I know one when I see one

From: Grant Callaghan (grantc4@hotmail.com)
Date: Wed 23 Oct 2002 - 18:58:55 GMT

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    The idea that we know a meme when we see one has been put forward with a catchy phrase serving as a model. Let me examine that idea with an example of my own. Would you say the term "couch potato" is an example of a meme that propagated itself?

    According to my theory, memes are propagated by their usefulness to the people who receive them. I would classify "couch potato" as an artifact that entertained the people who heard it and was propagated because they thought it would be entertaining to the person they transmitted it to. If it was, the transmitter received positive feedback from the recipient in the form of a smile or a laugh or the act of using it him/her self. Memes have value in our society and the more of them you accumulate and pass around the higher your status within that society.

    But "couch potato," in my opinion, is not a meme but an artifact. It encodes an idea, along with a bunch of associated ideas, for transmission. People who hear that transmission will either pass it along, let it die, or store it away for future use some day.

    Many people who hear it won't understand it. People who don't speak much English, for example or people who belong to another culture or don't watch much television. Much of the transmitted information will fall on the equivalent of rocks rather than on minds that can be fertilized.

    Words are not memes themselves because they can mean anything depending on the circumstances in which they are received. They carry information but are not the information being carried. The meanings they carry are arbitrary and any word can stand for anything. For example:

    I am a man. I am A man. I am a MAN I AM a man.

    The mere shift in emphasis changes the sentence above so it transmits four different meanings. The first emphasizes the word "I" and that points to who is a man. The second emphasizes the word "A" and points to the fact that the speaker is one of many men. The third emphasizes the word "man" and points to the idea of manliness as part of the speaker's essence. The fourth, emphasizes the word "am" and is used to confirm that the speaker is indeed a man.

    So the same sentence, containing the same words, can be used by different speakers to send out four different messages. The words, therefore, are not the meme. They are artifacts which carry the meme.

    "He's a couch potato," plants in the mind of a listener the picture of a man rooted to the couch like a potato sinking roots into the ground. But the words are not the meme. The words can have an almost infinite number of meanings, depending on how they are used and in what circumstances. Suppose, for example, someone is talking to a child about a Mr. Potato Head doll, that can be changed into many different shapes, and says the sentence in answer to the question, "What kind of potato is that?" It would have an entirely different content than the same sentence being used to refer the question, "How is your brother=in-law?" The reason the sentence and the phrase can have the same exact word content but an infinite number of meanings is because it can be used in an infinite number of situations. The meaning of any word, phrase, or sentence is context sensitive.

    Words and sentences are artifacts that are shaped by mouth or hand to convey information. They are not the information being conveyed. Just as the stone axe of a cave man was shaped from a pattern in his mind, so the words we say are shaped from a pool of morphemes and sounds and structural rules to convey another type of pattern. The sounds and rules are learned in earliest childhood and are used to transmit thoughts and ideas for the rest of one's life. But they are artifacts of civilized communication, just as the stone axe is an artifact of the cave man.

    It is only when information is conveyed by actions that the medium is the message. If one man punches another in the nose, the action conveys a mesage. But what was the message? Without words to modify the action, the man being punched might have no idea why he was hit. The man who bangs the wall with his fist in a fit of anger is also sending a message, but to whom and why? Can we say the fist banging into the wall is the message? Or is it just a way of transmitting what was going on in the mind of the man who did the banging? Things we craft with our hands or mouths are artifacts. What they communicate is something going on in the mind of the craftsman.

    So the sentence, "I know a meme when I see one." is a lie. You can't see one. You can only perceive the artifact that carries it. You only recognize the artifact as a meme carrying sentence after a number of people have started using it in their own communications. But the message or information it carries can be completely different for each person each time it is used. So where is the meme?



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