Two early meme papers of historical interest (2a)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:27:19 GMT

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    L5 NEWS. June 1986

    by H. Keith Henson

    [Notes. NSI is National Space Institute, founded by Von Braun. It and L5 eventually merged forming the bland National Space Society. SPS, Solar Power Satellite a proposed way to harvest vast amounts of sunlight and beam it to Earth on microwaves to solve the energy crisis for good.

    The below three sentences were picked out and boxed by the editor.]

    "There is a great deal of raw data on replicating information patterns in human cultures, though little of it has been analyzed in terms of memes "

    "People who are seriously concerned with the long range future of the race are extremely rare. "

    "A long standing problem with L5 is that the space colony meme has always been long on motivation and short on possible real actions directed to developing space colonies. "

    In his soon-to-be-published book Society of Mind, L5 director and world-renowned artificial intelligence investigator Dr. Marvin Minsky remarks that reasoning by analogy lies at the very heart of our abilities to solve complex problems by comparing them with problems we can already solve. Memetics is based on a particularly powerful analogy made by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene between replicating information patterns (which he called memes) and living things (genes and organisms). The analogy leads us to use what we know about biological systems to model, understand, and predict how ideas will interact with individuals or groups of people.

    The primary theme of Minsky's book is that minds are made of vast collections of relatively simple "agents" arranged in networks where agents activate other agents. Memes, I believe, are information patterns that build some types of agents in the mind.

    The agent a successful meme builds activates other agents to get the meme copied to other minds - in the clearest cases by outright proselytizing. Less vigorous memes are passed on to new hosts by the written word and public education. Memes sometimes induce those they have infected to other actions, ranging from expressing opinions to a pollster to blowing up a truckload of dynamite from the front seat. People so intensely infected with a meme that their own survival becomes inconsequential to them are called memeoids.

    There is a great deal of raw data on replicating information patterns in human cultures, though little of it has been analyzed in terms of memes/mental agents. A classic example is _When Prophecy Fails_ by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, an "inside" study of a small, short-lived end-of-the-world cult that attracted considerable media attention in 1951. The rise and fall of the cult was compressed into an epidemic-like episode of a few months, declining and dying out when the predicted disaster failed to occur.

    The rise and fall of such groups is closely analogous to epidemics with memes as the infecting agents. A new meme (such as our space colony/SPS meme was in 1975) should be expected to spread out to the limits of its ecological niche. The spread of memes is accurately described by the same mathematical models used to predict the course of epidemics. Unfortunately, the space colony meme (SCM) now seems to be on the downhill side of the epidemic curve.

    In "Memes, L5, and the Religion of the Space Colonies" (L5 News, September 1985), I linked the current difficulties of L5 to the space colony meme losing its power to infect and motivate minds. A major reason for the loss is discordance between the promise of the space colony meme (large numbers of people living in space within our lifetimes) and the current reality (no widely recognized path to space colonies anywhere on the horizon). The effect on L5 members is similar to what happened to the end-of-world (EOW) cult members when the world didn't end. A survey would find thousands of former L5 members who dropped out because they couldn't see any prospects for progress.

    One approach to reducing the discordance is to admit that we have no hope for significant numbers of people living in space in the next fifty years or more. I don't believe this will work, but to evaluate this and other proposals, I will have to speculate on the internal workings of a meme's host. Eventually work on memes and agents should make this better understood.

    The main reason I don't think the long haul approach will induce many people to work hard on space colonies is the way we discount the future. People who are seriously concerned with the long-range future of the race are extremely rare. That there are any is a wonder since the trait is usually detrimental to genetic survival. If space colonization is well beyond our personal horizon, members of groups concerned with it must be drawn from this tiny segment of the population. I was surprised to find in a recent informal poll of an L5 chapter that virtually all said they were in for a long haul and did not expect personally to go into space. At present, L5 may be hanging together more from the social rewards it gives active members than from any expectation of space colonies in our working lifetimes.

    Conversely, the prospects of being personally involved, living and working in space open a much larger segment of the population to infection by the space colony meme. It is interesting to note that surveys following the Challenger disaster found that about fifty percent of the population would ride a Shuttle if they got the chance.

    As to why the space colony meme is infective, I think the attractiveness of new lands has a strong genetic and memetic base. We are to a large extent the genetic and cultural heirs of people who were attracted to and moved into vacant areas of the planet (perhaps this explains the larger than proportional number of members from California).

    As the space colony meme has become less believable in recent years, the L5 leadership has been trying to redefine L5's supporting memes away from space colonies to any and all nonmilitary memes related to space such as dull, expensive NASA Space Stations; splashy, expensive Mars missions; space manufacturing; and even communications satellites. Unfortunately none of these tap either the "new lands" factor or offers the possibility of significant personal involvement (hold up your hand if you think you have a chance for the Mars mission). An organization based on this complex of memes will have to draw its members from either the tiny "long-range" segment of the population or from the vicarious fans of Science (Planetary Society types).

    L5's survival could be based on these memes, but if it goes this way, the organization will face considerable competition for members. I also doubt that this group of memes could excite the near memeoid level of dedication to the SCM we see in L5 members. They certainly don't excite NSI members.

    (continued next post)

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