Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Memes: Revolution Through Evolution

As I begin writing my paper in earnest (before I was trying to complete my research and synthesize my findings into a five-page "teaser" for consideration by the judges), I find that the works of the neoliberal thought collective are proving very useful.

When you know the memes that drive the thinking of the people you are trying to convince, it is a simple manner to start with those memes and advance them incrementally to create an "ah-ha!" moment, which marks the creation of a new meme.

So, all I can say is "Thank you, Mr. Hayek!  And you, too, Mr. Friedman!"

Here's an old post (since removed) on how I think about memes in terms of my "fractal cognition" theory:

I have spent the last year studying a variety of topics for the purposes of developing some business ideas that I’ve had.

Initially, I was most interested in developing a new type of media business model, and I wanted to create a fictional universe to support that business model that would appeal to everybody regardless of gender, race, age, religion, national origin, language, class, preferred fictional genre, or preferred media platform. For reasons that I will explain shortly, as I am writing this post, I realized that what I am trying to develop with this new business model is a meme-engine. My initial studies focused on myth (e.g., Joseph Campbell), all major Eastern and Western religions, philosophy, psychology/cognitive science and neuroscience. I was also drawn into studying political economy, today referred to as “economics,” and the major forms of political thought for guiding economic policy (i.e., capitalism, socialism, communism and libertarianism).

Most recently, I have been focused on writing a book about using intellectual property to set competitive strategy, which has led me to the concept of “memes,” which was first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Just as with my new media business model, I want the book to reach the widest possible audience. To that end, I have been speaking with friends who have published books on IP to get their thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. I’ve also surveyed the landscape of IP-related books to confirm that what I have to say is new and different, which it is. I already believe that what I have to say is important. The problem is that having something important to say does not mean that it will be accepted, and, if what you have to say appears to be too new or too different, it likely won’t be.

In the Selfish Gene, Dawkins posited that the basic concepts of Darwinism are something that apply not only to the evolution of the human organism (e.g., by acting on genes) but to the evolution of human cultures. Dawkins identified the meme as the unit of replication (or replicator) for cultural evolution, just as the gene is the replicator for human evolution. Dawkins argued that “[j]ust as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation . . . if the [meme] catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.”

It turns out that I am trying to construct a meme that will sell my book (and me), so I’ve been studying up on memes for the last couple of days. After several iterations over the last six months, I have determined the meta-message of the book, its basic structure and outline for the book and how I will present my ideas. The one thing that I am struggling with right now is how best to construct the meta-message in a way that will catch on. On the one hand, there is an existing meme that blinds people to the true competitive value of IP, and I can probably extend that meme to deliver my meta-message. On the other hand, the existing meme is so self-limiting that it may be best to scrap it and provide a new one, but will it catch on?

To be clear, I do not believe in memes as defined by Dawkins or his successors (e.g., Susan Blackmore or Robert Aunger), just as I do not believe in the reflexivity of markets as proposed by George Soros or the fractal nature of markets as described by Mandelbrot. While I believe that all three concepts are useful and helpful in understanding the RESULTS of human behavior, I think they miss the mark because they do not help in understanding the underlying behavior. That is, the concept of the meme is pitched at too high a level of abstraction to be useful in predicting which ideas will become memes.

Luckily, my study of cognitive science and neuroscience provides the answer, or at least I think it does. I have come to view human beings as “expectation-engines” that are constantly trying to predict the future based on their understanding of the present. At the physical level (or the physical layer of abstraction), the brain contains systems that essentially act as a comparator that employs positive feedback to create hysteresis (i.e., a kind of Schmitt trigger). This comparator compares what is observed to what is expected and outputs a signal that everything is either okay or not okay. The hysteresis of the comparator essentially provides a guard band, i.e., a range of outcomes that are “close enough” to be considered within expectations. If everything is not okay, the matter gets kicked upstairs to the cognitive level (or the cognitive layer of abstraction), which applies a “cognitive bias” as a further guard band; if the cognitive bias convinces the brain that everything is close enough, the physical comparator stops worrying. There are further levels of abstraction, which I have yet to name, but all of them exhibit the same positive feedback mechanism that allows our expectation-engines to believe that everything is going as expected so that we can continue making decisions in the face of uncertainty. The key thing to understand is that the physical comparator is always doing all of the work, that it is the decision maker; what is happening is that more abstract concepts are passed to higher levels of abstraction, which build progressively bigger guard bands (or blinders, if you will) that allow the expectation engine to keep on working. I think that it is this self-replicating comparison function that leads to the fractal nature of markets observed by Mandelbrot, to the reflexivity of markets observed by Soros, and to the memes observed by Dawkins. I have previously identified this as the “fractal nature of human thinking.”

Against this backdrop, I would define a meme as (1) any new idea that (2) catches on quickly (3) because (a) it appears to decrease uncertainty in predicting the future (b) while applying predominantly familiar principles or rules. By defining the term this way, I am trying to explain HOW and WHY a meme replicates itself in terms of how humans actually determine (consciously or otherwise) what to consider and what to ignore in setting expectations for use in predicting the future. Ideas that are so new that they require a new set of principles or rules inherently attack the existing set of expectations and are rejected immediately absent some type of catastrophe that already calls those expectations into question (e.g., without the Great Depression, Keynes’ ideas would not have been adopted to the extent they were). New ideas that seem like old friends, though, they are adopted readily, quickly and widely.

If I can make the case that my meta-message regarding IP decreases uncertainty in business decision-making within the existing paradigm, my meta-message will become a meme.