Friday, September 16, 2005

Memetic Iteration Via Selective Focus

I've been thinking a lot recently about the way that memes change. If Richard Dawkins is right about ideas following an evolutionary algorithm ("memes") and Sue Blackmore is right about the mind being an imitation machine (thus being the home and replicator of memes), then we have to start wondering about the cause of copying errors. After all, errors in replication are key to the evolutionary algorithm. In genetics, the cause seems to be mutation via statistical failures during replication or induced errors afterwards (e.g. by radiation). What is the cause of memetic errors in imitative replication?

I think I found a clue to that last night. It was my wife's birthday and she was opening her presents and reading cards from family and friends. When she read the card from me out loud, my son keyed on a sentence regarding him and burst out, "Hey, Dad, why did you say that?" That was the clue: Aidan heard the entire content of the card, but reacted strongly to only a small portion of it. When asked, his recollection of the card was restricted to the part about him. He missed the main theme because it simply wasn't important to him.

Is selective focus, driven by our own self interest, the key to memetic iteration? I suspect so. It certainly seems to correspond to political spin doctoring (where spin doctors try to find just the right way to describe a situation, self interest being the driving factor), and perhaps even fads. In the creation of fads, each individual seeks to iterate a (generally simple) idea until it strikes the right cord (as determined by positive feedback from onlookers), then it replicates relatively freely. It may change again, as it is picked by people with different ideas of what the right cord is. Marketers, like politicians, try to engineer such phenomena. Therein lies the real danger of a proper science of memetics; if we really get the point of having a full theory, the potential for abuse is much more dangerous than Paul Davies suggests.

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