RE: transmission (and reception)

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Thu 05 Jun 2003 - 10:24:38 GMT

  • Next message: Wade T. Smith: "Re: venue"

    Hi Everyone,

    I've been playing a bit of catch up on the list, and I haven't had time to look at all the posts on this (or any other theme- too many seem to end up in a bit of name-calling which is disappointing)... ANYWAY, this discussion about transmissions, and several others on similar themes struck my eye for a number of reasons.

    First, as people on the list will probably know I broadly agree with Wade here (my agreement stemming back to Derek Gatherer's journal paper a while back), although I favour a meme as artefact model, rather than a performance model.

    BUT what has struck me about much of these related discussions is the over-emphasis on the transmitter of information rather than the recipient. I have recently started reading Pinker's 'The Blank Slate' (I assume most people will have heard of/read this, but for those who haven't it's essentially a magisterial refutation of the idea of the human as a tabula rasa or blank slate who is entirely shaped by society). In one chapter on the role of culture he reminds us that one of the distinctions of humans from other species is our theory of mind- or essentially our capacity to theorise about the motives, intent, feelings etc of other people. It is this that allows us to infer meaning from actions, and separate intentional and relevant actions to a particular task from incidental ones. He gives the example of the difficulty of getting a robot to learn by imitation the act of unscrewing a bottle cap by watching a human do it, who may, for example, wipe their brow in the middle of the action, or scratch their head etc.- how do you teach the robot to concentrate only on those things that relate to the task? Yet very young children can do this with ease, and even can complete a task that an adult attempts, and fails at, because they can infer intent.

    In other words the onus should not be solely on the transmitter, but at least include discussion about the receiver of the meme.

    I think, IMHO, that the memesinminds lobby are conflating our innate abilities for a theory of mind (as well as other things like the capacity for learning language) as the determinant of memetics. Instead of recognising that as a level of understanding they see it as the totality of understanding (which is why Brodie could ask the specious question about gravity, for him it's the only truth about memetics, as truthful and self-evident as gravity). IMHO there are other levels of understanding, and a crucial one, that Wade is right in pointing out, is the question of the medium through which memes travel from person to person. We can say that individuals have ideas and thoughts, and we are able to say that people have theories of other peoples' minds which enable us to glean meaning and intent from others, but to categorically state that one idea transmits exactly from one person to another is surely flawed. The answer that it isn't all ideas, but only memes is an obfuscation because in either case how do they
    (whatever "they' may be) get from one person to another?

    Joe adds in the point that proximate meanings are transmittable in different forms, and he's certainly right, as if that weren't true then language would have no point as it wouldn't convey any consensual meaning between people. HOWEVER, there's a massive difference between saying that in principle the spoken and written versions of a sentence can convey essentially the same meaning, and what happens in practice. A welter of research in communications studies (including media studies) has shown that even apparently simple messages -public health advertising for example- can and are received by individuals in wildly different ways. The intent of the transmitter can, and often is, lost in the very mediation of the message.

    This then leads to several points that need to be taken into account when considering memes, and their transmission and reception:

    - All forms of mediation are open to differential reception because no form of mediation conveys absolute, fixed meanings
    - Reception of mediated messages is highly context sensitive (both in terms of the individual doing the receiving and the social, physical and temporal context in which they are receiving the message)

    The combination of these two points mean that a third point has to be considered:

    - There can be no perfect replication of a meme from one mind to another, assuming that the only way it could travel between two minds is in some mediated form.

    How then might one still accomodate the notion of memes within such assumptions? Well, first we must recognise the importance of Searle's idea of the construction of social reality (as opposed to the social construction of reality), in other words those adaptive drives from social conformity and status that lead most people to comply with the rules and conventions of the society they're born into. The extent of this is so widespread that it accomodates a typically high level of consensus of meaning in message transmission. Second, even allowing for this, one still cannot make predictions about what might become memes or not, nor can one directly identify a meme in a mind (because it might look/be very different in the next mind), all one can do is follow the course of what we can retrospectively refer to as a meme through its repeated articulaton and representation in mediated form, which brings us back to the centrality of artefacts (I won't discount performance here, although increasingly acts of performance and ritual are experienced in mediated forms, at least in the developed world, so we're witnessing the TV mediation of the performance of the Israel/Palestine summit, not the actual performance).

    And that's probably enough... for now...


    > ----------
    > From: Wade T. Smith
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Wednesday, May 14, 2003 4:30 PM
    > To:
    > Subject: transmission
    > n 1: the act of sending a message; causing a message to be transmitted
    > [syn: transmittal, transmitting]
    > That humans transmit is self-evident. That information is present in
    > the messages being transmitted is also not in dispute.
    > But what _is_ in dispute, and it's not a skeptical position, it's a
    > straight up logical and procedural one, is whether or not the
    > information being transmitted gets transmitted in toto from one human
    > to another, and it is my contention that, since there is no direct
    > means of this transfer (i.e. telepathy is not an agent in this
    > universe), the information in one mind is, at best, a reasonably
    > accurate representation of the information in another's, and the
    > maintenance of the accuracy of this representation is the duty of
    > culture, as well as a function of a mind in a society of minds.
    > Thus, I claim, and I see no refute, that saying 'information is being
    > passed from one mind to another' is a grossly simplistic way to
    > describe the actual events, agents, objectives, participants, media,
    > and processes that go into _any_ cultural (indeed, any interpersonal)
    > interaction.
    > And it is a simplicity that dumbs down any further effort to explore
    > memetics, if not halt it altogether.
    > - Wade
    > ===============================================================
    > This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    > Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    > For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
    > see:

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu 05 Jun 2003 - 10:54:32 GMT