How is a meme born? Thought or Information?

Michael Ashby (
Mon, 2 Mar 1998 18:41:02 +0000

From: Michael Ashby <>
To: <>
Subject: How is a meme born? Thought or Information?
Message-Id: <5120010004917175000002L152*@MHS>
Date: Mon, 2 Mar 1998 18:41:02 +0000

thanks Josip, you got me thinking by writing:

>...I say that memes or information can not "survive"
>with-out or out-of the dynamic system.

I wondered what you mean by "survive" - the quotes imply a particular
interpretation - I'm not sure which! On what dynamic system(s), for exa=
does the information in a library depend for "survival"? Does that mea=
n that a
meme is only a meme when it is in a host? I hope not! Certainly, the=
meme will be slightly different inside two different hosts' heads, but =
what if
the meme is defined (and replicated) in a book or an email?

Let 's consider how is a meme born:

1. Person A has a thought T. The thought may be completely original or
may be a mutation of other people's thoughts.
2. A encodes the thought in a form which can be transmitted to other
people, E(T).
Depending on the thought, the encoding process may or may not be a
loss-free transformation
e.g. mathematical concepts can be encoded with more precision than
subjective feelings.
3. A places E(T) in a communication channel C. The channel may be
verbal, email, letter, book, TV show, or whatever.
4. Depending on the nature of channel C, E(T) will be:
4a) delayed by time D 0 < D <=3D infinity
4b) mutated by fidelity F 0 <=3D F <=3D 1 0 =3D
deleted 1=3Dperfect reproduction 0<F<1 =3D corrupted/modified
4c) directly received by N people 0 <=3D N
Assuming N>0, then for each person Bn (n=3D1..N)
5. Person Bn receives F(E(T))
6. Bn interprets the message (another potentially noisy transformation,=

I) and a version of thought T is reconstructed in person Bn's mind as I=
When Interpretation I, Fidelity F, and Encoding E are "perfect" then
I(F(E(T)))=3DT, otherwise Bn has a slightly mutated version of T, let's=
call it Tn
7. If Bn accepts (consciously or unconsciously) Tn as a belief then Bn
may be said to be a host for meme T (or mutant version Tn)
8. Person Bn may now spread T or (Tn) to other hosts by the same

OK that's how thought T became a meme - is this complete? I hope no=
What's missing? Sure, point 7 hides the details of infection, resista=
nce, and
competition, but it will suffice here to have a binary function determi=
ning the
potential host's acceptance or rejection of the meme.

So is a meme a thought or information? Is the meme really T, or E(T)? =
The two
are not the same. Sure, if the encoding E(T) is *very* hi-fidelity the=
n we can
just talk about meme T. But if T is difficult to express precisely, t=
hen E(T)
is possibly the most authoritative, communicable description of thought=
T, and
E(T) is what *really* spreads. For example, Richard Dawkins' original =
thought is possibly still in his head - the encoded form (in his book)=
spread very well, but the "meme" meme which we are all discussing is ac=
the one defined in his book rather than the definition in Richard's hea=
d. I
believe the recent call for papers - CFP: Symposium on Memetics (Namur,=
1998) - supports this view:

> The initial description of 'meme' by Dawkins is rather vague, which i=
s a
> possible reason for current diverging views on what a meme really is,=
> how the memetic model can be used. We are confronted with an avalanch=
e of
> books, essays, and publications scattered over different journals and=

> disciplines, with dialogue flashing up here and there in an unstructu=
> manner. This chaos exists because a general framework is lacking.

Tim Rhodes wrote:
>Rob wrote:
>> However in order for memes to reproduce, there must be some medium
>> by which memes can be transfered/invoked. If a meme is commonly
>> invoked by a specific word or set of instructions, does not the meme=

>> exist partially in that external medium?
>Do we have a terminology for this yet? I have heard this called a `me=
>artifact' before--is that considered common usage in the community?

Do we need a special name for a meme while it is outside a host? Sure,=
you can
if you want to, but I hope not! If we can view the meme as a piece of
communicable information, rather than a state of mind, it is not necess=
ary to
attribute hosts the special status of somehow bringing a meme "to life"=
... We
can simply view the hosts as communication channels, each having their =
characteristics for delay, fidelity, and number of listeners. From the =
point of
view of the infection of hosts with a meme, would it matter if one of t=
"hosts" was a dumb listserver? Equally, would it matter if one of the=
"communication channels" was an intelligent person?

Perhaps the greatest strength now is that memes can be spread by *refer=
ence* or
as Rob suggested - invoked by a set of instructions. To infect you wit=
h a meme
I don't even have to communicate it to you with sufficient fidelity tha=
t you
can recreate the idea in your mind - it can be as simple as "Hey I rea=
d this
amazing book! It's by ABC and is called XYZ." We sure see a lot of =
this on
the net from people called ABC !

Be Happy

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