From: Keith Henson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:27:19 GMT
More on Memes
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
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
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
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
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
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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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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