Re: memetic engineering?

Ton Maas (
Sun, 29 Mar 1998 14:56:59 +0200

Message-Id: <v03102801b143e6eb145e@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
Date: Sun, 29 Mar 1998 14:56:59 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: memetic engineering?

Ken wrote:
>Recent posts (Josip, Ton, Kastytis, Rob & others) have got me to
>thinking. The very concept of the engineerability of something as big as
>global human culture seems silly. Where are the handles? Where are the

Let me offer a rather nice example of memetics at work. According to recent
international surveys the effects of "the sixties" are nowhere more lasting
than in my country, the Netherlands. If you look at large cross-cultural
studies into national "character" - which are increasinly popular because
they help multinational organizations deal with internal cultural
differences - we have among the highest scores on dimensions like "power
distance" - which reflect our attitude towards authority. In general, the
Netherlands are often described as "anti-authoritarian" in a rather
systematic and fundamental way. This, however, hasn't been always the case.
Until the early sixties ours was a rather authoritarian society, not unlike
Germany or France, but apparently the changes introduced by "the sixties"
were either more profound or more lasting than elsewhere.

According to at least one recent survey, this fact is somehow related to a
revolution that preceded the May 68 student revolts in Paris with a few
years, and was of a rather different nature. Rather than the student
leaders with their explicit ideologies and social theories, the revolution
that took place in Holland during the mid-sixties and goes by the name
"Provo", was rather spontaneous, un-organized and rather small-scale, and
would probably never have had much inpact if it weren't for a small but
much publicized event. The Provos had discovered that the police could be
very easily provoked into action, simply by announcing (mainly by rumour)
that a "happening" would take place there and there, at such and such time.
Small posters would say "Klaas will be there as well". Little did the local
Amsterdam police department realize that _they_ were Klaas. This discovery
led to a series of social experiments which had the character of an
explorative game, which invariably left the police in increasing
bewilderment. The authorities panicked and decided to come down hard. At
the height of this season of playful provocations, one of the Provos was
arrested for handing out raisins to pedestrians. The media took this event
as symbolic for the whole movement and used it as a key-item in their
coverage. So all of a sudden millions of Dutch television viewers were
watching a friendly and peacful young guy being handcuffed and dragged away
by five or six cops, after having handed out raisins to passers-by.

According to researchers this trivial event triggered a cultural process
unprecedented in the history of the country. After the initial laughing had
subsided, people started wondering what had happened and why, and gradually
large portions of the underlying social fabric of society became exposed.
The main outcome of this process was the questioning of the naturalness of
authority, and this questioning invaded all aspects of society, from the
family to the factory and from the streets to the government. In retrospect
the effects of this revolt are considered much more fundamental and lasting
than the ideological revolution which took place after May 1968, although
the latter seemed much more dramatic and effective at the time.

>Checking around to see if there *are* any handles or levers is part of
>what a new science is all about. If no one can find them, then we will
>just have to call it a philosophy rather than a science.

The reason I brought all this up, is precisely to question the possibilty
and feasibility of memetic handles or levers for social or cultural change.
I'm sure that the Provos had no idea of where they were going - they were
mainly having fun - whereas the student leaders of 68 were _very_
determined about the outcome of their actions. Now, in _retrospect_ it may
all make perfect sense (although here too were are subject to extrapolation
and interpretation), but how can anyone purposively _design_ or invent such
a minimalistic yet effective catalyst for change.

In fact the whole story provides an interesting challenge to the
traditional Marxist view that historical change is structural and out of
the hands of individuals (so that if Darwin hadn't written "The Origin of
Species", someone else would have). But precisely because it _does_ matter
who acts as the nucleus for the change (and thereby shapes it, making
history unpredictable into the future), the Marxian error is a blunder in
logical typing, a confusion of member with class.



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