' that is posited more by partial analogy to genes/viruses as opposed to supported by evidence. However, it is not at all clear why or how these cultural critters should evolve selfishly, since the environmental conditions (resource insufficiency) necessary for evolution to occur are not made explicit. In fact, whilst this is a central theme of the book, virtually no consideration is given to how patterns evolve within the framework developed. A simpler and more credible explanation would be to account for alienation in terms of conflicts of interests; anonymising exploitation using convenient selfish memes is a cheap trick. If the authors wished to develop a truly memetic approach to organisations, they might have usefully drawn on Allison's (1992, 1993) work on the spread of non utility-maximising rules through populations.

Whilst it is unfair to criticise STP for ideas that are not developed, it is nonetheless surprising that the authors chose not to develop, or even refer to, the leading proponents of their own understanding of organisations, that is, the neo-Darwinian theory of institutions developed by Burns and Dietz (1992, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, Dietz and Burns 1992, Dietz, Burns and Buttel 1990). Similarly, the absence of any reference to the established field of ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967, Zimmerman 1971) whose central concern is the understanding social behaviour in terms of the maintenance and evolution of the rules (written and unwritten) that code for that behaviour, is somewhat surprising. Had the authors chosen to develop insights from these perspectives, STP might have gained in coherence and clarity.

As it stands, the coherence of STP is apparent only when it is understood that the authors are simply borrowing elements from evolutionary thought and meme theory, and employing these elements to make a number of specific points not necessarily related to either evolution or memetics. Evolutionary and memetic concepts are simply used as metaphors full of pregnant analogies for the corporate world. It would be unfair to criticise the authors for being selective, uncritical and unrepresentative in this use of these bodies of thought, because they did not set out to be comprehensive, critical and representative in the first place. However, readers unfamiliar with the central ideas of evolutionary thought and meme theory are likely to come away from STP with a somewhat misleading understanding of the two bodies of thought. For example, the authors authoritatively state that evolution is characterised by long periods of stasis punctuated by crisis and rapid change, and that "evolution is either revolution or it is nothing". Perhaps, but reports of the death of gradualism have been greatly exaggerated, and Gould is not the only evolutionist around.

The most controversial aspect of STP for memeticists is probably the authors' insistence that we, ourselves, can step miraculously outside the memetic evolutionary process and, by virtue of our non-memetic independent freewill, rebel against the tyranny of the cultural critters. In other words, the dualist homunculus is left untouched by the authors' conceptualisation of memetics. Memes are considered alien parasites that infect companies (but oddly, also code for them at the same time) but which are nevertheless dependent on our willingness to replicate them. Thus, according to the authors, we can direct the evolution of companies through the selective transmission and the creation of new memes derived from our new understanding of the patterns that code for performance.

"The key difference is that this does not have to be left to accident or random variation. We can, by human intention and creative act, wilfully change the basis upon which any pattern of company is built."

"People can choose to break the grip of a prevailing pattern. Punctuating organisational equilibria intentionally, shifting patterns rather than waiting for history to shift them for you, is the key to the self-generative system."

This homuncular-speak sits uneasily with meme theory, which has largely been concerned with deconstructing pervasive homuncularism in understanding human behaviour (Blackmore forthcoming, Dawkins 1976/1982, Dennett 1990, 1991, 1995, Rose 1998, Marsden). If the authors wish to argue for empowerment and change, and against the blind following of socially inherited rules that perpetuate past patterns of individual and corporate behaviour, then they do not need memetics; indeed the use of the memetic stance is positively confusing in this respect. Neither do they need memetics to argue that companies, or indeed the rules that code for companies, evolve in ways that are alienated from the concerns of those that perpetuate them. Standard conflict theory and the introduction of the notions of power, coercion and exploitation to the analysis would make for adequate explanation of this phenomenon within the safe homuncular framework that the authors seem to wish to retain. By shying away from the deconstructive implications of the memetic stance, and by refraining from developing their theory in terms of the evolutionary loop of replication, variation and selection, STP gets a raw deal from memetics and evolutionary thought, inheriting many of the weaknesses and ambiguities, without capitalising on the strengths.

The final chapter of STP concludes with a heady cocktail of chaos theory and memetics couched in hyperbola under section headings such as "When butterflies flap their wings: The shifting patterns of our time", "Slaves to, or shifters of, patterns?", "Where butterflies flap their wings, people infect minds!" "Breaking out of the cocoon: Existential fears to existential breakthroughs", and "Bringing forth a world: letting the genie out of the bottle". The message here is one of empowerment, that whilst we are the products of our memetic inheritance, we also have the power to shift the patterns, to rebel against the tyranny of the memetic replicators, in a world where small changes can have major effects. This truly is memetics on the edge of chaos.


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© JoM-EMIT 1998

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