Two early meme papers of historical interest (1b)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:23:18 GMT

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    Memes, L5 and the Religion of the Space Colonies

    L5 News September 1985


    Finally returning to the first part of this article, does L5 membership, an indication that an individual is infected by the space colony meme, have an effect on religious membership?

    Sandy Adamson ran a small, but statistically significant, survey of thirty L5 members in the Tucson area. The survey indicates that about 30% consider themselves members of a religion. National surveys indicate some 60% of the population consider themselves members of a religion. From this rough evidence, we can say that the space colony meme moderately competes for the religious meme receptor site. Nor is L5 unique in this characteristic.

    I find it interesting that numerous L5 chapters spontaneously chose one of the most common activities of religious organizations for meetings. Whether it is called communion, potlucks, or banquets, eating together is a powerful way to reinforce commonly held memes.

    Can we get more out of the analogy? Perhaps.

    A system of a molecule and its receptor site must be in a lower energy state when the molecule is attached to the site or the molecule wouldn't stick when it bumps into the site. Logically we should postulate an analogous condition of a "lowered psyche energy state" when a meme is occupying a meme receptor site or the meme wouldn't stick either.

    Dawkins proposed that religious memes, in particular the God meme, reduce anxiety about fears such as eventual and unavoidable death to which a person has no otherwise effective response. Of course, anxiety from a situation in which an organism knows how to make an effective response-and is able to do so-is usually followed by taking effective action.

    Dawkins also discusses anxiety-provoking memes such as the hellfire meme which has become linked to the God meme by natural selection among memes. The linking comes about simply because the combination is more successful in gaining and keeping active meme spreaders for both memes. In a similar relation, we find the Limits to Growth (LTG) meme linked to the space colony meme. The relation was explicit in Dr. O'Neill's writings and early issues of the L5 News. LTG and the closely related population bomb meme were very influential in the 70s. The waning of these memes may be having an adverse effect on the space colony meme.

    Personally, I found that the distasteful worldview implied by the Limits to Growth meme raised my anxiety level much as Dante's Inferno or a good hellfire sermon must have affected people in the Middle Ages. It was much worse for the people in whom the LTG meme first arose. Rumor has it that one of them boarded himself up in a cabin in the remote woods and waited for the food riots to start. (For all I know, he may be there yet.)

    Most people who ran into the LTG meme were not so profoundly affected. Disaster memes capture the imagination and spread well, though we don't know why. But only a small fraction of the population actively responds to threats as remote and indirect as those of the LTG meme. At that time, joining the Zero Population Growth organization was one of the few possible responses.

    A small subset of those who were concerned, however, took the step of searching for a meme or of creating a meme that would counter the LTG meme. Eric Drexler, for example, hunted down Dr. O'Neill in 1973 by asking questions of his professors at MIT about who was working on the exploitation of space resources. A copy of the first widespread space colony publication (the 1974 Physics Today article) was in my hands within hours after reaching friends in Tucson who knew of my interest in this topic.

    These stories are typical of the early, active core of the L5 Society. In terms of the analogy, they had a mental receptor site preconfigured to accept the space colony meme. From Sandy's small survey, some 20% of L5 members knew about LTG before joining L5. I would venture to say the early percentage was much larger.

    The space colony meme may have reduced anxiety about the long-term future by providing an alternative, but it raised anxiety too. It was apparent from the start that we would have to work hard to bring about a world that included space colonies. Our beginning point was to infect all the people we could with the space colony meme. Inducing people to spend effort in spreading a meme, as well as successfully spreading itself in competition with innumerable other memes, is the definition of a successful meme. In this sense, the space colony meme has been moderately successful.

    It has, sadly, been much less successful in accomplishing goals implicit in the meme, or even--if we are honest--in making noticeable progress in that direction. In 1975, the founders were expecting a program (such as SPS) to start by the early 80s. Space colonies would follow naturally from large scale economic activities, and we hoped to disband in space by the Society's 20th anniversary. Here, in the tenth anniversary year, some issues of this magazine go by without a mention of space colonies or projects that might lead to them, and we are about to merge with NSI. It is hard to say how long it will take for people to start to live in space, nor is it obvious which technical/ economic/ political approach might work though the opinions of the author about the military shielding route are well known.

    Memes as replicating structures can die out or become completely inactive. Most memes lose their intense hold on people with the passage of time, especially when the promise of the meme is at great variance with reality. So it is with the space colony meme. The gradual displacement of human habitation with a general pro-space theme in the Society and the pending merger with NSI and loss of a clear goal are by products of this divergence.

    Yet perhaps insight into the space colony meme and its quasi-religious nature may help to bring about space colonies in less than the hundred years NASA would take. For one thing, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are not our memes, and we have at least some control over which ones influence us. The attraction or revulsion one feels for a meme has little relation to the meme being rooted in external reality. Attraction, revulsion, or indifference depends on how a meme fits or fails to fit-into pre-existing mental structures made of other memes. Unrelated anti-military memes dating from the Vietnam war, for example, have strongly limited options on which to base space colony hopes within the existing Society.

    Memes that are in line with reality can help survival, and those too far out can be fatal. The trouble is that our view of reality shifts as our technology advances. Sometimes our view of reality can keep up with the change-more often it falls far behind. Advancing technology should be expected to cause profound changes in space colony concepts. The space colony meme was based on a background of "old" technology. As Dr. O'Neill noted and Don Davis painted, 1920's material science would allow for habitats with a diameter of several miles.

    In the November/ December 1984 L5 News, Eric Drexler pointed out that "the timing of large-scale space development may be determined less by advances in modern space hardware than by advances in the seemingly unrelated areas of artificial intelligence and biochemistry." This meme may take some time to settle down among your other memes. I have been aware of it for well over a year, and it still doesn't fit in comfortably.

    Recent development of the scanning tunneling microscope by IBM opens another path to the coming nanotechnology revolution. Nanotechnology, the ability to build things one atom at a time, is likely to change reality, as well as our view of reality, more than the sum of all the changes since the start of recorded history.

    Consider, for example, the effects of an obvious application of nanotechnology, cell repair machines, on space colony design. Without them, low levels of cosmic radiation make two meters of shielding necessary. Shielding requires large amounts of extraterrestrial material. With cell repair machines, you don't need shielding and could likely get along without air.

    We have some time to get used to nanotechnology, but not too long. Current estimates by the most knowledgeable people put it ten to thirty years in the future. That may be enough time for us to get started in space without microscopic helpers.

    Knowing that the space colony concept is a meme with religious characteristics need not cool our ardor for getting off the planet. Indeed, if we figure out how to use this knowledge, it may help us achieve this goal. Good memes, as opposed to those that are just successful, are the ones that help the survival of that strange negative entropy phenomenon known as life. Given the long-term difficulty of life continuing on this planet, few memes could rate higher on this scale.


    Keith Henson was the first L5 President. He is currently involved with a method to promote survival enhancing memes while weeding out dangerous ones. He thanks Sandy for the survey.

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